Archive for the ‘Democracy’ Category

Finessing Brexit

February 14, 2019

By Anjum Altaf

The lessons from Brexit for democracy and the democratic process are significant and general enough to repay attention even for those whose interest in British politics might be quite limited.

First, it should be quite clear that meta-issues involving complex economic and political dimensions with uncertain outcomes are not suitable for referenda offering binary YES or NO choices. Representative democracy exists for the sensible exercise of judgement on such issues by those elected by the voters to act in their interest. If the latter conclude that their interests are being ignored for any reason, they can change their representatives rather than take decisionmaking into their own hands.

Consider also how unstable the outcome of such a referendum can be with just a slight alteration. Suppose the choices to be voted on in the case of the UK had been, instead of a straightforward YES or NO, the following: Remain, Leave unilaterally, or Leave with a deal that ensures X, Y, and Z. Can anyone guarantee that the outcome would have remained unchanged?   

There does remain a place for referenda even within representative democracy for choices of a much simpler nature, say, on whether a bridge ought to built at a particular location in a city. The residents of the city could well provide a YES or NO input into that decision. But a referendum on leaving a customs union involving something as tricky as the future of the Irish border does not belong in the same category. The referendum called by Cameron was a cynical, self-serving ploy that backfired with huge unintended consequences and such ploys ought to be ruled out of order in any system of representative democracy.

Second, there is sufficient evidence that the Leave campaign involved financing irregularities, false advertising, and outright lies to manipulate voters. It is a surprise that there has been no Mueller-like inquiry to determine the very legitimacy of the referendum. The triggering of all decisions consequent on the outcome of the referendum ought to have been put on hold till the conclusion of a thorough investigation clearing the process.

Third, Mrs. May’s insistence that the verdict of the voters has to be honoured no matter what is itself problematic. Quite independent of the fact that the Leave campaign may have involved criminal irregularities, it gives no weight to the cost of the decision to the national economy and political order. Suppose it is determined that the costs are of an order of magnitude higher than anticipated, would one still insist of honouring the “will” of the voters or would one go back to them with an accounting of the possible consequences? Recall that the representatives of the voters rejected the best deal Mrs. May has been able to get from the EU by the biggest margin in recent parliamentary history. As one who voted Remain, Mrs. May’s single-mindedness seems less a devotion to democracy than a way of saying ‘you asked for it so lump it.’ In a representative democracy the parliament needs be more in control of such decisions than the executive.

Fourth, what is to be done in the kind of situation that exists now, presuming, as seems likely the case, that the deal Mrs. May has is the best she can get because the EU will make no further concessions. Given what has been said about referenda above, the option of a second referendum ought to be ruled out — it would be just as problematic as the first one for exactly the same reasons. Whatever the outcome, it would polarize the polity even further and set a terrible precedent.

One possible alternative would be to leverage the strength of the parliamentary system in finding a way forward. Each representative could take back the best deal negotiated over two years to his or her constituency and have it debated transparently in series of open townhouse forums. The constituents would then be asked to vote on the three available options: Accept the deal, Reject the deal and withdraw unilaterally, or Remain as per the status quo ante. The representatives would then take these verdicts back to parliament and vote as instructed by their constituents in a decision that would be binding on the executive.

From the perspective of the democratic process, this alternative has at least two aspects in its favour. First, the representatives will truly voice the will of their constituents and not be ‘whipped’ to voting contrarily by the will of the executive. Second, it would not polarize the polity in the same way that a direct referendum would simply because of an extended roll-out and its intermediation through representatives seen to be bound to the will of the voters. The EU would have to be asked for an extension but that would be well justified by obtaining the informed consent of the citizens.

Recent events across the world have highlighted many problems with modern democracy but the system retains sufficient strengths to repair the damage if leveraged with a minimum amount of good sense.

This opinion appeared in Dawn on February 10, 2019 and is reproduced here with permission of the 

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Lessons from History

September 3, 2018

By Anjum Altaf

Some lessons are very hard-earned and stand out for their stark truth and searing honesty.

Ivan Klima, a well-known Czech novelist, was transported to a concentration camp at the age of ten and was there for four years till the end of WWII in 1945. Many who accompanied him did not survive their internment.

In a deeply-felt memoir of that experience (“A Childhood in Terezin”), Klima recalls two lessons that stayed with him. First, that “Every society that is founded on dishonesty and tolerates crime as an aspect of normal behaviour, be it only among a handful of the elect, while depriving another group, no matter how small, of its honour and even its right to life, condemns itself to moral degeneration and, ultimately, to collapse.”

