Founded in 2013, Policy Research Institute of Market Economy (PRIME) conducts research analysis and advocacy campaigns to influence economic policy toward free markets and limited government. PRIME’s Ayesha Bilal, a graduate of Atlas Leadership Academy and a former Atlas Network Smith Fellow, spoke with Daniel Anthony, Atlas Network’s vice president of marketing and communications, to share more of her personal story and some highlights from PRIME’s work in Pakistan.
Daniel Anthony: The tax code and import/export laws have historically been nearly impossible to navigate in Pakistan, what are you and your team doing to improve the situation?
Ayesha Bilal: One of our major focuses is our “One Tax, Fair Tax” campaign (#AikTax #FairTax), which demands lower taxation and a flat rate. It’s primarily a social media awareness campaign that’s petitioning for tax reforms. Our suggested reforms recently have led the Federal Board of Revenue to formulate the Tax Reform Implementation Commission with the mandate of tax simplification.
We also have been advocating for Pakistan’s accession to the Information Technology Agreement so we can import and export IT items free of duties. Our efforts led the government to form a special committee to deliberate this critical issue, using our analysis on the subject. PRIME’s President (Hon.) Dr. Manzoor Ahmad is a part of this committee.
From what you’ve shared with me before, simple interactions with the government, like getting a new electricity connection or filing a complaint, for example, can be a nightmare ordeal. Can you share more with our readers about some of the real problems people in Pakistan face every day when dealing with the government?
There is a lack of “systems” in place that should facilitate both the business community and the common people. Rather, the role of the government has created more hurdles — so much so that simple things such as getting a gas connection, registering the name of your company, paying taxes, etc., become huge tasks with multiple levels of ad hoc bureaucratic procedures. Basic service provision for things such as water, gas, and electricity are in the hands of the government with the promise of low-cost provision to all, but the government’s bad resource management has failed the people.
When we complain about electricity or gas provision, there is no proper procedure and no one knows whether the complaint has been properly registered or when the issue will be resolved. Our landlords requested a sub-meter for electricity when we moved here a year ago, but there is still no sign of when we can get the meter or why there is a delay.
Another major problem is the lack of transparency. Proper systems help ensure that there will be transparency. However, there are vested interests in preserving the status quo, so there is less focus on ensuring that there is a proper system. The government picks winners in the business community, mostly amongst those who are influential, and provides relief in different ways.
How are you and the team at PRIME confronting these challenges?
Our basic aim is to foster more market freedom and limit government. The government should not be in the business of doing business. For example, we advocate for privatization of electricity distribution, which can make the process much more efficient and transparent. This has been successful in Karachi, where the problem of load shedding is now negligible. Our taxation reform campaign is focused on making it easier for common people and ensuring a predictable system of taxation.
We are part of a group that recently has been successful in advocating the establishment of the Open Government Partnership. We also track the government’s performance every six months, taking their own targets set in the economic manifesto prepared during the 2013 elections. We regularly present the findings of these reports through infographics, newspaper articles, and electronic media interviews.
Do you feel like the work you and your team at PRIME are doing is having an impact on people and policy in Pakistan?
Before I got to know PRIME’s work, I was among many who wanted to do something for their country but had no direction. This is exactly why I am a strong believer in influencing more minds, which we are successfully doing through the young fellows program. We train a group of select individuals from different interests — such as journalists, researchers, social activists, and innovators — and link them to the perspective of a market economy. For example, one fellow is a young boy interested in making a new model of water provision, possibly through introducing water meters. We plan to connect him with one of PRIME’s friends, Malik Nazir Watto, who has successfully introduced a public-private partnership system in the city of Bhalwal, Punjab.
Dr. Ikramul Haq and Huzaima Bukhari, who are both well-known advocates and experts on taxation, previously were inclined toward progressive taxation as being more “fair.” After discussions about Dr. Arthur Laffer’s theory on taxation with Ali Salman, executive director of PRIME, and others in our network, they were persuaded that flat taxation is the way to go. They are now championing flat taxation in Pakistan and main mobilizers of our tax campaign. The government is now seriously considering revising the structure as a result of our hard work.
You had an interesting transformation before joining the team at PRIME, can you share more with me about your ideological U-turn?
There is a general left-leaning attitude in Pakistan where many look to the government to fix all problems. Unfortunately, I also subscribed to this ideology. Thankfully though, during a casual lunch conversation, Ali recognized that deep down I had tendencies toward a free-market economy. This was at a time when the government’s health department was randomly raiding restaurants and closing them down for one issue or another, and actually boasting about it. I passionately argued with my colleagues that this practice was very demotivating and that there should be a proper system of keeping hygiene in check, instead of labeling these critical service providers as criminals and shutting down their livelihood. Based on this and many other conversations with Ali and the team, I joined PRIME in 2015.
As I grew up, I saw so many things wrong in this country, from infrastructure to education to accountability, that I felt an obligation to do something about it given that I am amongst the few people having the privilege to get a higher education. When I joined PRIME and became part of the global liberty movement, I learned that sustainable solutions can only come through policy change, which should be enabling instead of intrusive. Atlas Network's training courses played a significant role in understanding these ideas.
You’ve been one of Atlas Network’s most engaged Atlas Leadership Academy graduates. How have the trainings helped further the work you are doing?
The first time I heard Tom Palmer at the Asia Liberty Forum 2016 in Malaysia was when I truly understood what this movement was all about. The training I have enjoyed has been integral in assisting me to more accurately define PRIME’s mission and operate the think tank more efficiently. During my recent Smith Fellowship at Atlas Network in Washington, D.C., I witnessed how think tanks encourage public debate on economic and political issues. I also formulated tools to improve strategy, and for monitoring and evaluating my think tank. I now have a better understanding for how to effectively operate PRIME and bolster its influence in Pakistan’s economic environment.
Pictured above are Bilal and her mother on her graduation day (top left), Bilal and her father when she was a child (right), and Bilal with her husband and son (bottom left). Bilal credits much of her ambition and drive in life to her family.
Ayesha Bilal is the Chief Operating Officer at Policy Research Institute of Market Economy (PRIME), based in Islamabad, Pakistan. She graduated from Atlas Network’s training program Atlas Leadership Academy in 2016 and is a former Atlas Network Smith Fellow. If you would like to attend or recommend someone to attend Atlas Leadership Academy, visit the Academy page today.
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