Pakistan: An Idiosyncratic Road to Better Governance

By Anjum Altaf

One has to sympathize with Pakistan at this time beset as it is with problems from all sides. The focus ought to be on ensuring survival. But surely there must be some thought that extends beyond the sympathy, beyond the jaded expressions of shock and sorrow. Will Pakistan continue to lurch from crisis to crisis? Will this cycle of pray and beg, beg and pray, ever come to an end?

It will, but perhaps not in the way we would like. There is no such thing as equilibrium; it exists only as an idealized state in textbooks of economics. In the real world, things either get better or they get worse. And who will now dispute that, in general, things have been trending down in Pakistan mostly as the result of self-inflicted wounds. So, the real questions are the following: How long can this trend continue and how far is the real bottom? Will Pakistan survive drowning in the flood only to drown in the waves of anarchy let loose by the flood? What can we point to that seems likely to reverse the trend?

There are very few who would not want this trend to reverse. But, at the same time, there are very few who seem to have the capacity to effect a positive change. There is anger and there is frustration but these sentiments that should propel change are too diffused to gain traction or momentum. They are pulling in so many different directions that the end result is negligible.

If this diagnosis is correct, the remedy should also be obvious. The desire for change has to be aligned to gain strength and everyone has to pull in one direction for it to gain force. How is this consensus to be achieved given that it is not being achieved through elections that are the normal recourse under governance based on electoral representation?

My own sense is that a major contribution can be made by the representatives of civil society. We can see that the thousands of non-governmental organization are seething with ideas and suggestions and energy. But every NGO has a different objective that prevents it from linking up with other NGOs in a common effort. It would be unrealistic to expect NGOs to give up their individual objectives but, in such times of extraordinary crises, it should not be unrealistic to expect them to also adopt a common over-riding objective that they would pursue collectively.

The modalities of such a strategy should be a matter for discussions but some obvious ideas suggest themselves. Thus, NGOs could agree on one big goal that they would pursue collectively every year in addition to their individual agendas. This could very easily be a goal around which most NGOs across the ideological spectrum could rally. Access to better health services or clean drinking water could provide such unifying objectives.

My own suggestion would be to start with the low-hanging fruit and unite on a campaign to demand competent leadership of all public sector organizations. The abuse of public sector appointments for political patronage is a scandal that should be unacceptable in any society. The fact that nothing can be done about it in Pakistan points to grave problems in our systems of governance and accountability. These problems need to be addressed if we are to hope for a reversal of the many negative trends that are leading Pakistan down the slope to social and economic disaster.

My second suggestion would be to try out this strategy of collective effort by picking a test case in which there is minimum disagreement and maximum support. This may seem trivial to many but I would pick the organizational set up of cricket in Pakistan as the test case. Pakistan by itself is too big and too daunting a challenge to take on straight away. The cricket organization is much more manageable. If we can collectively succeed in restoring integrity, competence, and accountability to the organization of cricket it would provide citizens with the confidence that they can take on bigger challenges.

I am actually surprised that the governance of cricket is not seen as a microcosm of the governance of the country. The parallels stare one in the face: the appointment of the wrong people at the top followed by protection of gross mismanagement, incompetence, nepotism, favoritism, corruption, intrigues and arbitrariness and the frustration of all attempts at accountability. The damning indictment of our system is the fact that despite the passionate involvement of millions there seems no way to bring an end to the scandalous situation that continues to flourish despite clear objective evidence of the damaging outcomes.

Is it really impossible for the citizens of Pakistan to demand and effect a change in the management of cricket? If that is really so, there is something very seriously amiss with our system of governance and any hope to bring about change at the higher levels would remain nothing more than a pipe dream.

An earlier post using sports as a metaphor for national decline can be found here.


