Archive for the ‘Analysis’ Category

Mixed Messages

May 19, 2020

By Anjum Altaf

Between the commencement of Ramzan and the easing of the lockdown, I was at the wrong end of a rant for advocating the avoidance of congregations in mosques. A gentleman accused people like me of hypocrisy for continuing to drink at the Punjab Club while keeping the devout from visiting the House of God.

I am not a member of the Punjab Club but was sufficiently intrigued to investigate what was going on there. I was informed that everything was closed except for the bakery and that home deliveries were continuing for members who wished to entertain and had sent their cooks home. It also came out that tennis had been restarted but a couple of days later a rather urgent message affirmed it was discontinued. This was the first time I had influenced an action in Pakistan though undoubtedly the outcome owed more to a rather secretive and privileged institution wishing to avoid being thrust into the limelight. 

This experience whetted my curiosity as to what might be going on at other places unfamiliar to me. Enquiries about the Islamabad Club were rewarded with a notification from the management stating the following:

“The management has decided to open the track of Islamabad Club Polo Grounds (ICPG) strictly for walking or jogging only. This facility will be for the use of Club members and their families only. No guests or sporting activities shall be allowed, nor food and beverages or any other services will be available to the members.”

My position from the outset had been that parks should have remained open but still the fact that the ICPG was open for members and their families to walk or jog while my neighbourhood park remains padlocked for cooped up children even after the lockdown’s easing struck me as inconsistent and inequitable.

What was going on? Who wanted to impose the lockdown and who were the people who believed it need not constrain their lives? Were they the same or different “elites”? What was even more confusing was that even the self-proclaimed “non-elites” were indulging in the same behavior. Images of our Covid war-room showed the gentlemen sitting close to each other without bothering to wear masks. Ditto for ministers attending some ceremony or the other surrounded by unmasked minions. The message from on high was that social distancing and the like were for plebians only.

Unlike the USA and UK where macho men like Trump and Johnson are the butt of jokes, people here take political and religious role-models seriously, especially when they want to, and given the precariousness of the situation, the under-preparedness of the health system, the already low compliance with state directives, these sort of mixed messages are downright dangerous. 

All this is not helped by the fact that our leaders do not speak the language of the plebians, something I sensed at the time they wanted to uplift the poor via the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs). Hoping to make my contribution by disseminating their message to beneficiaries, I realized there was no equivalent term in local languages that could convey what was underway. Much scratching around yielded “sadsala tarraqiati ahdaf” which was no better comprehended by the beneficiaries.

The MDG was harmless circus. It provided a good living for all the huffers and puffers without a deleterious impact on society — the status quo remained unchanged. The fact that those involved did not take it seriously themselves became obvious when its 15-year life ended in ignominious failure in 2015 only for it to be replaced, without any post-mortem, by the gravy train of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with yet another 15-year lease of life.

The situation with the Covid-19 epidemic is different because miscommunication is no longer harmless; it can result in a serious loss of lives. As a knee-jerk reaction to what was happening in other countries, our government too announced a natiion-wide “lockdown” but without clearly spelling out what it entailed. Everyone had their own interpretation. Asides from the obvious binary cases like schools and colleges, it was not clear what was open or shut. 

As one example, private medical clinics remained open in Kohat but closed in Peshawar. One doctor in Peshawar, who sees about 25 patients a day, said four of her patients died for lack of attention during the closure. Aggregate that ratio over private clinics in the city and more people might have died from lack of care than from the Covid-19 epidemic.

What did “lockdown” mean? Once again I scoured Urdu language outlets but came up with nothing besides “laakdown” except for one occurrence of “bandish-e fa’aliyat” of which the less said the better. Even a high school student could have done better than that with “taala bandi” given our long aquaintance with “naaka bandi.” 

I suppose the plebians might have reacted too negatively to “taala bandi” as an imposition and it was considered better to leave them with the ambiguous “laakdown” or “bandish-e fa’aliyat.” As a result, almost everything that could stay open stayed open, people freely rubbed shoulders in crowded places, travelled between cities when they could, all the time complaining of the disappearance of their jobs.

Ditto for social distancing. In the padlocked neighbourhood park I mentioned earlier, I saw six guards breaking their fast sitting around one small table while many others remained unoccupied. Either they did not comprehend what social distancing meant or they did not think much of it like our warriors in the Covid control room. I didn’t try to find a local equivalent for the term given the overwhelming potency of the signalling from the top.

And what to say of the ad nauseam regurgitation of the term “flattening the curve” in a place where most have never seen a graph or a curve in their lives except for the kind that graced the giant film billboards of yesteryears. 

Now the “lockdown” has been eased and, to make confusion worse confounded, we are moving to “smart lockdowns.” May the Good Lord keep us under His protection. 

The writer is the author of Transgressions: Poems Inspired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Delhi 2019, Karachi 2020. This opinion was published in Sindh Courier on May 15, 2020 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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Parsing the Epidemic

May 5, 2020

By Anjum Altaf

Whoever is advising the leadership on the Coronavirus epidemic is doing a poor job.

The Prime Minister is reported as saying that the lockdown has been imposed by the uncaring “elites” because they feared the poor would carry the infection with them into the posh areas. However, he is said to have added that the outbreak has shown the disease does not discriminate; it affects everyone whether rich or poor implying that the “elites” are not just uncaring, they are also stupid. 

Personally, one can agree that the “elites” (whoever they are) are uncaring and indifferent whenever anything outside their personal interests is involved. One can also agree that the lockdown, in the form it was implemented, was a bad decision; it was premature, driven by panic, and not sensitive to the specificities of local conditions. In particular, to the fact that, thanks to the “elites,” this is a country where the vast majority, day after day, eats what it earns that day. Leave aside that it has to refrain from eating the basic caloric minimum to put money aside for the rent and water to be paid at the end of the month. Given that, a prohibition on large gatherings and closure of colleges was understandable but preventing vendors from plying their trades was not wherever such activities could have been accommodated within the guidelines of wearing masks and social distancing. After all, if a concession could be made for congregational prayers, it could equally have been made for many other activities that were carried out in much less confined spaces.  

