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Street protests may compel Pakistan to expel French envoy



Never fully free from it, Pakistan is witnessing a recurrence of street violence unleashed by Sunni Muslim militants who want the Imran Khan Government to expel the French envoy posted in Islamabad over last year’s controversy about publication of cartoons in a French journal perceived in the Islamic world as maligning it faith.

A policeman was lynched by a mob, four persons have been killed in police firing and several were injured through two days of violence across the main cities that shows no sign of ebbing.

While the other Islamist groups do not figure in media reports on the violent protests, the principal protagonist is Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) whose cadres have blocked key roads in major cities after the detention of their young chief, Maulana Saad Husain Rizvi.

The arrest under the anti-terrorism law seems the only determined move by the government to curb the protests but has only ended up escalating them.

Besides the obvious diplomatic jam Islamabad finds itself in, there is even more serious problem of keeping protests under check as Pakistan, like the rest of world observes the holy month of Ramzan, even as the Khan Government combats an economy in dire stress and a rampaging Covid-19 pandemic.

The government has decided to table a resolution, regarding the TLP’s demands, “including the expulsion of the French ambassador from Pakistan, in parliament before Eidul Fitr,” The Express Tribune newspaper reported on April 8, 2021.

Published a week ago, the report has neither been endorsed, nor contradicted by the government, nor corroborated by other media outlets.

According to the newspaper, quoting “official sources”, the decision was taken “in a meeting chaired by Prime Minister Imran Khan and attended by Law Minister Farogh Naseem, Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid, Religious Affairs Minister Noorul Haq Qadri and relevant senior officials.

“Sources said that the meeting discussed the strategy for implementing the agreement reached with the TLP. It was also decided that other parties would be contacted on issue of French ambassador’s deportation. The meeting decided to bring the resolution in parliament before Eid,” the report said.

This was before the TLP had announced a sit-in in Islamabad to press for its demands. “But on February 10, a government committee headed by Religious Affairs Minister Qadri assured the TLP that it would seek parliamentary approval on its demands by April 20.”

The TLP apparently chose to launch its protest without waiting for the government that has been buying time from it ever since the crisis began last November.

The approach to the TLP of the army that is widely seen as backing the Imran Khan Government remains unclear. In the past, when asked by the PML-N Government of Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi for assistance to end a violent protest, the army had ‘advised’ it to hold negotiations.

The TLP has been demanding expulsion of the French ambassador over publication of blasphemous caricatures. While the French President E. Macron has emphatic in supporting his country’s media’s right to express itself and is currently taking measures to ban the use of hijab (veil) by adult French Muslim women, the government has not reacted to the developments in Pakistan.

In November last year, the TLP staged a sit-in in Rawalpindi, which ended after an agreement with the government.

The TLP had then sought o pressurize the government with an announcement on November 17 that the government had accepted all its four demands. It had released a copy of the handwritten agreement, carrying signatures of Qadri, then interior minister Ijaz Shah and the deputy commissioner, Islamabad.

According to the Express Tribune report, the agreement said that the government would “take a decision from the parliament regarding expulsion of the French ambassador within three months, will not appoint its ambassador to France and release all the arrested workers of the TLP. The government will not register any case against the TLP leaders or workers even after it calls off the sit-in.”

The renewed protests have been sought to be played down by influential sections of the media. For instance, The News International (April 14, 2021) treated it as a problem of road traffic.

“Major sit-ins by a religious party which had bought life to a standstill in several cities across Pakistan a day earlier are continuing today (Tuesday), but have been confined to limited areas.” It listed specific localities in major cities that have been affected, more as a traffic advisory.

However, the report could not ignore “shortage of oxygen tanks for coronavirus patients.”

“In Lahore, there are fears of a shortage of oxygen tanks for coronavirus patients because of the traffic jams. Lahore hospitals almost out of oxygen supply amid rising coronavirus cases.”

Gujranwala, Gujrat and Sialkot had a day's supply of oxygen left, the Punjab health department said, adding that the situation could worsen if supply was not received today, the newspaper quoted Punjab Health Minister Dr Yasmeen Rashid.


