Do we really need foreign expertise?

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

LAST week, it was announced that in 2007 the Port of Singapore will take over the management of the Port of Gwadar. The financial arrangements, which probably are being finalised, have not been made public. This should not surprise anyone.

Has it not become a tradition for the authorities in this country to turn to foreign concerns not just to pull our chestnuts out of the fire but also to administer and manage projects that do not call for any hi-tech expertise?

One has only to observe the government’s search for foreign companies to take over and manage ventures at home. A fortnight ago we were told that the city district government of Karachi was considering inviting some foreign firms to do our solid waste management for us. Companies from Malaysia, China, the United States and Kuwait were in the run. But later on our city fathers had second thoughts and realised that this project would be too expensive. They probably discovered how much it would cost when they attended presentations made by the interested companies.

We have also been told that on the request of Pakistani authorities, the Japanese International Cooperation Agency will prepare a master plan for Karachi to improve the city’s water supply and sewerage system.

The city nazim visited South Korea recently and on his return has promised to involve some Korean firms in the development of Karachi’s transport system. Outsiders are now being invited to build our roads, clean the storm water drains and construct residential complexes, shopping plazas and luxury hotels. The list of enterprises entailing foreign involvement seems to be endless.

It is strange that we have still to get over that mindset that perceives everything coming from abroad as being of superior quality. There was a time when having just emerged from under the shadows of colonialism the country lagged behind in technology in many areas. But even in those days of yore we had engineers and architects who could build bridges, roads and other structures that did not collapse with the first monsoon shower. In fact, they displayed not only expertise but also knowledge of local conditions, professionalism and commitment. Hence whatever they did, they did it quite well.

Where have our engineers, architects and planners vanished? If they are still there, why are they not being engaged for the sort of work for which we hear foreigners are being inducted? True, the standard of our education has been on the decline over the years. But our universities are still producing at least some graduates who prove to be more knowledgeable and more skilled and better trained in the fields they are needed in than many of the foreign concerns being inducted. Besides they offer a definite advantage over the experts from overseas. They are indigenous products and understand our conditions and social and political environment better.

The only factor which seems to work in favour of the foreign companies is that their management skills appear to be better because they are reputed to deliver. In other words, such companies are expected to supervise and manage the workers more effectively, produce results, meet deadlines and show better performance. But in this respect too, one cannot take these advantages for granted because their professional standards are not always equally high as many of them are required to show in their home country where laws can be stringent.

Many of us have had shocking experiences — as letters in our correspondence columns demonstrate — of foreign banks giving shoddy service at a high cost. Many multinationals, especially in the pharmaceutical sector, are known to adopt double standards in the manufacture, pricing and marketing of drugs. The serious complaints that have been voiced belie the impression we had that they perform better. The torture Karachiites lived through last summer established beyond doubt that the sale of some of our public sector concerns, such as the KESC, to foreign firms in the name of privatisation has not produced expected results, at least not so far.

All their shortcomings notwithstanding, foreign companies are officially believed to perform better. We are repeatedly told that our own concerns do not perform at all and that the productivity of the foreigners is relatively good. If that is true — actually the taste of the pudding is in the eating — it is now important that the authorities should focus on indigenous expertise and force it to perform better and produce results.

Let us take the case of solid waste management which, apart from the sewerage and water supply system and public transport, has emerged as a problem needing high priority treatment in Karachi. It does not require any high technology to lift garbage and dispose it in specially prepared landfills or recycle the recyclable waste into paper, glass, building blocks and compost. Some efforts at the grassroots level have been made in this direction. Gulbahao, an NGO run by an enterprising woman, Nargis Latif, has come up with innovative devices to recycle resources that can help keep the city clean. The schemes give incentives to people for the removal of garbage by offering monetary rewards to those who participate. Gulbahao also produces low cost recycled goods. Such innovative ideas notwithstanding, the problem of solid waste management continues to haunt the city. It is not clear if the government has ever studied the problem to identify the factors that make waste management such a daunting challenge. The Urban Resource Centre apparently has studied the problem and has made some shocking disclosures. It estimates that Karachi generates 6,500 tons of solid waste every day. Of this 1,500 tons is separated by the informal sector and 900 tons is burnt as fuel. There are 436 recycling units in the city with a yearly turnover of Rs 1.2 billion. The process of scavenging, separation and recycling provides livelihood to 40,000 families.

According to the URC the garbage is not lifted from the kutchra kundis “because scavengers/contractors pay the city government staff for not picking it up”. Whatever garbage is picked is not taken to the landfill sites but to the recycling units located in Shershah and in peri urban katchi abadis. The solution offered by the URC is: recognise the recycling industry and relocate it near the land fill sites.

Now, do we require the services of a Malaysian company to do that?