Be that as it may, I don’t really think it was the “elites” who came up with the decision to impose the lockdown. The likely reason points more to the dependency for ideas and money on the West that the Prime Minister decried in the same address. These kinds of decisions, because of an almost complete lack of local competence and the displacement of what little exists by sinecures, are almost always deferred to international agencies who advise on policies and to donor agencies who funnel the funds to implement them. This phenomenon was witnessed very clearly during the 2005 earthquake. The lockdown, this time around, was most likely a function of the WHOs one-policy-fits-all-poor-countries dictate that could not be denied for fear of drying up the funding pipeline. Its nation-wide implementation was a function of our leadership’s one-size-fits-all-regions response which required the least amount of thinking consistent with the capacity of the intellectual resources spread across its kitchen cabinet. 

What is really of concern, however, are the mental models that are driving the actions of our leadership. Start with dependency which should be the simplest concept to grasp. In what sense are we against it when the Prime Minister’s own cock-and-hen scheme was lauded for its invention and affirmation by Bill Gates? For confirmation of the contradiction between word and deed, just keep watching how all the post-Covid recovery policies are turned over to the UNDP, World Bank and IMF to be funded by USAID, DFID and the like. Meanwhile, local outfits, some part of the government itself, are rendered invisible despite them busting their behinds to get noticed. 

Move next to “elites” whose interpretation defies all comprehension. Listening to the speeches, one gets the impression that “elites” refers to those who ruled in the past, a meaning that can be found in no dictionary. The dictionary defines “elite” as “a select group that is superior in terms of ability or qualities to the rest of a group or society” while in political and sociological theory, the “elite” are a small group of powerful people who hold a disproportionate amount of wealth, privilege, political power, or skill in a society.”  

In the first, meritocratic, sense, there is nothing necessarily evil about belonging to an elite group — the Prime Minister himself rightly and deservedly belongs to a sporting elite for which honour he worked very hard. In the second sense, of a small group with disproportionate wealth, privilege, or political power, there is no way that the present leadership can be distinguished from previous leaderships. Of course, within this traditional “elite” some sub-groups hold more firepower than others which can yield one interpretation of the Prime Minister’s lament of helplessness. In any case, there is no convolution of meaning that can convince an audience that a small group with disproportionate amount of wealth, privilege or political power can transform itself into a “non-elite” just by being honest. A belief in any such conceptualization is the sign of deep delusion.

There is a lethal corollary to what the “elites” have wrought in Pakistan with immensely damaging consequences for the “non-elites.” In any normal polity, public intellectuals are a part of the meritocratic elite holding themselves at a certain critical distance from the power elite which they are supposed to hold accountable. But in the upside-down world of this country, “public” intellectuals are also vetted and promoted by the power elite, with self-selection being the outcome of choice, quite independent of credentials or prior performance in any field whatsoever. Loyalty is the currency in demand and dissenting voices are obviously “disloyal.” 

Finally, and most worryingly, there is the mental model of the virus itself which is supposed not to discriminate but afflict rich and poor alike. This model leads straightaway to a vision in which the rich can exercise their power and privilege to barricade themselves against the poor lest the latter carry the infection into the enclaves of the former. With everyone being equally vulnerable, the rich have to buy their survival at the expense of the poor.

But all the available evidence that has gone abegging defies this presumption. The virus, in all other places, has quite disproportionately affected the poor, the marginalized, and those already suffering from other ailments. It has disproportionately affected the old as against the young and men as against women. It has also disproportionately affected people living in dense areas as opposed to those with space at their disposable. In short, the virus has discriminated in all sorts of ways, an appreciation of which could have yielded much more targeted measures than a blunt lockdown ridiculously aimed in some imaginations to barricade the rich against the poor.

The Prime Minister’s heart is clearly in the right place beating for the well-being of the poor deprived of their livelihoods while the rich, in their comfortable isolation, experiment with baking sourdough breads. But, it seems, his ear is not tuned to the sources that can guide him in following his heart to the right remedies. This couldn’t have been more obvious than the sight of him, signalled to the entire nation, sitting with folded hands behind a tearful cleric-in-residence who aimed to turn the entire crisis into a morality play quite like what it must have been in medieval plagues when science as we know it was yet to be born.

And, here is the supreme irony of framing the crisis in moral terms as the wages of our sins. While the virus discriminates between rich and poor, young and old, women and men, all for reasons that can be fathomed, it does not discriminate between the religious and the irreligious, the devout and the impious, the faithful and the faithless, the worshipper and the non-worshipper, the honest and the dishonest. So much for the tearful moral explanation that has been discarded centuries earlier by all those from whom we are now condemned to borrow both ideas and money.

A caveat is necessary here for those quick to blame the vast majority of citizens for giving credence to such moral interpretations and for attributing crises to an angry providence. It is the “elites” who have, quite consciously and deliberately, kept them sheltered from even the slightest exposure to a scientific mindset lest, God forbid, they become curious and actually begin to march towards the rich enclaves in search of answers. Ignorance and fear among the many remain the surest guarantees of the continuation of “elite” rule.

So much has been revealed by this virus.

Anjum Altaf has a PhD from Stanford University. This opinion appeared in Sindh Courier on May 4. 2020 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission. 

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Mapping the Virus: A Research Proposal

May 2, 2020

By Anjum Altaf

Pakistan, like many other countries, is flying dark in this Coronavirus pandemic. Very little is known for certain and what little is becoming known is not being factored into the decision-making. As a result, policies are are almost entirely reactive, based largely on fear, the happenings of the previous day, the push and pull of various influential lobbies.

