Honouring Meekal Ahmed – Dr Ashfaque H Khan

Meekal Aziz Ahmed, an excellent economist and a fine human being passed away in late January this year at the age of 71. With his demise, Pakistan has lost a distinguished and able economist as well as a prolific commentator on economic issues. I lost a person who played an important role in my career as a professional economist – a fact that is not known to the people of Pakistan in general and friends and colleagues of Meekal Ahmed in particular.

Born in the illustrious family of Aziz Ahmed, a career diplomat, who later became the foreign minister of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government in the early 1970s, Meekal Ahmed joined the Planning Commission in 1965. The Planning Commission of the 1960s was the most prestigious place to work at as an economist. People like Dr Mahbubul Haq, Sartaj Aziz, Shahid Javed Burki, Dr Javed Azfar and others were the leading economists of the Planning Commission in those days. It was the period when the Harvard Advisory Group was working with such luminaries of the Planning Commission in preparing the five-year plan as well as the perspective plan.

Meekal was fortunate enough to join these luminaries in the early years of his career and gained considerable knowledge of real-life economics while working at the Planning Commission. He held various positions in the government and went to complete his PhD at Oxford University.

My association with Meekal dates back to late 1978. It was perhaps December 1978 that I first met him in his office at the Planning Commission. I had just completed my master’s degree in economics from McMaster University, Canada and returned to Pakistan. Before returning, I had applied for the position of research economist at the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE).

When I came back to Pakistan I went to see my teacher at Karachi University. It so happened that Professor Khurshid Ahmed, the then deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, was also visiting Karachi University. I was introduced to him by my teachers at the department of economics at the Karachi University. Professor Khurshid asked me to come and see him in the Planning Commission when I would be in Islamabad for an interview at PIDE.

I landed in Islamabad in late December 1978 for the interview at PIDE. I also went to see Professor Khurshid in the Planning Commission; he was very kind and encouraged me to join the commission. I was excited by his encouragement because as a student of economics, I knew how prestigious this institution was. It was the lifetime desire of a young economist to join this prestigious institution.

Professor Khurshid called his additional secretary, M Z Rahman, in his office and asked him to take me to Dr Javed Azfar, the then chief economist of the Planning Commission, for an interview. He was told that Dr Javed Azfar was out of the country. Professor Khurshid then asked him to take me to Meekal Ahmed, the then chief of International Economics. As I entered Meekal’s office, I saw an elegant looking, smartly dressed person looking at me with aristocratic eyes. He offered me a chair and asked about what I had learnt thus far in the field of economics.

Our conversation started around wealth effect and consumption function, in particular, and macroeconomics in general. After half an hour of conversation, he looked at me and said “You are a bright young economist. Why do you want to join the Planning Commission?” He advised me to join PIDE if I were selected there. I was thoroughly disappointed since I had never expected such a blunt answer from him. He said that I could be appointed as assistant chief (grade 18) on an ad hoc basis. He also said that I could not be promoted unless I were regularised and the regularisation would only take place when the position of assistant chief for the Sindh urban quota was available. This position would be advertised and I would have to compete with others for it.

His view was that there is no guarantee that a position of assistant chief for Sindh urban quota would be available in the near future. Hence, I would be frustrated and after a while, my professionalism as an economist would evaporate. Eventually, I would become an educated clerk. His argument was that “If you join PIDE, you will grow as a professional economist with bright career opportunities. If you join the Planning Commission, you will end up as a clerk”.

I left his office highly dejected. I was so dejected that I did not go to Professor Khurshid to inform him about the outcome of my interview with Meekal Ahmed. While I was leaving the Planning Commission, I had developed a totally different (negative) opinion about Meekal as he had discouraged a young economist from joining the commission. My dream of joining the prestigious institution was simply shattered.

What a visionary Meekal was. Thirty-five years after the interview, I look back and thank Meekal from the bottom of my heart. When I see my contemporary economists in the Planning Commission, I realise that most of them became heart patients or suffered from high blood pressure and sugar problem. Most of them retired either as deputy chiefs or at the most chiefs by the end of their careers. I know a person who joined the Planning Commission in the early 1970s as deputy chief and retired as deputy chief in the early 2000s – 30 years of service with no promotion.

Had Meekal not discouraged me bluntly, my fate would not have been different from many of my contemporary economists who worked in the Planning Commission. Perhaps, it was early 2002 or 2003 when Meekal was visiting Pakistan along with the IMF mission; while at the meeting, taking notes, he praised my performance. When we came out of the meeting, I thanked him for his kind words and also reminded him of the interview of late 1978 and also about my feelings then. I thanked him for the way he had discouraged me.

Whatever I am today, I owe a lot of it to Meekal Ahmed. After his discouragement, I joined PIDE and grew as a professional economist and returned to the Ministry of Finance as economic adviser in 1998. I left the ministry in March 2009 to join the world of academia. During my stay in the ministry, I had the opportunity to be an active member of the economic team.

I have seen the world. I have seen how the economic and financial world operates. I have seen how economic policy is made in the real world. I am now a more mature economist; I could not have achieved this distinction had Meekal not discouraged me at my formative stage. I have no words to thank a visionary. I have no words to thank Meekal Ahmed. May his soul rest in peace (Ameen).