Fintech revolution at Pakistan’s doorstep



The silver lining that came with the coronavirus pandemic was the rapid move towards digitalization in different sectors of the economy that had previously been moving at a tortoise pace. Financial inclusion of the rural areas is, in particular, crucial for a faster pace of economic growth that the country needs to develop, and the Fintech revolution is offering opportunities to bring in many of these previously unbanked people, reports Global Village Space.

Pakistan’s fintech revolution: Sounds cool but do you understand what it means?

In essence, it refers to technology supporting banking and financial services. Ok, well, that’s a start! But what’s new about this – don’t we all know tellers have computers that they tap into when we deposit or take out cash from the bank.

At its simplest, it may have meant that, but in essence, the fintech we are referring to more correctly refers to all technology that helps you conduct your banking needs generally without the assistance of a person. So it could be as simple as checking your balance or transferring your funds in your telephone app.

What does it mean for Pakistanis?

Huge Deal. Seventy-seven percent of the country is still physically unbanked and not financially included due to several reasons, including that bank branches cannot cover every part of the country; at 10 branches per 100,000 adults, Pakistan’s banking coverage is shallow as compared to the average of 16.38 in Asia.

That means that a large number of people do not have access to finance, and all that comes with it including, agricultural loans, tractor loans, machinery loans, car loans, mortgages, farmers insurance, and SME development is hindered by a lack of access to capital and so on.

This prevents individuals from engaging in economic activities that could change their lives and overall inhibits economic growth. According to the Access to Finance Survey, the country is still predominantly cash-based.

Only 23% of the adult population of Pakistan has access to formal financial services, and even less, only 16% of adult Pakistanis have a bank account. The Black Swan event known as COVID-19 rapidly transformed countries like Pakistan into the digital twenty-first century in the financial sector.

Banks that were plodding along and been talking about digital wallets, branchless banking were pushed into immediate action as they encouraged consumers to ‘stay safe and stay home’ and use their internet banking services; it acted as an extraordinary catalyst for digitization and e-commerce.

PTI government has launched a “Digital Pakistan initiative” covering all sectors, including agriculture, health care, education, trade, commerce, government services, and financial services.

Huge money that was spent under the Ehsaas program was sent as digital payments, and the government used this (government to person payments (G2P)) as an opportunity to get the previously unbanked populations into the financial sector.

Pakistan’s digitization did a logarithmic acceleration, as digital solutions became necessary, especially during the lockdown. The State Bank of Pakistan is also driving through faster change with the availability of instant payments through their Raast system.

Fintech has impacted many fields like Banking, Insurance, Loans, Personal Finance, Electric Payments, Loans, Venture Capital, and Wealth Management, to name a few. Many new startups have started in the field and have taken on established players head-on, often creating a competitive environment that benefits consumers.

According to MarketScreener, the global financial sector is expected to be worth $26.5 trillion in 2022, and the Fintech industry is worth around 1 percent of the industry.

According to a Goldman Sachs study, it was estimated that the global fintech industry might eventually disrupt up to $4.7trn of revenue from brick-and-mortar financial services. PwC estimated in 2020 that up to 28% of banking and payment services would be at risk of disruption due to new business models brought about by fintech.

Fintech in Pakistan

According to Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, a whopping 101 million people use the internet in Pakistan, 46% has access to broadband services and 85% of Pakistan’s population has mobile connections that account to 183 million mobile subscriptions, a high penetration in the population.

Pakistan offers immense business opportunities in the payments sector for banks and other fintech entities, including startups and telcos, to capitalize on the high mobile penetration in the country by offering financial services through mobile devices, apps, and web services.

An electronic wallet could be used for various payment transactions such as receiving payments including remittances, wages, and paying bills along with phone top-ups. According to McKinsey Consulting, the cost of offering customers digital accounts can be 80-90 percent lower than using physical branches.

Neobanks hit the country several years ago once the telecom giants realized they could enter this industry and challenge the traditional banks. Neobanks are basically internet-based banks that are virtual banks that operate exclusively online without traditional physical branch networks and any of the costs attached with this.

According to a 2019 World Bank report, Pakistan’s Digital Financial Services will see a boom reaching $36 billion, contributing 7% to the GDP if a real-time retail payments gateway is introduced.