Given this muddle, the most blunt and expensive set of measures built around a country-wide lockdown have been imposed in the country in a knee-jerk mimicry of actions taken in countries like Italy where the virus spread with great rapidity. 

There was not much contextual analysis of how feasible these set of measures might be in a country like Pakistan. To start with, a complete lockdown is an impossibility, a truth that can be confirmed by just venturing out to any market on any particular day. This is inevitable in an economy where one or more members of over half the urban households have to go out to earn what they eat that day. In theory, this could have been mitigated if provisions to meet their daily needs could have been delivered to households deprived of earning opportunities. But such arrangements on the scale required are impossible in a society without any public safety net whatsoever.  

Just as infeasible was the advice to maintain social distancing. The density at which the majority of urban residents live makes that impossible. Once again, one has to venture out on the street to see the extent to which the advice is being followed — three people on a motorbike makes a mockery of social distancing. Washing hands frequently requires water and soap, the buying of which for many households is a tradeoff at the margin with an item to eat. At the very least, such advice needed to be backed up with a free or subsidised supply of the commodities. 

More than a month into the so-called lockdown, which does not preclude people using their personal transport to move within cities or between cities and provinces, there is absolutely no sense if the set of measures has had any impact on the spread of the virus. And, there is no way of assessing the relative contribution, if any, of the various measures in the policy package. As a result, there is no basis to decide if and when the lockdown ought to be relaxed and which measure is to be withdrawn first if a phase-out is to be pursued. Quite to the contrary, the relaxations are being driven by industry lobbies, i.e., construction (which should not have been restricted in the first place), or the threat of social groups, i.e., clerics (whose self-serving demand merited no consideration whatsoever).

In a society with a research-minded leadership, all this could well have been factored into an intelligent research design. For example, Kohat district which has just recorded three deaths to date, could have done without the lockdown and experimented with simpler measures like masks. If the infections had spiked, social distancing and/or a lockdown could then have been introduced. It is indeed ironic that, quite without thinking, this is exactly what has been done with the relaxation for Ramzan prayers in mosques under a set of operating procedures under the proviso that the dispensation would be withdrawn if infections spiked. Indeed, given the variation in the country, such an experimental approach could even have accommodated hypotheses linking the severity of the virus to the length of women’s sleeves or men’s trousers for that matter.    

Add to all the above, no benefit is being derived even from the evidence that has become available from other countries. For one, it is quite clear that Covid-19 related deaths are predominantly among the very old and, even within this group, among those with other pre-existing conditions. For another, there are a number of countries that have not gone for the blunt and expensive lockdown strategy and have not had any the worse outcomes compared to those that have. This type of evidence should factor into a review of the policies put in place at the outset. For example, does it make sense to keep parks closed while mosques are open? And should elementary schools remain closed or could they open with social distancing teaching students through a two-days-a-week rotation?

What then is to be done in the situation we are in now related both to the progress of epidemic itself and a decision-making apparatus that is incapable of data gathering and analysis on any systematic or meaningful scale? Let us start with the two numbers that are displayed daily on the dashboards of virtually all our media outlets — the running total of the number of confirmed cases and the number of deaths resulting from them. The first number is not of much use since, in the absence of an adequate number of tests, it tells nothing about how many people might be infected in the country. Its only utility is that we can get a sense of the trend in whatever reality it is measuring, most likely a subset of the number of people going to hospitals with symptoms.

The second number is not of much greater use either. It is most likely the number of people expiring in hospitals whose death certificates record the cause of death as Covid-19. We don’t know for sure if the death was due to Covid-19 or of some other condition exacerbated by the virus. We don’t know the age, sex, or income level of those who have died. Nor do we have any clue to the number who might have died of Covid-19 at home without ever making it to the hospital. Once again, the number is useful only for indicating a trend in whatever it is measuring. Both the indicators are doubling to date every seven to eight days since the first Covid-19 deaths were reported on March 18 and the country-wide lockdown was imposed. These trends should be source of continued concern. But, by itself, this number of daily deaths (20 to 30) is no comparison, by many orders of magnitude, to the total number of deaths that occur in the country every day (approximately around 4,000).

What is really needed is some idea of the prevalence of Covid-19 in the country, its lethality, the extent of the immunity that has been built up, and the identification of hotspots, if any. Only then can there emerge a sensible and targeted strategy of isolation, quarantine, and healthcare facilities on the one hand, and opening up of some activities, like elementary schools and parks, on the other.

This however is too much to expect — we will simply not have serological testing at the scale required to ascertain prevalence nor the randomized testing to identify hotspots. We have to figure out what we can do with the very sparse data that is relatively easier to obtain and understand. [As a digression, I would like to mention that as a Professor of Economics and Dean, I was always intrigued by new faculty members returning from research universities in the USA and Europe with PhD degrees based on extensive and reliable data sets available there. Within a year they were complaining that they felt handicapped because similar time-series data of good quality was not available in Pakistan. It seemed to me that this was something they should have thought through before embarking on their dissertations and focused instead on getting the most out of the kind of sparse information available in Pakistan.] 

In this regard, one good suggestion I came across in a newspaper was to monitor the number of patients with acute respiratory disorders admitted to ERs or ICUs of major hospitals. This statistic, collected from a nationally representative set of hospitals, could be compared with the corresponding statistic for the same time period in the previous year. It would yield a sense for what is different during the current epidemic and the extent to which the epidemic is manifesting itself in a higher case load which would be one reasonably good indication of how different is the situation as a result of the epidemic. Is it really a crisis, a minor bump, or just hype triggered by fear?