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12 Responses to “Pakistan: An Idiosyncratic Road to Better Governance”

  1. Clarence Maloney Says:

    Sports? Maybe. But I suggest that all the NGOs join and press the Government to initiate a huge educational and publicity program that Islamic values are good governance, good leadership, honesty, reliability, literacy, not wasting things like water, care for the deprived, general public interest, etc, and yes- women’s roles in society. Gov’t should not only really give education its due- at least 6% of GDP, preferably 10% like S Korea did- but also teach ethics and organization in schools, and regulate the 5000 Madrassas and require that they also teach courses in ethics etc.

  2. Anjum Altaf Says:

    Clarence Maloney: I expected that skeptical response so I guess I did not do enough to forestall it and explain myself better.

    I am not saying that cricket is more important than any of the other issues you have mentioned. My argument is that there needs to be a quick win, a quick demonstration that collective effort works in order for citizens to believe that they can take on the bigger challenges you have listed.

    The NGO coalition can make the final decision on what to rally behind at this time. My own sense is that given the situation in Pakistan at the moment, cricket provides the easiest opportunity to demonstrate the effectiveness of the strategy. There is mass support behind the need for a change, the diagnosis is shared by all, and no financial investments are needed for the effort.

    Most of the issues you mention would need to be backed by significant financial resources and some of them would be very divisive. Anything to do with education or the role of women in society would immediately polarize the proponents. For this reason, I had mentioned issues like access to better health and water that would not be susceptible to such splits.

    All these issues are clearly more important than sports but it would be premature to tackle them without the necessary organization to follow through. Citizens first need to see and believe that they can be the agents of change before they take on the big issues.

  3. Sohail Says:

    Having spent 12 years amongst the NGOs in Pakistan I don’t think that they can do anything in cooperation with someone else unless some immediate and direct benefit can be seen.

    I don’t think that anything or anyone can put this country on the rehabilitation road. It will probably break up into 5 or 6 pieces and then each piece will live like Nepal or Bhutan.


  4. Kamran Says:

    The deplorable state of governance in our public sector organisations is a reflection of the state of affairs and the result of conflicting currents of vested interests in our society; we all see the striking parallels with the state of governance in the country described by Anjum. Question is: Is it realistic to attempt restructuring one organisation in isolation, as if all conflicting currents will disappear in that arean while rest of the society remains in the state of heightened conflicts as it is now? The strong counteractive pulls and pushes at the top currently testing the limits of the states’ ability to remain together will not allow such a happy change even in a microcosm of the society. Such ahs been our experience in the last 63 years; we’ve been progressively going down and under.

    If this results in ‘organisational restructuring’ that Sohail has described above, why worry except that, unfortunately, it is not likely to take effect peacefully and voluntarily. A meaningful reversal of an increasing downhill slide in a corporate body or a state can only bet effected with a significant positive organisational restructuring and dismantling of conflicting interest blocks above. We can not put one department right in isolation while a rotten BOD and the supervisory management at the top remains intact.

    That brings us back to the mother of all questions: how to bring this ‘organisational restructuring’, in whatever form, whether within or without, into effect?

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Kamran: There are clearly two perspectives on change: the-all-or-nothing one and the one-thing-at-a-time one. The all-or-nothing sounds plausible but it leaves us with no hope. So, we have to get as far ahead as we can with the one-thing-at-a-time approach.

      My suggestion is not to just replace the heads of public sector organizations although even that helps to some extent. The history of quite a few organizations in Pakistan (PIA, for example) would bear that out – performance is affected by the quality of management. What we have to strive for is to win some autonomy for these organizations so that it becomes very difficult to dismiss a competent head and to replace him/her with an incompetent one. We need to build protection against arbitrary interventions that can undo the gains attained under good management.

      In this approach we have to wrest back some of the powers that have either been conceded to the state or have been appropriated by it without much resistance. The best recent example is the retrieval of some autonomy for the judiciary through the kind of collective action I am suggesting. There is no reason why we cannot do something similar for the public sector universities if we choose that as a collective target. A charter of autonomy for universities in which the top management is selected professionally would be a meaningful change. Such change is possible even in a rotten and rotting superstructure provided the countervailing power of public opinion is channeled effectively.

      Even if nothing immediate is achieved, the dynamic unleashed by mobilizing and concentrating the force of public opinion on important social objectives could create the positive dynamic that is so obviously lacking at the moment.