Currently, branchless banking, even with the telecom companies, has not made a big jump; as of March 2021, the average daily transactions remain around 6,604,143, and the total number of transactions during the quarter were only 594 million, with the value of transactions around Rs. 1.8 trillion.

Who will serve the unserved?

According to a 2016 World Bank report, 27.5 million Pakistani adults say that distance to a financial institution is a significant barrier to accessing financial services. The arrival of branchless banking providers into the market has added around 180,000 active agents since 2008 to the existing 100,000 bank branches, but this only slightly helps with the scarcity of financial touchpoints for the populace.

Moreover, a Karandaz report shows that banks still offer 80 percent of the existing financial services whilst serving only 15 percent of the population. Increasingly, in markets where this shortage of financial service providers exists, we see startups entering to provide this need for faster, efficient, no-frills attached payment services, especially amongst small and medium-sized businesses and unbanked individuals.

Since the introduction of Electronic Money Institute (EMI) regulations by the SBP in April 2019, several Pakistan-based startups have approached the SBP for approval— including Finja, Nayapay, Sadapay, and AFT— all are at different stages of approval from obtaining a pilot approval to an in-principle approval from the SBP.

More fintech startups and other companies are preparing to acquire EMI licenses to unlock the potential of digital financial services. The EMI license only allows fintechs to provide customers with an account with daily and monthly transactional limits.

They are not allowed to deliver any lending or savings products; companies that wish to also do that have to opt for branchless banking or apply for non-banking financial institution (NBFI) at the Securities and Exchange Commission of [1]Pakistan (SECP).

Finja recently became the first fintech to obtain both regulatory licenses: an EMI license under the ambit of the SBP and a lending license for an NBFC (non-bank financial company) under the SECP. Not all fintechs are looking to compete with banks.

Finja, for example, is building partnerships with banks by collaborating with them and creating lending and payment products to serve a segment they may not have targeted earlier.

Recently, HBL invested $1.15m into Finja, stating that this would proactively reinvent the bank to become a “technology company with a banking license”. The bank noted that investment in Finja would serve two of the bank’s strategic priorities, namely, making investments into digital financial inclusion and in development finance companies involved in agriculture and SMEs.

Since April 2020, Finja has increased its digital lending portfolio by 550%, disbursing out over 50,000 digital loans to micro, small, and medium enterprises. There is no doubt that the SBP is keen to ensure that fintech companies help in its goal of increasing financial inclusion through new and often innovative digital payments frameworks.

The 2019 regulations provide a clear framework for EMIs looking to service the public and stipulate minimum service standards and requirements for these companies to ensure that payment services are given to consumers robustly and cost-effectively and provide a baseline for customer protection.

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Imran Khan: Pakistan is ready to be a partner for peace in Afghanistan, but we will not host US bases



Pakistan is ready to be a partner for peace in Afghanistan with the United States — but as US troops withdraw, we will avoid risking further conflict, writes Imran Khan.

Our countries have the same interest in that long-suffering country: a political settlement, stability, economic development and the denial of any haven for terrorists. We oppose any military takeover of Afghanistan, which will lead only to decades of civil war, as the Taliban cannot win over the whole of the country, and yet must be included in any government for it to succeed.

In the past, Pakistan made a mistake by choosing between warring Afghan parties, but we have learned from that experience. We have no favorites and will work with any government that enjoys the confidence of the Afghan people. History proves that Afghanistan can never be controlled from the outside.

Our country has suffered so much from the wars in Afghanistan. More than 70,000 Pakistanis have been killed. While the United States provided $20 billion in aid, losses to the Pakistani economy have exceeded $150bn. Tourism and investment dried up. After joining the US effort, Pakistan was targeted as a collaborator, leading to terrorism against our country from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and other groups. US drone attacks, which I warned against, didn’t win the war, but they did create hatred for Americans, swelling the ranks of terrorist groups against both our countries.