A second, equally simple, complementary indicator could be obtained by monitoring a nationally representative set of graveyards in the country. Tracking the number of burials per week (for which permission records are kept) and comparing them to the corresponding period a year ago would yield a sense of the lethality of the virus. It would correct for the possibility that many Covid-19 affectees are not showing up at hospitals and dying unattended and unrecorded. It would also capture the possible indirect impact of the lockdown that should not be ignored — that the number of deaths due to other diseases might spike because of either lack of medical care,  non-availability of transport, inability to afford medicines, shortage of funds to buy enough food, or just plain deaths of depression and despair.

Of course, this statistic would need some adjustments. Just as the average number of deaths could increase because of the indirect effects of the lockdown mentioned above, they could also go the other way because of a likely decrease in the number of traffic accidents and deaths due to air pollution which has dropped dramatically since the lockdown. However, these are adjustments that can be made relatively easily by a competent graduate student. If there are excess deaths over the comparable period of a year ago, it would be a robust signal of the seriousness of the epidemic and help pinpoint hotspots. If, however, there are few excess deaths, it could indicate that even if the prevalence of infection is high the fatality rate is so low as to not be a cause for panic.

A continued monitoring of trends in the two statistics already being reported in the newspapers complemented by data on the two indicators suggested in this article should provide sufficient information to determine if the panic induced blunt and expensive suppression measures need to be continued or whether much less expensive measures like wearing masks and washing hands might be quite enough to contain the epidemic. 

Continuous monitoring of these simple indicators would be enough to tell us fairly soon if this epidemic is really something to fear or whether it is just a more difficult version of the regular flu as some have begun to claim. If the former, harsher measures could be reintroduced later. If the latter, life could start returning to normal with basic precautions merited by common sense. The millions of despairing people out of jobs deserve a better and more informed set of policies.

The writer earned a PhD from Stanford University. This opinion appeared in Sindh Courier on April 30, 2020 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission. 

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Hold the Hurrahs

April 29, 2020

By Anjum Altaf

A number of congratulatory articles have lauded the containment of the Covid epidemic in Pakistan based on the relatively smaller number of deaths to date (222) compared to those in the USA (47,973) and Italy (25,085). The authors have also offered a number of explanations for this difference ranging from outstanding management to contextual variations. 

I would love these people to be right but would urge caution. The conclusion could be premature owing to a lack appreciation of the nature of exponential growth. Take a look at the number of Covid-related deaths in Pakistan. The first two were reported on March 18. Since then, the cumulative numbers at weekly intervals up to April 21 are as follows: 7, 26, 55, 96, 192. Ignoring the initial turbulence, the number of deaths are doubling roughly every seven days.

The lockdown along with its associated measures went into effect on March 18 but there has been no impact on the doubling time. This is contrary to the experience in many countries where the doubling time has lengthened considerably. One is forced to conclude that the lockdown in Pakistan has been largely ineffective which should not be a surprise if one has kept one’s eyes open to its enforcement. 

The reality is that the curve of infections and therefore of deaths has not flattened at all. Extrapolate the number of deaths to see where the trajectory might be headed. Staring from 192 deaths on April 21, the sequence would be as follows at one-week intervals: 384, 768, 1,536, 3,072, 6,144, 12,288, 24,576, 49,152, 98,304, 196,608. By 23 June, just two months from now, the number of deaths could be in the neighbourhood of 200,000.

Only a miracle can prevent this outcome because the crisis management has been inadequate. Even stretching the doubling rate from 7 to 14 days would only postpone the inexorable trajectory of exponential growth. What is needed to beat the virus are measures that cause the number of new cases to decline as they did in China. The likelihood of that happening in Pakistan is low because preventive measures have been muddled — recall that Hubei province was sealed off for two months and residents in Wuhan were similarly sealed inside their homes.

While uncertainties related to the virus and its transmission remain, a simple explanation can suffice for the seemingly huge difference to date between the deaths in the USA and Italy compared to Pakistan. Just one variable, the starting point, can be central. The number of foreign visitors per day in these countries probably exceeds the total number that arrive in Pakistan in a year. For a hypothetical order-of-magnitude comparison, suppose that by mid-February, before any preventive measures were put in place, 5,000 infected persons had arrived in the USA, 2,500 in Italy, and 10 in Pakistan. Use uniform doubling times of 7 days and mortality rates of 2% to project the number of deaths in the three countries. The pattern should become obvious. Pakistan appears to be doing much better at the moment but it is at most two months behind — that is the amazing arithmetic of exponential growth; once it passes an inflexion point the initial differences become irrelevant.

This is not to deny contextual differences. The virus is disproportionately affecting individuals over 60 years of age and the fraction in this cohort is much smaller in Pakistan. It transmits more in dense locations and Pakistan is over 50% rural. It is more lethal for low-income individuals with co-morbidities and in Pakistan such individuals have a low life-expectancy anyway. But even adjusting for these, the pool of vulnerable people in a country of 220 million remains huge (between 2 to 3 million low-income people over the age of 60 in urban Pakistan). Thus, despite the differences, the potential for the number of deaths to climb into the tens of thousands remains real.

There is great need to be realistic and cautious and to address the crisis with the seriousness it deserves. I would urge everyone to read the story that illustrates exponential growth. A sage impressed a chess-loving king and was promised anything he asked for. He requested the following: One grain of rice to be placed on the first square of the chessboard and the number doubled on each succeeding square. The chess board has 64 squares. It would be worth the reader’s while to go through with this computation. 

Now relate this to the Covid-19 crisis. Consider the number of dead to be 1 on March 18 and double this number at the end of each week. Compute the number of dead after 64 weeks if nothing works in the interim to change the trajectory. Of course, this exponential growth cannot continue for ever because after a point the population to be infected will get exhausted. But terrible damage can occur well before that point is reached.

The writer has a PhD from Stanford University. This opinion appeared in The Sindh Courier on April 27, 2020 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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Rules and Discretion

January 17, 2020

By Anjum Altaf

What should be the allowance for discretion in the application of rules? This ought to be a contextual determination and one can use recent events in the worlds of cricket and politics to argue where the line ought to be drawn in Pakistan.

