Why austerity does matter

Noteworthy among the many things the new Pakistani prime minister, Imran Khan, pledged in his initial address to the nation was his stated intention of curbing wasteful spending at the government level. Unfortunately, the credibility of this initiative was subsequently damaged by the lack of truth surrounding this pledge.

These rather embarrassing gaffes (based on fiction rather than facts) rather ruined the credibility of the austerity initiative. Despite those mini fiascos, though, it is important to remember that in a country poised at crisis point, both socially and economically, austerity is important.

Why does austerity matter? It matters because it represents a national recognition of the fact that we as a nation are deeply in debt and are living way beyond our means. Austerity is also a collective acknowledgement that it is everybody’s responsibility to try to remedy the situation and to remember that there is no shame in thrift and no pride in ostentation and waste.

Waste is actually what needs to be avoided and be ashamed of. But what, you might ask, constitutes waste? Waste refers to a lack of constructive use, and in Pakistani society wasteful spending now seems to have become the norm. The most obvious example is wedding expenditure because somehow the belief that weddings are the most important part of human life has become deeply entrenched in a society where working-class people often pledge away their lives to the debts incurred for costly weddings.

Weddings tend to turn even normally sane individuals into crazed people with all sorts of social and material anxieties. For many people, weddings somehow define their social standing – for them, the amount they spend (even if way beyond what they can afford) is directly linked to their self esteem and perceived status. As the wedding industry has grown more lucrative and an increasing number of subcontinental films have fetishised wedding events, so people’s expectations and expenses have increased sharply.

Unbridled consumerism has also set in: increasingly new clothes are a ‘must’ even when old clothes are perfectly usable; old cars must be replaced with newer models because, well, if you don’t then ‘what will people think?’ There is a lot of spending on both goods and services, which some people might argue is great for the economy, but what is dangerous about this is the sense of entitlement people are beginning to have as life in general becomes more comfortable.

The absurdity of such a sense of entitlement is best illustrated by the episode of the sugar shortage that plagued the early days of the PPP government in 2008. When the then prime minister suggested that everybody should try to cut down on the amount of sugar they took in their tea, he and his suggestion were bombarded with abuse and contempt. The general tone was one of outrage: how dare the PM suggest they put less sugar in their tea? What was absent was the recognition that this was a national crisis and everybody needed to do their bit to help ease the situation.

This is basically the same sort of attitude displayed by urban shopkeepers whose trading hours are noon to midnight. Even though the country is faced with a severe power shortage, both they and their customers are outraged by suggestions that they should not stay open late evenings and nights as this is an unnecessary use of electricity.

Austerity as a mindset takes into consideration the question of available – limited –- resources and how best to use them. In rethinking the economy, Pakistan will need to do something about its excessive reliance on imports and its lack of a manufacturing base. In such a scenario, citizens will need to choose consciously to buy Pakistani-made goods and support as many local industries as they can.

In this respect, government officials, politicians and celebrities can lead the way; when a PM or a minister goes on an official visit they should make sure they wear and showcase Pakistani products. A few years ago Hina Rabbani Khar as foreign minister sported a Birkin bag on an official visit to France. The cost of the designer bag was substantially more than what the average Pakistani might earn in several years. Had the minister used a Pakistani product instead, she would have gained free publicity for local products rather than negative comment all over the world.

An austerity drive is also essential because it will help break down the false values and expectations governing our lives. Pakistan is not a rich country so we should not live as though it is. If we really want a ‘new Pakistan’ as this PM has promised to strive towards, then we should realise that everybody has a responsibility to make an effort in this regard. Ending VIP culture is as important as abandoning the aspiration to privilege and special treatment. We need to not only live more simply, but also take pride in doing this. This might be a seismic social and cultural change and may be quite difficult to bring about but it can build a cohesive sense of shared purpose and national spirit, pride and unity. So austerity does matter and hopefully Prime Minister Imran Khan will drive this initiative forward in a consistent and coherent manner rather than as a series of publicity gimmicks.


The writer is a former BBC broadcaster and producer, and one of the founding editors of Newsline.

Twitter: @umberkhairi