CPEC’s Centre of Excellence fails to fulfill core responsibility

ISLAMABAD: The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor’s (CPEC) policy think tank, set up at a cost of Rs1.2 billion to fill policy gaps, is struggling to perform its core tasks even two years after its establishment due to misplaced priorities of the government.

Due to absence of a home-grown policy, the $60 billion CPEC is guided by a voluminous study that was carried out by the China Development Bank which became the basis for the Long-term Plan 2017-2030. At the time of approving the Centre of Excellence project, there was hope that the country will soon have research-based studies in important areas of CPEC, according to government officials who were involved in setting up the centre.

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About two years ago, the government had set up the Centre of Excellence of CPEC with the aim of providing “policy guidelines to the Ministry of Planning and Development and other relevant ministries” in integrating the economies of the two countries. Its other key goal was providing empirical policy guidelines for best use of the $60 billion corridor and other foreign direct investment that will flow in because of CPEC.

In early 2016, the five-year project plan for the Centre of Excellence was approved at a cost of Rs1.215 billion.

The project’s objective was to “provide policy-based research guidance to federal and provincial governments and implementers of CPEC projects to enable an efficient and coordinated implementation, ensuring maximum benefit to both economies and society at large”.

The Department was also supposed to offer Masters in Chinese Economy and Masters in Chinese Cultural Studies within one year.

Two years down the line, the centre’s work is limited to only holding roundtable conferences and publishing articles in the media to counter propaganda against CPEC. It has also moved away from the five thematic research areas, showed internal papers of the Centre of the Excellence.

Since its inception, the centre has not produced even a single research paper in thematic areas of job growth and human resource development, urban development in Pakistan, financing and financial sector Integration, regional connectivity, trade and industry cooperation and socio economic impacts of CPEC.

The centre took over one year to set up and was inaugurated only in March 2017, said Dr Saleem Janjua, the head of urban development unit of the centre. He said that the centre was not responsible for the delay, adding that it has started conducting roundtable conferences.

The key obstacles in achieving the objectives were using the Center of Excellence for image-building activities by the Planning Ministry and hiring people with an engineering background in key positions, according to officials working with the centre and in the Planning Ministry.

An executive director level officer heads the centre and, according to the PC-I of the project, they must have over 15 years senior management experience in government, development sector or in international organisations with an emphasis on socio-economic development strategies and regional integration.

The centre could also not meet most of the targets set out for the second quarter of 2017, despite having a consolidated work plan. But the plan was modified keeping in view the short-term pressing demands put forth by the Planning Ministry, according to officials.

Executive Director of the Centre Dr Shaid Rashid claimed that the centre has produced dozens of research papers that are also available on the website. But he could not cite the name of a single research paper.

The Centre of Excellence website carries three published reports, which are largely based on day-to-day issues. For instance, one report is based on outcomes of a roundtable conference on “CPEC-A Step towards Environmentally Sustainable Special Economic Zones”.

There was a realisation that the ministries and departments directly or indirectly linked with CPEC projects need policy support as most of the implementers do not have strong internal research and development facilities. The CPEC Centre of Excellence was meant to fill this gap.

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However, instead of producing quality policy documents, the centre’s internal papers showed that work in most of the targeted areas remains behind schedule. For instance the work on proposed Priority Special Economic Zones under CPEC, Factor Endowments Opportunities and Prospects has not been completed yet.

Similarly, work on situational analysis of GSP, GSP+, EU, Pakistan and CPEC could not be completed. The CPEC value proposition for China, Afghanistan, Iran, EU, Sweden and Azerbaijan could not be completed either.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 3rd, 2018.

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