Healthy institutions rely on discretion to take advantage of unforeseen opportunities when changing rules would consume valuable time causing opportunities to be lost. But there is a huge caveat in this simple formulation: that discretion is to be employed for a higher purpose and not self-interest. The more upright the office-bearers of an institution, the more the availability of discretion can lead to gains in efficiency and achievement.

But what happens when office-bearers cannot be trusted to place institutional gains over self-interest? The damage from the abuse of discretion can result in losses far outweighing any possible gains from their legitimate use. In such situations, it would be best to stick to inflexible rules and sacrifice the possible gains that remain purely hypothetical in the absence of the integrity that is a perquisite for their beneficial use.

Let us turn now to Pakistan where it seems that every man has become a blind adherent of Adam Smith believing that it is the self-interest of the baker and the butcher that advances the welfare of society. This may be fine as far as the private sphere is concerned although in actuality it is problematic even there — it presumes, for example, the butcher acting within some ethical norms and not peddling donkey meat to maximize his gain. But the presumption does not hold at all when an individual is made responsible for a public trust. In such a situation, the individual is required to act in the public interest and not his own.

In Pakistan we have allegedly reached the point where every man is a butcher who is in it for himself. No doubt there are exceptions but they have withdrawn from the jungle in which only the most dishonest can survive or advance. Even if this allegation is not strictly true, as long as it is the general perception the ill-effects are bound to show up one way or another. And it is hard to deny that the general perception is precisely this, embedded into our psyches by our own leaders. As a reality check, there is one simple challenge: identify one major project in Pakistan since its creation that has not been scarred by a scam. And, in case there is one to be found, do furnish an assurance that a dormant scam would not be discovered a quarter of a century from now.

One should note that there is no lack of sanctimonious messiahs who decry the abuse of discretion when wandering in the wilderness. But just watch their actions when the very same people are entrusted with positions of trust. Therefore, the bottom line of this argument is that, no matter what anyone might say, we have to minimize discretion in Pakistan at least for this phase of our existence. We may forego the advantages of being fleet-footed but we would also not suffer the damage from being incompetent or dishonest. On balance, we would be better off sticking to some set of rules without discretion.

Take cricket, for example, where the team selected recently to tour Australia was deemed the worst ever to have visited that country. There is very little doubt that personal likes and dislikes have plagued Pakistani sports for decades and that the discretion allowed to selectors has resulted in gross injustice and heartbreak for many excellent performers in domestic tournaments. One way out of this unsavoury morass would be eliminate the discretion and select teams based exclusively on performance in first class matches. The two to three top performing players would qualify automatically for each position and be rotated in the national teams. A detailed set of rules could be specified to operationalize this process. There is no doubt that one would lose out on fast-tracking an occasional superstar like Wasim Akram but in general the team would be better off without the sidelining of scores of excellent players like Fawad Alam.

The crisis in politics from the arbitrary use of discretion is even more dangerous for the country. This is well illustrated by the recent controversy over the extension of the Chief of Army Staff’s tenure. This situation is particularly egregious because discretion has been employed in the absence of any provision to grant a legitimate extension. The judiciary has highlighted the abnormality and rightly recommended that proper rules be put in place. But, once again, given the track record of office-holders, there should be no room for allowance of any discretion in such sensitive matters. The most senior officer should automatically be appointed COAS (could anyone be actually worse than Zia ul Haq?) and there should be no provision for extension of tenure (there is no one really that indispensable).

The poor outcomes that result from the abuse of discretion are not the only damaging consequences that ensue from dishonest practice. Much more destructive is the societal ethos that takes root when discretion is routinely abused for patronage and individual gain on the basis of personal preferences. It engenders an environment in which people abandon the pursuit of merit and gravitate towards either bootlicking and grovelling for favours or the outright purchase of offices and positions. And once such a set of individuals entrench themselves in positions of advantage the malady just reinforces itself over time. No honest or meritorious person can be allowed to break into the system for fear of overturning the applecart.

Pakistan is very deep in a crisis of governance because of the blatant and unchallenged misuse of discretion over decades. The practice has been highlighted fortuitously by the recent egregious consequences in cricket and politics. We ought to take advantage of these exposures to begin to stress the primacy of rules and to eliminate room for the abuse of discretion.

This opinion was published in Dawn on January 5, 2020 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission. The writer was the dean of the school of humanities and social sciences at LUMS.

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Hanif Kureishi, Naipaul and Pakistan

October 22, 2018

By Anjum Altaf

Almost everyone with more than a passing acquaintance of Naipaul has written about their interaction with him, deservedly so, since Naipaul was, without doubt, a great writer. The accounts range from the banal to the truly insightful. Among those of particular interest to Pakistanis, the one by Hanif Kureishi, himself a writer of repute, stands out for two reasons.

First, it is one of the few that doesn’t display a knee-jerk reaction to Naipaul’s non-fiction, in particular his observations about Islamic countries. And second, because of Hanif Kureishi’s oblique relationship with Pakistan, the reflection has dispassionate things to say about the country as refracted through Naipaul’s lens.

Hanif’s connection to Pakistan, for those who know, is through his father’s brother, the iconic Omar Kureishi — legendary cricket commentator, popular manager of the test team, the person with whom PIA became the airline to fly with, an incisive social critic, and a classmate and friend of Zulfikar Bhutto to boot.

This long list of Omar Kureishi’s attributes is testimony to his deep love, devotion, and commitment to Pakistan. And yet, notwithstanding that loyalty, he was a fair-minded observer and analyst, a combination of qualities that has virtually ceased to exist in today’s Pakistan. Hanif has this telling quote from his uncle’s autobiography Home to Pakistan published in 2003: ‘There is an appearance of a government and there is the reality of where real power lies. I had serious doubts that we would become an open society and that democracy would take root.’