While I argued for years that there was no military solution in Afghanistan, the United States pressured Pakistan for the very first time to send our troops into the semiautonomous tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, in the false expectation that it would end the insurgency. It didn’t, but it did internally displace half the population of the tribal areas, 1 million people in North Waziristan alone, with billions of dollars of damage done and whole villages destroyed. The “collateral” damage to civilians in that incursion led to suicide attacks against the Pakistani army, killing many more soldiers than the United States lost in Afghanistan and Iraq combined, while breeding even more terrorism against us. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province alone, 500 Pakistani policemen were murdered.

There are more than 3 million Afghan refugees in our country — if there is further civil war, instead of a political settlement, there will be many more refugees, destabilizing and further impoverishing the frontier areas on our border. Most of the Taliban are from the Pashtun ethnic group — and more than half the Pashtuns live on our side of the border. We are even now fencing this historically open border almost completely.

If Pakistan were to agree to host US bases, from which to bomb Afghanistan, and an Afghan civil war ensued, Pakistan would be targeted for revenge by terrorists again. We simply cannot afford this. We have already paid too heavy a price. Meanwhile, if the United States, with the most powerful military machine in history, couldn’t win the war from inside Afghanistan after 20 years, how would America do it from bases in our country?

The interests of Pakistan and the United States in Afghanistan are the same. We want a negotiated peace, not civil war. We need stability and an end to terrorism aimed at both our countries. We support an agreement that preserves the development gains made in Afghanistan in the past two decades. And we want economic development, and increased trade and connectivity in Central Asia, to lift our economy. We will all go down the drain if there is further civil war.

This is why we have done a lot of real diplomatic heavy lifting to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, first with the Americans, and then with the Afghan government. We know that if the Taliban tries to declare a military victory, it will lead to endless bloodshed. We hope the Afghan government will also show more flexibility in the talks, and stop blaming Pakistan, as we are doing everything we can short of military action.

This is also why we were part of the recent Extended Troika” joint statements, along with Russia, China and the United States, unambiguously declaring that any effort to impose a government by force in Kabul would be opposed by us all, and also would deprive Afghanistan access to the foreign assistance it will need.

These joint statements mark the first time four of Afghanistan’s neighbors and partners have spoken with one voice on what a political settlement should look like. This could also lead to a new regional compact for peace and development in the region, which could include a requirement to share intelligence and work with the Afghan government to counter emergent terrorist threats. Afghanistan’s neighbors would pledge not to allow their territory to be used against Afghanistan or any other country, and Afghanistan would pledge the same. The compact could also lead to a commitment to help Afghans rebuild their country

I believe that promoting economic connectivity and regional trade is the key to lasting peace and security in Afghanistan. Further military action is futile. If we share this responsibility, Afghanistan, once synonymous with the “Great Game” and regional rivalries, could instead emerge as a model of regional co-operation.

Imran Khan is the prime minister of Pakistan. First published in The Washington Post.

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Event hosted by the Embassy of Pakistan, Brussels to promote tourism and cultural diversity of the country



The Embassy of Pakistan in Brussels hosted an event at Pakistan House to promote Pakistan’s culture and tourism potential. A large number of lifestyle and travel influencers having millions of online followers attended the reception.

In his welcoming remarks, Ambassador of Pakistan to Belgium, Luxembourg and the European Union Zaheer A. Janjua said that Pakistan is blessed with majestic landscapes, rich and diverse culture and historical heritage.

He underscored the government’s efforts for promoting tourism and development of touristic destinations in the country. He highlighted that the British Backpacker Society, Forbes and Conde Nast Traveler had ranked Pakistan as the top adventure travel destination in the world.

Emphasizing the importance of social and digital media, Ambassador Janjua said that these platforms have become an essential element of our daily lives. People in Pakistan are actively using social media forums for sharing their perspectives on all facets of life, including culture, literature, music, movies, politics, education, health and tourism.

He highlighted that the government was also using these social media applications to enhance its outreach, disseminate policies, ensure transparency and facilitate citizens, including their feedback on socio-economic issues.

He invited the participants to visit Pakistan and experience the enchanting beauty, cultural diversity and the proverbial hospitality of Pakistan.

The event also included an introduction to Pakistani cuisine and culture. A corner was arranged with traditional bangles and mehndi.

Social media influencers appreciated the event and Pakistani culture and cuisine.

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