Uncertain future for Pakistan’s mammoth civil service as PM’s institutional reform aide quits

Uncertain future for Pakistan’s mammoth civil service as PM’s institutional reform aide quits
Dr. Ishrat Husain giving remarks during a ceremony at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad on December 26, 2019. (Photo courtesy: Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad)
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Updated 07 August 2021

Uncertain future for Pakistan’s mammoth civil service as PM’s institutional reform aide quits

Uncertain future for Pakistan’s mammoth civil service as PM’s institutional reform aide quits

LAHORE, ISLAMABAD: Questions are mounting over the future of long-due reforms to Pakistan’s sluggish and overstaffed civil service after Dr. Ishrat Hussain, the adviser to Prime Minister Imran Khan on institutional reforms and austerity, resigned last week.

Hussain faced a mammoth task when appointed in August 2018: To streamline the governance and function of over 4 million civil servants in the country — 1 million in the federal capital and 3 million employed by provincial governments.

During his three years in office, the veteran banker, who earlier served as the dean of the Institute of Business Administration, chief economist at the World Bank and the governor of the State Bank of Pakistan, abolished tens of thousands of positions and reduced the number of government entities from 441 to 324 in what he said would cut the “fixed and variable cost of the government.”

He also slimmed down the central bureaucracy, especially the unspecialized civil service, by 71,000 positions.

Last week, Hussain suddenly resigned.

“I wish to confirm that I have submitted my resignation as adviser to the prime minister and requested him to relieve me of my responsibilities with effect from Sept. 1, 2021,” he said in a statement to the media.

“I took up this assignment because I believe in his (the prime minister’s) mission and vision, i.e. improving the governance structure of this country with the aim of bringing about an efficient and equitable economy free from the clutches of elite capture and helping the poor get out of poverty traps,” Hussain said.

He has not disclosed the reasons for his resignation, and despite repeated requests from Arab News, declined further comment on the subject. His resignation letter says he joined the government with the understanding that he would serve for three years and seek retirement once he turned 80, which he did on June 17.

‘Very flawed system’

Pakistan’s bureaucracy is bottom-heavy, with the bulk — 90 percent of employees — serving at grades 1-16 as basic staff, Hussain told Arab News in an interview last month. Only 10 percent are in grades 16-22, which includes specialized officers such as doctors, engineers and accountants.

“We have too many support staff who were being paid more than their counterparts in the private sector,” Hussain said. “Over 85 percent of the wages bill was going to them, while only 15 percent was going to the officers.”

By eliminating unnecessary or redundant positions, the money saved could go toward increasing the salaries of senior officers.

Hussain’s second major task was the quality of officials, for which he designed an evaluation system, whereby civil servants would be graded by an independent board annually and awarded increments and perks in accordance with their performance.

“The present system is completely subjective and very flawed,” he said.

“We have a completely new performance system. Those who perform will get twice the increment, while those below average will not get any increment. It has been approved by the Cabinet. We are now working on a pilot basis in some ministries.”

Muhammad Hamza Shafqaat, the deputy commissioner in the Paksitani capital of Islamabad, said Hussain’s policies had made a difference.

“Training institutes have been made important and independent like the ones in the military,” he told Arab News. “Those heading these institutes have no agenda and are not political appointees.”

Political non-interference possible?

All political parties that have ruled Pakistan have been accused of routinely shuffling and transferring senior bureaucrats, bringing in the men and women they like and sacking those they do not.

In its 2018 election manifesto, the ruling-Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party promised a merit-based system in the civil service, where the “right officer” would be assigned to the “right job without any political consideration.” But political interference in any bureaucracy is inevitable, said Dr. Umair Javed, a professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, who was part of the civil service task force established by Prime Minister Khan.

“Bureaucracy cannot exist as unaccountable bodies, and politicians are the last stage of accountability. So, to suggest that they will be completely free from political interference is not possible,” Javed told Arab News.

“If you ask me personally, the task of civil service reform should not be with any commission but with the parliament. The parliament should deliberate on it. You can bring in a task force of expertise to help. But the competent body for this is the parliament.”

While some proposals pitched by Hussain have found an audience, others have faced resistance from the government that appointed him, including reforming the provincial bureaucracy.

“They (chief ministers of the provinces) said the federal task force I headed should not interfere in provincial matters,” Hussain said. “I said fine, you carry out your own reforms.”

But for Javed, reforming the provincial bureaucracy should be the top priority. “If there is any future to reforming the civil service, then that lies in the provinces, and it should be the focus,” he said. “The more you strengthen the provincial bureaucracy, the more it will help the common man more.”

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Updated 26 min 20 sec ago

Ethiopia launches air strike on Tigray’s ‘western front’

Ethiopia launches air strike on Tigray’s ‘western front’
  • The seventh aerial bombardment in the war-hit region this last week

ADDIS ABABA: Ethiopia’s military launched an air strike on a rebel-held facility in Tigray’s west on Sunday, a government official said, the seventh aerial bombardment in the war-hit region in a week.