Naipaul, Hanif notes, in his travels in the late 1970s around Malaysia, Indonesia, Iran, and Pakistan, had sensed such contradictions early. While the celebrated Foucault was meeting Ruhollah Khomeini and traveling to Tehran defending the imams in the name of a ‘spiritual revolution’ that would create a new society, Naipaul was much more sanguine, seeing very little spirituality in the ‘power grab by the ayatollahs.’  

Naipaul concluded that ‘fundamentalism offered nothing.’ In Pakistan, Naipaul met Hanif’s cousin, Nusrat Nasarullah, who told him: ‘We have to create an Islamic society. We cannot develop in the Western way. Development will come to us only with an Islamic society. It is what they tell us.’ Naipaul was unconvinced. He could see ahead that what began as an ‘indigenous form of resistance, cheered on by a few Parisian intellectuals,’ would soon became ‘a new, self-imposed slavery, a self-subjection with an added masochistic element – one manifestation of which became Osama bin Laden’s devotion to death.’

Naipaul was not a prejudiced anti-Muslim else he would not have married a Muslim woman. His views on Islamic societies were decidedly unpalatable to most Muslims but they needed to be engaged with at the intellectual level not evaded by a show of moral outrage. Hanif writes that in 2010 Naipaul was invited to Turkey to address the European Writers’ Parliament. He was never invited again because he was alleged to have insulted Islam after saying that ‘to be converted you have to destroy your past, destroy your history.’ And look at Turkey now. Hanif offers a general summation of what Naipaul foresaw: ‘Legitimate anger turned bad; the desire for obedience and strong men; a terror of others; the promise of power, independence and sovereignty; the persecution of minorities and women; the return to an imagined purity. Who would have thought this idea would have spread so far, and continue to spread?’

Hanif Kureishi visited Pakistan for the first time in the early 1980s. Even at that time he observed that ‘Pakistan was impossible for the young; everyone who could was sending their money out of the country, and, when possible, sending their children out after it, preferably to the hated but also loved United States or, failing that, to Canada.’ A cousin wrote to him: ‘We want to leave this country but all doors are shut for us. Do not know how to get out of here.’

Hanif Kureishi’s observations merged with those of Naipaul: ‘If the coloniser had always believed the subaltern to be incapable of independent thought or democracy, the new Muslims confirmed it with their submission. They had willingly brought a new tyrant into being, and He was terrible, worse than before.’

‘One of the oddest things about my first stay in Karachi,’ Hanif recalls, ‘was endlessly hearing people tell me how they wished the British would return and run things again. There were many shortages in Pakistan, but that of good ideas was the worst.’

Forty years later, it still is.

This opinion was published in the Express-Tribune on October 19, 2018 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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Thank You, Donald Trump

September 8, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

Much as many are finding it hard to say anything good about Donald Trump, it cannot be denied that he has delivered the world a much needed wake-up call. Gone is the complacency about a whole host of topics that had seemed firmly settled – democracy, capitalism, globalization, trade, to name a few. Fresh thinking has been unleashed on a number of other issues – climate change, identity, immigration, terrorism, among them. There was dire need to rethink many of these and if the world required Trump to revitalize the debates, it has only itself to blame. In large measure, Trump is an outcome of not paying heed to what was going on under our noses but escaped attention because of the ideological biases of prosperous and uncaring ruling elites.

The ‘boiling frog’ analogy comes to mind: a frog dropped in boiling water will jump out but if placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it would not perceive the danger and be cooked to death. With the continuation of the mainstream status quo, had Hillary Clinton been elected president of the United States, there is little doubt we would have died in any number of ways because nothing would have changed till it was too late. Either climate change would have overtaken us before we reacted to its dangers while countries continued to bicker amongst themselves; or the neo-imperialist wars in the Middle East would have been intensified with the penchant for regime change to promote American values; or globalization would have have continued unabated enriching a few and reducing the rest of the world to a state of precarious uncertainty.

With Trump, we have been dumped into boiling water. Many of the simmering threats are being desperately examined anew, some, ironically, because  Trump has a much more cavalier attitude towards them. Take global warming, for example, where the Trump team is stocked with climate change deniers. It is precisely because the threat is now so in one’s face that activists have shed their complacency and are seeking new ways to revitalize their efforts. The same is the case with many other issues in which there has been a surge in theoretical revision, community activism, and grassroots mobilization. South Asians ought to look particularly carefully at Professor Amartya Sen’s critique of electoral systems based on the first-past-the-post criterion, a key contributor to Trump’s success.

One way to think of this radically new environment is in terms of a lottery. The status quo offered an almost sure bet of muddling through for another few decades before ending in catastrophe. Trump offers a fifty percent chance of instant extinction (his itchy fingers are on the nuclear button) and a fifty percent chance of revitalized political and social order in which many of the existing pathologies would have been addressed. Without the threat of imminent chaos, it is unlikely the resistance would have been galvanized in quite the manner that is now underway. Complacency and inertia would have continued to characterize the prevailing order with its almost inevitable consequences.

Consider, as an example, prevailing attitudes to democratic governance compared to its unremarked degradation. While Fukuyama hailed liberal democracy in the West as the end of history, Huntington lauded Ayub Khan as the ideal leader for the modernizing world that was not ready for democratic rule. Richard Holbrooke characterized the backwardness of developing countries as follows: “Suppose elections are free and fair and those elected are racists, fascists, separatists. That is the dilemma.” Fareed Zakaria was even more to the point: “Consider, for example, the challenge we face across the Islamic world. We recognize the need for democracy in those often-repressive countries. But what if democracy produces an Islamic theocracy, or something like it?”

The fact that democracy had produced a Hitler much before it produced any racists or fascists in the developing world was overlooked but now that it has produced Trump in the heart of the developed world, the doubts about the way democracy has evolved are out in the open and no longer considered the exclusive problem of backward non-White populations. American democracy in particular has morphed into a plutocracy quite at odds with its original design.