  5. ambreen Says:

    Giving up is not an option for the millions of Pakistanis who are stuck in this country –so any effort in the right direction is worth making. I agree with Anjum’s suggestion that we at least try and get a debate going among NGOs on this topic. Also just to share some hope with the despondent ones, there is a small coalition of NGOs in Islamabad who has over the last couple of years tried this approach at a relatively limited scale. The issues they have picked up and worked at together for over two years are Sexual Harassment and Domestic Violence. As you know, there has been some progress –and every little bit counts.

  6. Kamran Says:

    Anjum: I do not suggest rejecting one-thing-at-a-time approach altogether. It works in many situations but, perhaps, not in all the situations. We will discuss that some other time and, Anbreen, it is also not the question of completely giving up. I know change of one person as manager at the top makes a difference – sometimes a lot – provided, (and here we come to the crucial pre-requisite) reasonable autonomy of the organisation and the required free space is available to the person.
    Positive and longer lasting changes were brought in by some individuals in a few state-owned corporations in the past like in PIA precisely at a time when relative autonomy was available to those persons. Not only that. There are many examples of highest standards of professional management, impeccable integrity and admirable uprightness in boldly defying the attempts of interference from the government has been set in the past by many heads of other state organisations. But we must realize that we have come a long way since then. What a slide down hill!
    I assume it is not a point of disagreement among us that today that a semblance of relative autonomy and free space is no longer available at the level of even smaller organizations in our society. Neither it can be safely assumed that the required free space will be voluntarily granted by the political minions of either of the two parties taking their turns, one after the other, in temporarily holding the political seats in govt and recovering their past losses and saving for the future, or by the third party looming large and displacing the other two intermittently at its will. Crude political patronage, nepotism, and sheer incompetence have pervaded all levels of governance for personal and financial gains, not to speak of political control as that element has been, and will always remain, there. It is clear that this autonomy even in one or two organisations has to be regained as you rightly pointed out has been demonstrated recently in the case of winning back ‘judicial autonomy’.
    As I see it, unfortunately, or fortunately, the civic movement that we had witnessed unfolding before us during 2007-2008 and succeeded in restoring some ‘judicial autonomy’ involved a few more factors than what we normally see on the surface. Parts of it were scripted by some powerful elements, within and without, with some precise outcomes in mind. Be that as it may (we may put the discussion on the physiognomy of that movement for some other place), such interjections of other powerful elements in any mass movement are normal and have always been there, we need to see how much the apparent success or direction of the movement was and will be impacted by the input of those elements in order to evaluate the sustainability of a well-meaning civic movement in achieving its stated objectives in the absence or in opposition of those factors.
    One possible way for avoiding this is to focus on some apparently apolitical objectives like education and health. Your idea of autonomous universities could be a starting point. The only problem I see in it is that a good quality higher education is currently an issue of only the middle classes; working classes are still condemned to run helplessly around for basic problems like food and health to keep their souls and bodies together. Or we can also work on autonomous health administration system.
    All this is good and we may work to generate a consensus and mobilize NGOs to build up a social momentum. There is for some a strong belief, and for some others, perhaps, a faint hope that we would be able to generate sufficient civic pressure to bring about meaningful changes in our social and governance structures.
    The question, however, that still baffles me is that, in our given state of affairs, wherever there is an opportunity for awarding employment or dipping fingers in the financial outlay from the state’s budget direct intervention with impunity will come down our throats from rot above no matter what we do. I am sorry that in my chain of thoughts this annoying question keeps coming back to me like a Terminator-2 for which, I admit, I do not have a reply.
    PS: Another thing that also keeps haunting me since I’ve started introspecting what we or our predecessors have been doing in the past to bring about a positive social change is that: is it fair to label an opinion about a well-meaning plan for ‘some action’ being non-effective or not likely to achieve its stated objectives, necessarily, a vote for surrender and non-action at all? Do we only have a choice between ‘an action’ and ‘no action’? I don’t think so. Even if we do not immediately find ‘the action’ and remain, apparently, ‘inactive’ or at the ‘lowest minimum action’ level it’s Ok as long as an earnest quest for the ‘right action’ is not abandoned.