“Today the western front of (Mai Tsebri) which was serving as a training and military command post for the terrorist group TPLF has been the target of an air strike,” government spokeswoman Selamawit Kassa said, referring to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government has been locked in a war against the TPLF since last November, though Tigray itself had seen little combat since late June, when the rebels seized control of much of Ethiopia’s northernmost region and the military largely withdrew.

But on Monday Ethiopia’s air force launched two strikes on Tigray’s capital Mekele that the UN said killed three children and wounded several other people.

Since then there have been three more strikes on Mekele and another targeting what the government described as a weapons cache in the town of Agbe, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) to the west.

The strikes coincide with ramped-up fighting in Amhara region, south of Tigray.

They have drawn rebukes from Western powers, with the US last week condemning “the continuing escalation of violence, putting civilians in harm’s way.”

A strike Friday on Mekele forced a UN flight carrying 11 humanitarian personnel to turn back to Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, and the UN subsequently announced it was suspending its twice-weekly flights to the region.

The conflict has spurred fears of widespread starvation, as the UN estimates it has pushed 400,000 people in Tigray into famine-like conditions.


Islamists suspend march under agreement with Pakistan government

Islamists suspend march under agreement with Pakistan government
Updated 24 October 2021

Islamists suspend march under agreement with Pakistan government

Islamists suspend march under agreement with Pakistan government
  • Pakistan government had agreed to drop pending charges against the party's leader
  • The head of the Islamist Tehreek-e-Labiak party was arrested last year amid demonstrations against France over the publication of caricatures of Islam’s Prophet Mohammad

LAHORE: A radical Islamist party agreed Sunday to suspend for three days its march of thousands toward the capital Islamabad after Pakistan agreed to drop pending charges against the party's leader.
Party supporters Saturday departed the eastern city of Lahore, clashing for a second straight day with police who lobbed tear gas into the crowd. The group began its journey a day earlier with the goal of reaching Islamabad to pressure the government to release Saad Rizvi, head of the Islamist Tehreek-e-Labiak Pakistan party. Rizvi was arrested last year amid demonstrations against France over the publication of caricatures of Islam’s Prophet Mohammad.
Raja Basharat, provincial law minister, told The Associated Press that under the agreement Punjab will withdraw charges against Rizvi and release all those detained during the protest march by Tuesday.
Rizvi had been detained pre-emptively on a charge of inciting people to assemble unlawfully. It was unclear when he would be released.
Basharat also said the agreement stipulates that the federal government will honor a previous agreement with the TLP to address diplomatic ties with France over the publication of the caricatures.
Sajid Saifi, spokesman for Rizvi’s party, confirmed the minister’s account and said thousands of party supporters will stay in the town of Mureedke waiting for the release of party leaders and members who have been detained.
Pakistan Interior Minister Shaikh Rashid Ahmed told reporters that the TLP's demand that the French ambassador to Pakistan be expelled over the caricatures would be taken to a parliamentary committee in the coming days.
Basharat, Ahmed and Religious Affairs Minister Noorul Haq Qadri took part in the talks with the TLP executive council.
Violent clashes erupted between security forces and the Islamists in Lahore killing at least two police and injuring about a dozen, police said. Saifi claimed four party supporters were killed by police fire and “many” others were injured. Police said the demonstrators torched several police vehicles there.
Ahmed said the government was unaware of any deaths of TLP supporters.
Rizvi’s party gained prominence in Pakistan’s 2018 elections, campaigning on the single issue of defending the country’s blasphemy law, which calls for the death penalty for anyone who insults Islam. It has a history of staging violent protests to pressure the government to accept its demands.


President: Deadly blast in Ugandan capital a ‘terrorist act’

President: Deadly blast in Ugandan capital a ‘terrorist act’
Updated 24 October 2021

President: Deadly blast in Ugandan capital a ‘terrorist act’

President: Deadly blast in Ugandan capital a ‘terrorist act’
  • ‘It seems to be a terrorist act but we shall get the perpetrators’

KAMPALA:  Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said Sunday that an explosion in the capital Kampala that killed one and injured five was “a terrorist act” and vowed to hunt down those responsible.

“It seems to be a terrorist act but we shall get the perpetrators,” Museveni said in a Twitter post about the explosion late Saturday in northern Kampala.

Police said the “serious blast” occurred at around 9:00 p.m. (1800 GMT) at a popular street side restaurant strip in Kawempe, a Kampala suburb.

Museveni said he had been briefed that three people “left a package” at the scene that later exploded, killing one person and injuring five others.

He said investigators were still combing the bomb site and more details would be released later, including advice for the public in “dealing with these possible terrorists.”

“The public should not fear, we shall defeat this criminality like we have defeated all the other criminality committed by the pigs who don’t respect life,” Museveni said.