Or take the flip side of this alleged lack of fitness of the often-repressive countries, the unchallenged belief in American Exceptionalism. This rebirth of the White Man’s Burden in the age of neo-imperialism argued that the world needed to evolve towards American values while assigning a divine responsibility to the US for the purpose. Enlightenment was to be bestowed on the rest of humanity, making it fit for democracy through selective regime changes and by saving its women from the clutches of oppression.

As recently as a year ago, Obama had declared with pride and conviction that “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being.” Now, barely six months into the Trump presidency, the veil has been ripped off American values regarding women and minorities and the reality of the US first policy that has wreaked havoc in the world exposed for all to see. As a result, European countries are already envisioning a future with a severely diminished political and ideological leadership role for the USA.

Nearer home, ordinary Pakistanis, if they pause to reflect, should also be grateful to Trump for calling out their country’s selective cat-and-mouse game with terrorism. Pakistan’s Afghanistan policy has been unsuccessful at best and at worst has imperiled the future of the nation via its economic cost, social damage, and political isolation. It would have continued unchallenged but for Trump raising the ante by laying aside the niceties and evasions that characterized the US-Pakistan dialogue under earlier presidents. The new bluntness and proposed regional realignment offer a glimmer of hope for an overdue questioning and a review under duress of Pakistan’s damaging security paradigm.

The world may not survive Trump, but if it does, many, including long-suffering Pakistanis, would have a lot to thank him for.

This opinion appeared in Dawn on September 5, 2017 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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Nergis Mavalvala and Umar Khalid

February 23, 2016

I admire Dr. Nergis Mavalvala as much as the next person. Anyone with a similar track record and set of accomplishments deserves to be admired. What I find incongruous is the Pakistani media taking ownership of those accomplishments simply because she was born and educated up to high school in Pakistan.

There are so many ironies here that it is painful to even point them out. To start with, Dr. Mavalvala has given up Pakistan – by her own admission she has not visited Pakistan much in the last thirty years since she left after high school. No blame is to be attached to her on that account – if she wanted to be and progress as an astrophysicist, she could not have done so in Pakistan.

But beyond that, there was really no reason for her to visit Pakistan since most of her immediate and extended family had settled abroad. Nergis Mavalvala left Pakistan since it could not provide an education in astrophysics – that is typical of poor countries. But Pakistan closed the door to her involvement with the country by divesting itself of her entire immediate and extended family, indeed an entire community, as well – a community that had a tremendous contribution to the civic, aesthetic, and corporate culture of Pakistan. That eventuality had very little to with poverty and everything to do with intolerance. It is indeed odd to drive an entire community away and then lay claim to its accomplishments.

Consider next how fortunate Nergis Mavalvala was to have attended high school in the best institution in Karachi. Would she have achieved as much if the luck of the draw had consigned her to Government Girls High School No. 2 in Abbottabad? Or, if out of financial necessity or misplaced love for Pakistan, she had continued on at DJ Science College instead of going on to Wellesley? Could one stretch the logic to claim that she would have been even more fortunate if she had been born and attended high school in the US in the first place?

What exactly are we celebrating when the truth of the matter is that Pakistani schools and colleges are holding back if not entirely suffocating hundreds of potential Nergis Mavalvalas every year? Nergis Mavalvala was among the lucky few who escaped the destiny of the majority of students in the country. Isn’t that the real question that needs to be asked when reflecting on the achievement of Dr. Mavalvala?

Consider how Nergis Mavalvala became interested in her subject in the first place:

I was pretty young when I started to learn about the night sky. I used to live in the Clifton neighbourhood in an apartment building and would go to the rooftop of the building on certain nights of the year when there were meteor showers and look at meteorites … I had this kind of typical wonder about the universe. I was also extremely interested in how the universe began. That was formed because I did not believe in any other religious explanation for these things even as a child.

Imagine a promising student of science at a college in Pakistan stating that he or she did not subscribe to any religious explanation for the creation of the universe. The very attitude that Nergis Mavalvala identifies as the cause of her later achievements would have led to a fate worse than death for the Pakistani student. Once again, what exactly is being celebrated when the curiosity that is essential to scientific endeavor is simultaneously condemned as tantamount to blasphemy?

This kind of schizophrenic blindness and unexamined duality is rife in Pakistan. Take, for example, the boastful claim that Indian classical music owes its greatness almost entirely to the contribution of Muslims while at the same time insisting that music is un-Islamic? Amir Khusro is Hazrat Amir Khusro when accomplishments are to be appropriated while he is at the same time the inventor of the accursed sitar and table that contributed to destruction of Muslim rule in India.

Shamsheer-o-sana awwal/Taoos-o-rubab aakhir
(First the sword and the spear/At the end the zither and the lute)

Just a little bit of study into the history of music and of the Mughal Empire in India would show how bogus and misplaced such claims are. Not surprisingly, we have eliminated the study of history from the curriculum, there are no worthwhile doctoral programs with qualified faculty to supervise research, and no students who would want to risk their lives with unsafe subjects that would brand them as anti-national and anti-religious at the outset of their careers. At the same time, people hold on to very strong opinions without wanting to subject them to any kind of open inquiry. Even asking a simple question might help initiate a promising discussion if thinking were encouraged as a safe habit: Why was the Mughal Empire in India replaced by the rule of those whose religion allowed not only music but dance and wine much more and openly so compared to that of the Mughals? One might uncover some new and surprising aspects of our history just as Dr. Mavalvala uncovered some new aspects of gravitational waves.

We will never do so because the very act of thinking has become synonymous with being anti-national in Pakistan. There is no protection for the questioner from the guardians of the faith and no safe space for questioning like Government College, Lahore used to be in the 1940s. That India is in the danger of following suit was a point articulated very eloquently by Umar Khalid during the on-going controversy at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. It was quite fitting for him to conclude his address with the call “Anti-nationals of the world unite.”

