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CPEC: beyond infrastructure

Recently, I came across a very interesting research undertaken by a private sector firm that ranked the 67 Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) countries to assess their attractiveness for investment. The research was based on publicly available data from the IMF, World Bank, UNDP and Transparency International.

On this Belt and Road Index, Pakistan was ranked the 11th least attractive country. The index was based on economic potential, demographic advantage, infrastructure development, institutional effectiveness, market accessibility and resilience to natural disasters. Out of the six parameters, Pakistan performed the worst on institutional effectiveness, with a score that was less than half of India’s and lowest within South Asia, surpassing only that of Afghanistan.

The results are not surprising and resonate rather well with data from other sources as well as with anecdotal evidence. A few weeks ago, I met an investor, who has set up a multi-million dollar manufacturing plant in Pakistan on an industrial plot in a government-sponsored industrial estate. To his dismay, the land title still is in the name of private individuals and despite knocking on various doors he has not had any luck in the last two years in transferring the title in his name, despite payment of all dues. In the meanwhile, his lenders are pushing for ownership record before he can access credit.

This is one of countless such examples. Investors keep on complaining about bureaucratic red tape, rent seeking by regulatory agencies and frequently changing policies leading to unforeseen costs.

About $46 billion worth of infrastructure projects have been committed under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). These have to be completed within 10 years or so. For a country with $300 billion GDP, it translates into additional 1 to 1.5% of GDP every year and provides the much needed capital to build north-south highways to facilitate trade and construct power plants to help overcome years of load-shedding.

Infrastructure development and growth go hand in hand. Ensuring uninterrupted supply of energy, building state-of-the-art road, rail and transport infrastructure and providing reliable urban services pave the way for future investments and growth. If, however, the infrastructure stock is not maintained and new investments are not made at the requisite level, it may lead to power shortages and transmission losses, congested roads prolonging travel time and poor quality infrastructure services discouraging investors to relocate, thereby straining growth prospects.

But the real question is whether good infrastructure is sufficient to attract investment. As per World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index, the five most problematic factors for doing business in Pakistan are corruption, tax rates, government instability, crime and inefficient government bureaucracy. Availability of infrastructure comes way lower in the list. This means that without addressing these soft yet potent issues, no amount of investment in hard infrastructure can convince the investors to invest.

The stories of Rajapaksa Airport and Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka have been frequently quoted by critics of CPEC and BRI, as examples of misplaced priorities and building expensive infrastructure without demand. With ten times more population than Sri Lanka and a strategically located port, Pakistan does not face the same risk of low demand. If anything, the CPEC road infrastructure can provide a very busy transit and trade route in future. Its special economic zones can host manufacturers that wish to relocate closer to their markets and the power plants can provide energy for the new industries. This is where the real returns on CPEC have to be expected.

This however would require a lot of homework domestically in addressing the softer issues. Without an enabling business environment, Pakistan can never achieve the dream of prosperity that has been promised under CPEC. And this would require fixing governance. Sooner or later, we’ll have to realise that there are no shortcuts to reform.

Source: The Express Tribune

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