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  1. An aerial view of Kabul, Afghanistan January 1, 2017. Photo: Reuters KABUL: In a country not short of problems, a looming pensions crisis that could cripple Afghanistan?s budget in coming years is a new headache for a government dependent on increasingly war-weary foreign donors. Pension liabilities ? set to swallow the equivalent of a third of the current $5 billion budget within 15 years unless something is done ? typify accumulated problems the government is now trying to tackle. ?Previously, they kicked the can down the road and it?s snowballing right now and needs to be fixed,? said Deputy Finance Minister Khalid Payenda. Many countries face pension problems but it is especially unwelcome in Afghanistan, struggling to restore an economy shattered by four decades of war. Provisions that award government workers with service of 40 years benefits equivalent to full final salary were originally introduced to compensate for low pay. Many pensioners, who complain that actual benefits are meager and often paid late, would be surprised to hear the system described as generous. But with no separate pension fund to generate investment income and benefits paid directly from the Treasury, payments are set to spiral out of control as more of almost 900,000 government workers retire over coming years. ?The economics of it doesn?t work. It?s not sustainable and at a certain point it will explode,? Payenda said from his office in the ministry, where he is overseeing a drive to make the budget more transparent and spending more efficient. ?It?s the start of a process but it will take a few years,? he said, adding that it was vital that foreign donors showed ?understanding? and do not cut off funds abruptly. ?Leakages, bloated structures' Although down since most international troops withdrew in 2014, foreign aid still accounts for 54 per cent of the budget. But donor willingness is not eternal and most funding pledges run only to 2020. While progress has been made in increasing revenues, preparing for a reduction in aid is urgent, especially given likely disruption around presidential elections next year. As in each of the past eight years, parliament is wrangling over budget approval, an opaque process that has encouraged backroom deals, waste and corruption. ?There are leakages, bloated structures and there is unnecessary expenditure on conspicuous items,? Payenda said. ?We want to see where there are problems and fix them.? As long as security accounts for 40 per cent of spending, Afghanistan?s public finances will be unbalanced and the room for investment to boost revenue in areas like mining or agriculture limited. But there are many areas where improvements are possible. Due to weak administrative capacity, funds assigned to ministries are often not fully used, with unspent amounts carried over to following years, reducing accountability and making it harder to track real spending. In future, the government plans a ?use it or lose it? approach. On pensions, a special fund will need to be set up to separate contributions and benefits from regular Treasury funds. Both benefits and government contributions may have to be cut, a process fraught with political risk. But more open processes to allocate funds are key, Payenda said. ?Reasonable people will listen and unreasonable ones can?t shout at you because of what the others will think.?
  2. Pope Francis attends a welcome ceremony with Myanmar?s President Htin Kyaw at the Presidential Palace in Naypyitaw, Myanmar November 28, 2017. Photo: Reuters YANGON: Pope Francis met leaders of several faiths in majority-Buddhist Myanmar on Tuesday, stressing the importance of ?unity in diversity? but making no mention of the Muslim Rohingya who have fled en masse to Bangladesh after a military crackdown. The pope held private talks with Myanmar?s military chief in Yangon on Monday, the first day of a visit fraught with tension after the United States accused the Southeast Asian nation of ?ethnic cleansing? against its Muslim Rohingya people. The leader of the Roman Catholic church will also travel to Bangladesh, where more than 620,000 Rohingya have fled to escape what Amnesty International has dubbed ?crimes against humanity?. Myanmar?s army has denied accusations of murder, rape, torture and forced displacement that have been made against it. ?Unity is always a product of diversity,? Francis told leaders of the Buddhist, Islamic, Hindu, Jewish and Christian faiths in Yangon, according to Vatican officials who gave a briefing on the 40-minute meeting. Catholics hope Pope talks Rohingya, climate in Bangladesh Cardinal Patrick D'Rozario said the Pope would bring 'inspiration and love' ?Everyone has their values, their riches as well as their differences, as each religion has its riches, its traditions, its riches to share. And this can only happen if we live in peace, and peace is constructed in a chorus of differences.? Aye Lwin, a prominent Muslim leader who was at the meeting, told Reuters he had asked the pope to appeal to Myanmar?s political leaders ?to rescue the religion that we cherish, which could be hijacked by a hidden agenda?. Only about 700,000 of Myanmar?s 51 million people are Roman Catholic. Thousands of them have traveled from far and wide to see him and more than 150,000 people have registered for a mass that Francis will say in Yangon on Wednesday. Tension over the word 'Rohingya' The pope was later flying to the capital, Naypyitaw, where he will meet government leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate and democracy champion who has faced criticism from around the globe because she has expressed doubts about the reports of rights abuses against the Rohingya and failed to condemn the military. His trip is so delicate that some papal advisers have warned Francis against even saying the word ?Rohingya?, lest he set off a diplomatic incident that could turn the country?s military and government against minority Christians. Pope begins Myanmar trip in shadow of Rohingya crisis The pope will also visit Bangladesh, to where more than 620,000 Rohingya have fled The pope is due to deliver a speech after meeting Suu Kyi. The Rohingya exodus from Rakhine state to Bangladesh began after August 25, when Rohingya militants attacked security posts and the Myanmar army launched a counter-offensive. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last week called the military operation ?ethnic cleansing? and threatened targeted sanctions for ?horrendous atrocities?. Myanmar?s government has denied most of the accusations made against it, and the army says its own investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing by troops. Myanmar does not recognise the Rohingya as citizens nor as members of a distinct ethnic group with their own identity, and it even rejects the term ?Rohingya? and its use. Bangladesh, Myanmar agree to start Rohingya return in two months It remains unclear how many Rohingya will be allowed back and how long the process will take Many people in Myanmar instead refer to members of the Muslim minority in Rakhine state as illegal migrants from Bangladesh. Francis is expected to meet a group of Rohingya refugees in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, on the second leg of his trip. Vatican sources say some in the Holy See believe the trip was decided too hastily after full diplomatic ties were established in May during a visit by Suu Kyi. The pope has already used the word Rohingya in two appeals from the Vatican this year. A hardline group of Buddhist monks, previously known as Ma Ba Tha, said on Monday it welcomed the pope?s visit but warned, without elaborating, of ?a response? if he spoke openly about the Rohingya.
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