Thinking of Umar Khalid, imagine a student making a speech like his on a campus in Pakistan. Imagine him or her saying what Umar Khalid said including the statement that he did not think of himself as a Muslim. What would his or her fate be?

Let us celebrate the achievements of Dr. Nergis Mavalvala by all means, keeping in perspective that such achievements are the norm in institutes of higher education in countries where students and researchers are allowed to think and question all orthodoxies. But more than that, let us use the occasion to reflect on why everyone who wants to think independently has to leave Pakistan or fear for their lives to do so. Let us reflect on the need for a protected space like that of Jawaharlal Nehru University and heed the words of Umar Khalid at the same time.

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The Media and Other Problems

January 27, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

At the recent recording in Karachi of a TV talk show – ‘Pakistan-US Relations: What’s the Problem with America?’ – during the warm-up before filming began, a member of the audience asked why the problem was deemed to be with America and not Pakistan, or, at the very least, both.

The anchor had a ready answer, suggesting he had heard the kind of question before. He argued he had a huge audience including sophisticated viewers in the auditorium and in drawing-rooms but many more ordinary people in the shanties of Lyari, FATA, Khuzdar, Mirpur Sakro, etc. Framing the issue in a neutral manner would trigger channel-switching by the latter and a loss of viewers – to get something across, it had to be provocative without challenging the biases of the audience.

This interaction started me thinking about the media. We accept that in many countries state-controlled media ends up being used for propaganda, the negative impacts of which are unambiguous. We also recognize that private media in a market economy, like the channel whose show we were seeing, is owned by big capital and driven by profit. There is less agreement, though, over the influence of the latter on its audience, especially in a country like Pakistan, where television is such a dominant source of information.

In the best of all possible worlds, a free and competitive media would expose the audience to information from a range of perspectives, a function essential to the working of a democracy. This range of viewpoints, theoretically, helps people form opinions based on multiple sources of information, their opinions translating ultimately into votes.

But in a market economy, information providers are driven primarily by the imperative to make a profit. Education is at best a secondary goal. Thus the bulk of media offerings is comprised of entertainment, sports, and merchandising, above all. The marketing of ideas is part of the same calculus: it has to translate into eyeballs, and shape purchases, not votes. Hence, the framing of the talk show with its focus on the ‘problem’ with America, a supposedly easy sell at this time and to this audience.

The control of media by big capital also means that the ideas aired reflect particular, usually powerful interests, and it is rare to see consistent presentation of alternative perspectives that challenge the dominant interests. Add to this the reality of the residual control of the state in Pakistan and it is not surprising that the ideas presented seldom drift too far away from accepted narratives. The role of the organs of the Pakistani state in shaping relations with other countries, near and far, is an obvious example. Can we ever have serious and open discussion about this aspect of our reality?

The fallout is that while the old state-controlled media inculcated the mindset that all of Pakistan’s problems were due to external agents, the privately-owned free media is playing to those very same prejudices and deepening them. In the calculus of profit, any unfamiliar frame of reference would not sell as well – or, at least, so goes the prejudice of the sophisticated: “ordinary people,” we are told, are averse to open and balanced discussions.

Add to that a limitation the anchor had also proffered to the gathered students – that a talk show was not long enough to explore any issue in depth, even if one wanted to in the first place. The purpose of a talk show in Pakistan it seems is to transfer the most readily acceptable sound bites in the most entertaining format to the largest possible audience.

What then constitutes the freedom of the unregulated free media in Pakistan? It is free to determine who can be more successful in the ratings game by playing to pre-existing prejudices. There is fierce competition to see who can most jazz up a limited slice of half-truth. What can be a better analogy than skin-whitening cream – every producer hyping up its brand while the bottom line remains that none of them work. Ideas in the privately-run free-market economy are reduced to the equivalent of Fair and Lovely – attractive but without foundation. Freedom to propagate without challenge is no guarantee of the dissemination of truth.

The show was being recorded in the very impressive auditorium of the brand-new Habib University in Karachi and the institutional motto – stressing respect, grace, excellence and self-reflection – was proudly emblazoned on the backdrop. As it crossed my eyes, I had the feeling that the problem was perhaps bigger than one simple talk show or even the perennially fraught topic of US-Pakistan relations.

It goes without saying that understanding calls for reflection and self-reflection most of all. Not only was there little thoughtfulness and no self-reflection in the exercise underway, there was an implication we seemed to have overlooked. My own self-reflection suggested the university might have made a mistake by ceding control and initiative to the talk show. In the eagerness to showcase itself, it might have helped reproduce the same mindset it was established to challenge. By the end of the show I was not certain who had been the bigger loser.

As the panelists shook off the barrage of aggressive and leading questions and the bewildered audience filtered out, it occurred to me that educational institutions could do better. Universities and colleges have the mandate to educate and are meant to encourage thoughtful self-reflection. Recording a much more nuanced show itself and disseminating it under its own control would yield a product more in consonance with its vision. The challenge for Habib University is to learn from the experience and to lead the way in reshaping the future – something that underlines its stated commitment to Pakistan.

Anjum Altaf is the provost at Habib University. This op-ed appeared in The News on January 20, 2015 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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Policy: Prescription, Analysis and Hot Air

April 24, 2013

There is a huge difference between policy prescription and policy analysis and the first without the second is a waste.

I come across this gulf everyday in discussions of issues like health or environment or urbanization but let me illustrate with an example from education.

So, I am reading this op-ed in a leading newspaper of the country and I am presented with the usual litany of woes: declining standards, lowest per capita spending in the world, ignorant teachers, ghost schools, different systems for rich and poor, medium of instruction, blah, blah, blah.

There follows a dire warning: this would destroy the country. (more…)