And, second, “that often it is not the forces of good and evil that do battle with each other, but merely two different evils, in competition for control of the world.”

These lessons came to mind after the recent elections. It has become an aspect of normal behaviour for us to accept whoever is placed on the pedestal unmindful of the path to that place of honour. The pragmatic attitude is to give the beneficiary a chance to prove his or her worth. This largesse extends even to those who foist themselves on the pinnacle by trampling over the Constitution. It is enough that they are seen as sweeping aside others whom they vilified as incompetent and corrupt.  

Klima disabuses us of the notion that something positive can come of acts founded on dishonesty and warns that societies condoning such practices ultimately collapse. And, indeed, Pakistan is evidence of that — it did collapse and is now half the size it was when it started out and falling progressively behind the half it shed.

We don’t have access to our own literature anymore otherwise we would not need Klima to warn us of this truth. Sheikh Saadi said the same many hundred years earlier:

Khisht-e awwal chun nahad miimar kaj
Taa surayya mee rawad miinar kaj

If the first brick is laid crooked by the architect
The minaret will stay crooked even if it reaches the stars

Pakistan is a rare country where we have gotten ourselves into this mode of acceptance of all fait accompli with such lack of concern for the implications. Probing deeper into this phenomenon one finds distinct reasons among different segments in society. For many ordinary citizens it reflects a helplessness in their lack of choice. Almost everyone concedes that elections are not contested on a level playing field and, given that, all they can do is to pray for the best possible outcome under the circumstances. You still root for your team when the captain is appointed unfairly.

There is an indifferent middle but amongst many of the extraordinary citizens, there is evident an unseemly hurry to move on and claim a stake in the largesse that is to be redistributed. The crush of jobseekers standing on their toes raising their hands to be noticed is a sorry sight to behold.

And here Klima’s second lesson, that there is no force of good, only two different evils battling for control of the pie, is sobering. Look at the names that have emerged in the key decision-making positions. It is virtually Musharraf redux. What expectations can one have from people who, when it suits them, have no compunctions serving under a dictator and re-emerge as champions of a new Pakistan when the tide runs?

If we aspire to a democracy we must aim for a level of integrity in our political process. The onus of choosing who is to represent them should rest on the electorate as should the responsibility of replacing those they deem to be incompetent or dishonest or both. The Hand of God is not needed to nudge the wise choices that ignorant voters are unable to see are in their own best interest.

It is true that we are far from conditions postulated for an ideal democracy — individual voters able and free to vote their consciences. Many are constrained to vote otherwise for a host of socioeconomic realities — need for protection, goodwill of patriarchs, family obligations, fear of hellfire, etc. But we accepted a representative system based on universal suffrage knowing all these constraints. The verdict of the electorate has to be accepted notwithstanding all these limitations — after all, our claim to nationhood rests on the electoral verdict of 1946. External interference in this process is a negation of democracy and the kind of dishonesty of which Klima has warned.

If the people are not to be trusted, we should be honest enough to drop the facade of democracy and replace it with a system in which some chosen few are given the right to anoint whomsoever they please in the interest of the nation.  

This opinion was published in Dawn on September 2, 2018 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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Governance Trap

July 18, 2018

By Anjum Altaf

It was back in the time of one of the dictators who was giving the Pakistani political system one of its fresh starts. He had given a message to the people to take advantage of new elections and replace dishonest incumbents by voting for “good” people. At the time I was doing fieldwork in rural Sindh in a constituency where the incumbent was a known criminal and I put the proposition to a peasant asking him if he would vote for a “good” candidate. The illiterate peasant took all of three seconds, looked me in the eye, and replied: “Saeen, will the good man get my son out of prison?”

Therein lies the insight that goes to the heart of the Pakistani political system. It is obvious to illiterate voters but escapes many a sophisticated analyst. In our deeply hierarchical society, most people are dependent on patrons who can act as intermediaries with the state — both to negotiate legitimate claims of the powerless and to protect them from exploitation. In such a context, there is no place for “good” representatives — the more powerful and connected the patron, the better. Not surprisingly, voters are indifferent to the criminality of the patron, nor are they concerned when their political representative hops from one party to another. In fact, it is considered a quality of a powerful patron that he is always aligned with the winning side in order to better leverage the organs of the state.

Analysts who use terms like ‘alas,’ ‘if only,’ and ‘unfortunately’ in their expositions of Pakistani politics and bemoan voter indifference to party-hopping miss the point entirely. It is not that but for a few favourable turns of fortune Pakistan would have been in a much more healthy political state. The problem is deeply structural. Pakistan has been enmeshed from the very beginning in a governance trap and there are no prospects of escape without structural interventions. The proof of the first part of this assertion is that no matter how many times in the past the system of governance has been given a so-called fresh start it has ended up not just exactly in the same dysfunctional state but in a worse one.