  7. Anjum Altaf Says:

    Kamran: The issue is really about the control of free space and the relative autonomy of institutions. Civil society has conceded this space without resistance to the state but it cannot be wrested back without a collective struggle.

    A few seemingly minor examples will illustrate the process: Burn Hall School became Army Burn Hall School; Lawrence College Ghoragali became an army-run college; Peshawar Club became Armed Forces Garrison Club. When this encroachment faced no resistance it became a torrent during the Musharraf years. This was the shortsightedness of a civil society that gave precedence to individuals over institutions – the space shrank while many were applauding the Enlightened Democrat. The reversal of this process – taking back the space – will require collective action. There is no easy alternative.

    Opportunities will arise as the country slides into anarchy and the state loses credibility. The talk of an independent Flood Relief Commission is one example. This has emerged because no one really trusts the state with their money. This is the model to push. We really need an umbrella Citizens Commission for most spheres of public governance to restore the trust and effectiveness that have been lost.

    My own preference is to start with areas where quick and relatively inexpensive positive outcomes can be demonstrated. Reforming health administration would not be one. Getting the President out of the Cricket Board would be one; university vice-chancellors hired via a professional competitive process monitored by an independent commission and operating with a charter of autonomy would be another.

    Higher education is important despite what you have rightly mentioned because the governance of the country is entirely dependent on the quality of the human capital that would be available over the next two generations. State control and interference have grievously damaged the quality of this asset.

    Your final question is important. I don’t think the only alternatives are ‘action’ and ‘no-action’. But we should always have an on-going conversation about the need for action and the alternatives possible. Once an idea strikes the popular imagination it has to be implemented through decisive and coordinated action.

    The real battle is for the supremacy of ideas. You will note from the popular media which side is winning that battle. Uncoordinated actions are not much help when major changes are the objective. At the same time ‘no-action’ cannot translate into a withdrawal from the intellectual engagement that has to be the precursor of effective action.

  8. Anjum Altaf Says:

    Perhaps we can revisit this issue again. After this post went up Pakistan won a test and I suppose people assumed we were at the brink of a new dawn. We are always at the brink of a new dawn whenever one set of managers or rulers replaces another.

    So much for wishful thinking. By now Pakistan cricket is hollowed out, rotted to the core. And it is a leading indicator of the rest of the institutions in the country. Those who will be investigating, as they have done before, are just as culpable and without any credibility.

    The only way forward is for civil society to reclaim the integrity of public sector institutions and to force through an independent and transparent process of appointments and accountability. I still feel that cricket is a test case because the sentiments of an overwhelming majority are aligned in the same direction.

  9. Vinod Says:

    Anjum, check out this talk on rebuilding a broken nation in a post-conflict scenario. Not directly applicable to Pakistan, but something that may have ideas for a country like Pakistan which is fast reaching breaking point

  10. SouthAsian Says:

    Apropos of the suggestion in this post, how is it that the religious groups almost always seem to be able to employ the strategy with ease while those interested in secular issues can never seem to do so? Is there something we have been unable to understand about Pakistani society or is there something more here than meets the eye?

    Pakistan on strike against bill to amend blasphemy law:

  11. Aina Maria Waseem Says:

    We can argue on the subject till the cows come home but since an idea has come up, we can better utliize our time and energy in joining this effort, finding success, and then moving on to other things. Change can only be wrought one thing at a time, and not by having endless intellectual discussions. PTI has a huge number of detractors but no one can deny it exists because one man decided to get up and actually do something instead of talking like the rest of us, of whom LUMS students like me are an excellent example. Pakistan doesn’t lack nationalists so much as it lacks people willing to take initiative, so let’s forget discussing whether this is a good starting point and develop a road map for saving Pakistan cricket! Let’s vow this is the last time any Board of Pakistan will replace a test match with limited overs and get away with it!

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