Strong quake strikes northern Taiwan

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Updated 24 October 2021

Strong quake strikes northern Taiwan

Strong quake strikes northern Taiwan
  • Taiwan’s central weather bureau said the quake was of magnitude 6.5 while the US Geological Survey gave a lower figure of 6.2

TAIPEI: A strong earthquake struck northeastern Taiwan on Sunday, with residents reporting violent shaking in the capital Taipei but there were no immediate reports of widespread damage.
Taiwan’s central weather bureau said the quake was of magnitude 6.5 while the US Geological Survey gave a lower figure of 6.2.
It hit northeastern Yilan county at 1:11 p.m. (0511 GMT) at a depth of 67 kilometers (42 miles).
An AFP reporter who lives in Yilan said the shaking seemed to last some 30 seconds.
“The walls of the house were shaking, both sideways and up and down, it felt quite strong,” the reporter said.
There was no damage in his neighborhood.
The main quake was followed by a 5.4-magnitude aftershock and Taipei’s MRT metro system shut down as a precaution for a little under an hour before service resumed.
Tom Parker, a British illustrator who lives in Taipei, said he was riding the subway when the quake hit.
“First time I’ve felt a quake on the MRT. Like a tame rollercoaster,” he tweeted, adding he and other commuters were told to shelter in place in the station for now.
Many others reported the tremor on social media.
“I was scared to death, I screamed in my room,” Yu Ting wrote on Facebook.
“This earthquake is really big, glass has shattered in my living room.”
Some grocery stores reported food and other goods were thrown from shelves by the shaking.
Taiwan is regularly hit by earthquakes as the island lies near the junction of two tectonic plates.
Some earthquakes of this magnitude can prove deadly, although much depends on where the quake strikes and at what depth.
Hualien, a scenic tourist hotspot, was struck by a 6.4-magnitude earthquake in 2018 that killed 17 people and injured nearly 300.
In September 1999, a 7.6-magnitude quake killed around 2,400 people in the deadliest natural disaster in the island’s history.
However, a 6.2 earthquake struck in December 2020 in Yilan with no major damage or injuries reported.


Myanmar says it’s committed to ASEAN peace plan, despite military leader’s snub

Myanmar says it’s committed to ASEAN peace plan, despite military leader’s snub
Updated 24 October 2021

Myanmar says it’s committed to ASEAN peace plan, despite military leader’s snub

Myanmar says it’s committed to ASEAN peace plan, despite military leader’s snub
  • Junta says it upholds the principal of peaceful coexistence with other countries and would cooperate with the ASEAN
  • Myanmar leadership accuses ASEAN of departing from its principals on consensus and non-interference

Myanmar’s military rulers pledged on Sunday to cooperate “as much as possible” with a peace plan agreed with ASEAN, despite a stern rebuke of the regional bloc for excluding the country’s top commander from a summit this week.
In an announcement in state media on Sunday, the junta said it upholds the principal of peaceful coexistence with other countries and would cooperate with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in following a five-point “consensus” agreed in April, a plan backed by the West and China.
ASEAN foreign ministers decided on Oct. 15 to sideline Min Aung Hlaing, leader of a Feb. 1 Myanmar coup, for his failure to implement that plan, which included ending hostilities, initiating dialogue, allowing humanitarian support and granting a special envoy full access in the country.
The junta struck back late on Friday, accusing ASEAN of departing from its principals on consensus and non-interference. It refused to agree to send a politically neutral Myanmar representative instead of Min Aung Hlaing.
ASEAN chair Brunei has not responded to Myanmar’s rejection.
A spokesman for Thailand’s foreign ministry declined to comment on Saturday, citing the sensitivity of the matter, while Indonesia’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Teuku Faizasyah, said ASEAN’s consensus on who would represent Myanmar at the summit was the “common guide for all ASEAN members.”
The exclusion is an unprecedented snub from a bloc long criticized for being tardy and ineffective at dealing with member governments accused of atrocities.
More than 1,000 civilians have been killed in a post-coup crackdown in Myanmar, with thousands more detained, many tortured or beaten, according to the United Nations, citing activists. The junta is accused of using excessive military force against civilian populations.
The junta has insisted many of those killed or detained were “terrorists” determined to destabilize the country. The junta chief last week said opposition forces were prolonging the unrest.
ASEAN’s special envoy, Erywan Yusof of Brunei, had sought a meeting with ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi, but the military government said that was impossible because she was detained and charged with crimes.
The junta warned Erywan not to engage with opposition forces it has outlawed, including the shadow National Unity Government, an alliance of pro-democracy and armed ethnic groups, Japanese broadcaster NHK said, citing an unpublished report.
A Myanmar military spokesman and Erywan’s office did not immediately respond to separate requests for comment on Sunday on the reported warning.
In Sunday’s announcement, Myanmar’s rulers first reaffirmed their own five-point plan for restoring democracy, which they announced after the coup.
The military insists it is the legitimate authority in Myanmar and its takeover was not a coup, but a necessary and lawful intervention against a threat to sovereignty posed by Suu Kyi’s party, which it said won a fraudulent election last year.