Anyone who doubts this claim needs only to look beyond his or her nose. Observe what is happening to Imran Khan’s party. The leader who promised to eliminate corruption in hundred days with a hundred honest people is furiously surrounding himself with the same old characters he was decrying a few months ago. One can infer how the structural imperatives of the electoral system are squeezing out the “good” candidates.

In this structural scenario, it is incredibly naive to hear the opinion that Imran Khan deserves a chance because he is an untainted newcomer while everyone else has had a turn and that once he has had his stint the political system would attain a higher equilibrium. What is there to guarantee that after another messy round of misgovernance there would not be another newcomer claiming the right to have his or her turn at the wheel? Repeating the same process based on nothing more than hopes and prayers is not a sign of wisdom.

The governance trap described above is immune to the personality of the leader because the problem is structural. Neither the upright Ayub, the cosmopolitan Bhutto, the pious Zia, the liberal Musharraf, nor the pragmatic Sharif could effect any sustainable reform in governance that made a meaningful difference in the lives of the majority.

The major structural determinant of Pakistan’s governance system that is responsible for its pathological circularity is the reality that the protection of citizens is ensured by the same person who is meant to represent their electoral preferences. Only when these two functions are separated, rights being ensured by neutral and effective institutions and political preferences being channeled by elected representatives, can a semblance of the democratic ideal emerge. A democratic political system rests on a foundation of law and order, impersonal entitlement to rights, and recourse to a fair system of justice. As long as citizens need to appeal to their political representatives to get their sons out of jail, their mothers admitted to hospitals, or find their nephews a job in a state-owned enterprise, we will continue to recreate the same dispensation no matter how many times the process is repeated.

Of course, it should be obvious that the above-mentioned institutional transformation is very far in the future in Pakistan and cannot be hurried beyond a point. These transformations occurred in Europe over centuries of democratic struggle. They cannot be expected in countries without a tradition of mass struggle and where the system of governance is a legacy of a departing colonial power.

In our socioeconomic context, the only recourse is to lobby for changes in constitutional and electoral rules that can be leveraged to minimize the negative attributes of the present system. For example, what is there to prevent introducing a rule that any candidate who switches political parties a year before a forthcoming election would have to sit out the election cycle? Why should parties be allowed to indulge in horse-trading in nominating candidates instead of instituting party primaries in which voters also have a say? Why do we have constituency delimitations in which the urban vote is under-represented? Why should we be stuck with the first-past-the-post system in which spoiler parties can be introduced to fracture the vote? Why do we need a parliamentary system in which even a very competent leader cannot survive without a large number of local strongmen?

It is not really a surprise that very little attention has been devoted to discussing the set of electoral rules that can lead to distinct improvements in political representation. Rather, it is much easier and much more entertaining to focus on a horse-race speculating about odds and handicaps and the shenanigans of the linesmen and the referees. It is such short-termism that portends a bleak future in which all we can hope for is more of the same if we are lucky.   

This opinion was published in Dawn on July 16, 2018, and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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Delimitation and Equal Representation of the Urban Vote

January 21, 2018

By Anjum Altaf

Gerrymander

It should be obvious that alternative ways of drawing constituency boundaries can significantly influence electoral outcomes. An historical example can make the point: the 2003 redistricting (the term used in the U.S.) in Texas, spanning the 2002 and 2004 elections, changed the composition of its delegation to the U.S. Congress from 15 Republicans and 17 Democrats to 21 Republicans and 11 Democrats (1).

It is no wonder that redistricting is a hot issue in the U.S. whose fairness has been the subject of repeated Supreme Court reviews. There the deliberate manipulation of boundaries to influence electoral outcomes, termed gerrymandering, is along two lines – favouring one party over another, as in the case mentioned above, or attempting to reduce the representation of racial minorities (2).

In this context it is surprising to find no analysis of past practise in Pakistan nor much interest now that we are undergoing the process after a gap of nearly 20 years. This could suggest universal agreement on the fairness of the delimitation process in the country. Even so, one should be curious to know if any biases exist in past exercises and how they have evolved under changing demographics over time.

Continuing urbanization suggests the issue could be important with the distinct possibility that the urban population is under-represented in the legislature. Historical parallels can be employed again to underscore the relevance. The 1919 election in Germany is considered the first truly fair one because it was the first held after scrapping constituencies that grossly over-represented rural areas (3). In India, where about a third of the overall population is recorded as urban, only about 85 of the 543 constituencies for the Lok Sabha, or under 15 per cent, have a majority urban population (4, 5).

