I have consistently maintained over the years that the annual budget has more or less become a meaningless exercise, especially in Pakistan. Most of the Pricing Index stands linked to international market prices any way. Owing to donor pressures and our own internal management weaknesses, policy formation is preferred on need, rather than on an annual basis and Pakistan leads the SAARC countries in variance between budgeted and actual figures. In fact, the inability of the Pakistan government to deliver is something that the Finance Minister should seriously reflect upon, who during his visit to Lahore last week gave a lot of 'facts about the Pak economy. Whether these so-called facts were based on some hard empirical data or were merely his personal opinions is another debate, because he conveniently forgot to substantiate any of his claims with concrete evidence The event was a rather interesting pre-budget seminar where the Finance Minister spoke more like a Prime Minister (to be perhaps), a la Z.A. Bhutto, by making a high-ranking official, the FBR Chairman, stand up twice like a school boy and recite to the audience what his teacher wanted him to say, followed by a self-proclamation, on an end to corruption within the states refund mechanism. Then switching on to the J.F. Kennedy act in reprimanding the people that they should be doing their duty instead of asking the government to deliver. The Governor of the Central Bank shared a lot of figures relating to gloom and doom and in the end made an honest confession that he had no solutions to offer, and as for the third official spokesperson, the Deputy Chairman Planning Commission, one was at a loss whether to feel sorry for him or his employer (the government) since he offered no solution, only problems. To sum it up, a lot of emotions, a lot of rhetoric, a lot of threats, but sadly no inspirational vision or a realistic implementation plan unveiled that could show light at the end of tunnel for the people, who are going through one of the worst financial sufferings in the countrys history. One may say that it is easy to criticise, but apart from a bunch of high and fancy numbers, there is little that we should expect from our economic managers during the budget presentation or pre- and post-budget seminars. I suppose what the budget itself or the budget briefings should do is to divulge in simple terms the strategy, commitment and competence of the economic managers to provide a clear direction to the economy for the months ahead and, more importantly, build a perception of a better tomorrow. After all, we all by now know the basic ills of our economy and their solutions. The devil though is in implementation and detail. To fix, one needs professional human resource, political will and state backing to carry through some difficult and painful reforms cum structural changes, which are regularly talked about, but have remained stalled since long. Just as there is a need for an autonomous and strong Election Commission as a prerequisite to a thriving democracy, countries require an Independent Fiscal Council (IFC) for keeping the fiscal deficit in check. Pakistan, as we know, has been struggling to keep its fiscal deficit in control and is not unique among developing countries with an inherent conflict of interest between the requirement of capping cum reducing state expenditures and the persons/institutions responsible for doing so. The establishment of a truly independent IFC comprising reputable and professional members would surely be a step in the right direction. A lot is being said these days about the plight of the state-owned enterprises and why they should be privatised without a blink to save the national exchequer from an annual burden of nearly Rs 350 billion or possibly even more. In recent developments (PBC and other forums), we have witnessed some Pak oligarchs completely dismiss the idea of resurrecting these institutions through independent professional boards and institutional restructuring, because in their book only ownership can inspire results, and if the latest signals from Islamabad are anything to go by, it appears the Finance Minister (an ex-privatisation man) and the Presidency also seem convinced. However, care needs to be taken since these entities represent family silver that will be difficult to replicate, their mere presence in certain areas fulfils the obligatory role of the state to serve as an equilibrium force in guarding public and national interests. Most importantly, there is every likelihood that the underlying objectives of privatisation (job creation and security, corporate turnaround, price reduction, and poverty alleviation) may not be achieved. More often than not, in developing Asian and African countries where corruption is rife, privatisation has not yielded the right kind of results for the people at large (Commonwealth Report on Privatisation, 1990-92 & 95-96). A prudent way perhaps is to look at the option of breaking-up some of these corporations into smaller units to make for management efficiency and to run by professional managements through a grant of managing agency rights over 10 to 20 years. Thus, the entrepreneurial juices will flow from a mandate spreading over medium- to long-term contracts in turn incentivised by profit participation. And this, without the state of Pakistan having to part ways with its valuable assets. Learning a lesson from Russia and given the experience of privatisation in the banking sector of Pakistan, it is essential that we discourage a culture that breeds oligarchs. It is now a given that the driver of growth, investment and development in any healthy economy would be a vibrant private sector. Its creative and innovative skills need to be harnessed to unleash growth and job creation and alleviate poverty. This is where the role of the government can be so crucial. In complete harmony with its co-arms, the Central Bank that controls the monetary lever and the Planning Commission that sets the framework parameters, it needs to evolve policies that move and shake the economy. Meaning, the budget should explain to the common man that in the coming year: i From where Pakistans growth will come and how those sectors will be facilitated to give results. It is all very well to say that the focus is going to be on export led growth and investment, but it can only happen if a concrete plan is launched. i How the centre plan will ensure that provincial share in tax collection increases during the year. i What tangible steps the government has taken to increase reciprocity and transparency in the revenues it collects. i How it will ensure that (a) private sector no longer gets crowded out by the public sector borrowings, and (b) credit flows to small and medium sized enterprises to ensure equitable growth and a fair distribution of wealth? i What specific steps will be taken to ensure competitiveness as a manufacturing base? Suggestions in this regard pointing to even symbolic gesture (to mark the governments intent and resolve) to reduce interest rates by 25 or 50 basis points carry a lot of weight. The list can go on, but in short, if the upcoming budget is to make any real difference, it needs to be primarily different in intent and resolve than the previous ones. A showcase of numbers might be adequate to see through the day in Parliament; it is the follow-up that that will determine the true capabilities of the economic team n The writer is an entrepreneur and economic analyst. Email: kamalmannoo@hotmail.com.