How can such under-representation of the urban electorate come about? Simply, by “splitting” the urban population into a number of seats most of which have rural majorities. This can be shown easily with an hypothetical example. Imagine a district with a population of 4 million including a city of 1 million and suppose the population per electoral seat is also 1 million yielding a total of 4 seats for the district. Constituency boundaries can be drawn such that there is a constituency with an urban population of 1 million and 3 constituencies with rural populations of a million each. On the other hand, the urban population can be split to yield the following 4 constituencies (populations in millions with U and R representing urban and rural shares, respectively) (i) .3U, .7R; (ii) .3U, .7R; (iii) .4U, .6R; (iv) 0U, 1R.

The urban population is fairly represented in the first case – 25% of the population having 25% of the seats. With the second set, it is completely unrepresented with no seats at all. The actual situation in Pakistan is likely to be one, as in India, where the urban population is considerably under-represented in the legislature.   

Asides from the fact that urban-based political parties have much to lose from dilution of the urban vote, there are other negative consequences of such under-representation, if it exists. First, the constitution guarantees each citizen a vote of equal value and under-representation devalues that of the urban citizen. Second, Election Commission guidelines stipulate that constituencies be demarcated such that homogeneity of the community is ensured. Urban and rural communities are, however, very heterogeneous and one can expect a representative dependent on a rural majority to neglect the interests of the rump of urban voters in his/her constituency (6).

It can be inferred from the above that unless cities and towns acquire a political voice commensurate with their numbers they will lack the attention they need to serve their residents nor get the resource allocations needed for national development. The latter is relevant since almost three-fourths of gross domestic output of the country now emanates from urban areas.

Over the years observers have noted the persistent dominance of “feudals” in legislatures, the term used loosely to denote members of notable families repeatedly elected on the basis of dependent clienteles that are much more a feature of rural than urban demographics. Since such rural clienteles are easier to control it is natural that the beneficiaries would not want the status quo to change in their constituencies. It is therefore reasonable to speculate that medium and small urban centers would be split almost entirely into constituencies with rural majorities, a speculation supported by their condition. Only a rigorous study can provide the evidence for a correction like the one that marked the beginning of fair representation in Germany.

It is also of interest to consider why delimitation or redistricting is so contentious in the U.S. and so ignored in Pakistan. It could be because there are easier alternatives available to the establishment and political parties to influence electoral outcomes in Pakistan – these include, rigging, bribing, inducing military takeovers, and outright dismissals of governments. No such measures are available to political parties in the U.S. forcing them to rely on indirect methods like redistricting and the Electoral College. It is therefore not a surprise that in the US the redistricting process has been retained under the political control of state legislatures while most other countries, including Pakistan, have  transferred it to the jurisdiction of neutral commissions.

This last observation raises a related issue meriting attention in Pakistan. Election laws stipulate that electoral constituencies should preferably lie within district boundaries which means that creating new districts perforce necessitates delimitation. Since creating new districts is a political prerogative in Pakistan one can speculate that it could have had underlying electoral imperatives. A retrospective study could test this hypothesis since the stated rationale of better governance advanced for the creation of new districts cannot bear the weight of objective evidence.

An analytical exercise seems warranted with the objective of ensuring that election outcomes reflect the popular will and that the preferences of voters are translated faithfully into policy outcomes. Both these are dependent on unbiased representation (7).

References

1. Handley, Lisa. “Challenging the Norms and Standards of Election Administration: Boundary Delimitation”  in Challenging the Norms and Standards of Election Administration (IFES, 2007), p. 59-74. Accessed at: https://ifes.org/sites/default/files/4_ifes_challenging_election_norms_and_standards_wp_bndel.pdf

2. Roth, Zachary. “Will the Court Kill the Gerrymander,” New York Review of Books, January 11, 2018. Accessed at: http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2018/01/11/will-the-court-kill-the-gerrymander/

3. German Federal Elections, 1919. Wikipedia. Accessed at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_federal_election,_1919 

4. Lall, Rajiv. “AAP and the Politics of Urbanization,” January 15, 2014. Accessed at: http://smartinvestor.business-standard.com/pf/Pfnews-221727-Pfnewsdet-Rajiv_Lall_AAP_and_the_politics_of_urbanisation.htm#.WmQ9G9WWbrd

5. Kumar, Sanjay. “Delimitation of Constituencies,” in The Hindu, September 17, 2001. Accessed at: http://www.thehindu.com/2001/09/17/stories/05172524.htm

6. Election Commission of Pakistan. “How to Demarch Constituencies,” 2017. Accessed at: https://www.ecp.gov.pk/frmGenericPage.aspx?PageID=3049

7. Verma, A.K. “Delimitation in India: Methodological Issues,” in Economic and Political Weekly, March 4, 2006. Accessed at: http://www.democracy-asia.org/resourcesondemocracy/Delimitation%20in%20India%20-Methodological%20Issues_akverma.pdf

The writer was dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS and is currently a fellow at the Consortium for Development Policy Research in Lahore, Pakistan. This opinion was published in Dawn on January 20, 2018 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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CSS Questions: Ideology or Science

June 10, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

In connection with the much discussed concerns with the performance of the civil service in Pakistan, I have suggested that in addition to obvious factors like the quality of education in the country and the terms and conditions of employment during service, it might be useful to look at the particulars of the selection test itself. The objective would be to assess how the test impacts the behavior of candidates and whether it encourages self-selection of particular types of candidates.

The argument can be motivated with one illustrative question from the compulsory Islamiat paper downloaded from the version of the 2015 CSS examination available on the website of the Federal Public Service Commission. The question is as follows:

“Highlight the importance of Zakat and prove that economic stability of a society can be ensured through its effective implementation.”

Now consider the implications of the question. First, note the word ‘prove’ which is generally used in the context of propositions that are known to be factually true and whose truth is to be demonstrated by empirical verification or logical argumentation. The proposition that the earth is round or that the theorem of Pythagoras holds are familiar examples. Is there really any way to convincingly prove in this sense an article of faith asserting that a religious obligation can ensure economic stability of a society? Is there really any need to prove an article of faith?

Second, assume that nevertheless an attempt is made to prove the proposition. Does the question provide acceptable clarity on what is meant by ‘economic stability of a society’ the existence of which is to be proved? What are the indicators that characterize economic stability? What is to be considered the distinction between stability and instability?

Third, consider the question in a broader economic context. As an obligatory payment levied on wealth and earmarked for poverty alleviation, Zakat is only one instrument among many other economic instruments and policies. Is it realistic to imply that just one instrument can ensure economic stability in a society if many of the other policies are poorly conceived and implemented? Would it suffice if, say, the economy is undergoing hyperinflation?

Fourth, consider the empirical evidence. Zakat is not only widely practised in Pakistan but also compulsorily collected by the state. Many would claim it has not led to an acceptable level of economic stability, however defined, in the country. The only argument that can be advanced to defend the proposition is the counterfactual one, i.e., that if Zakat were to be implemented ‘effectively’ the objective would be achieved. This reverts to being an article of faith leaving no room to argue that a single instrument, no matter how effectively implemented, might not be sufficient to guarantee economic stability in a society.

Fifth, and most importantly, consider the dilemma of candidates faced with this question. Quite independent of their individual opinions, would anyone risk offering an answer that might be contrary to the belief of an unknown examiner? Would they jeopardise the chance of a prestigious career by expressing intelligent opinions no matter how well argued? Would there be some candidates who would balk at the need to argue contrary to their experiential understanding and what would be the price of their intellectual honesty?

What is the likely outcome of posing this type of question? Zakat is a staple topic that is repeated every few years. It has a safe and acceptable answer that is available for memorization. My guess is that the majority of the candidates would opt for a safety-first strategy and give the examiners what they presume the latter are looking for. As a result the answers would be fairly similar and standard reflecting no original thought. This contention could be easily verified by reviewing the answers to this question submitted by successful candidates.

It is possible to frame the same question in a much more neutral manner. One rephrasing could be as follows:

“Many countries rely on a wealth tax to smooth economic inequalities in society. Is there an analogous instrument in Islam? If so, describe briefly the principal characteristics of the instrument. Is the effective implementation of a wealth tax sufficient to alleviate absolute poverty in a society? If yes, describe briefly how that can be achieved in Pakistan. If not, what other measures might be needed to achieve the objective?”

Such a reformulation would allow students much more leeway to demonstrate their independent thinking and analytical abilities. The question would not be seeking a pre-determined correct answer but a broader knowledge of social issues, the mechanisms available to address them in a religious tradition, and the real-life conditions in which the mechanisms are likely to be sufficient and most effective. These qualities rather than the ability to reproduce unquestioned texts should be what is expected of the candidates inducted into the civil service.

Lest it be thought that I have chosen an unrepresentative question I am reproducing another from the same examination paper:

“Argue for supremacy of Wahi as the solution of human problems against other sources of knowledge.”

Readers will note that it is susceptible to the same limitations as the earlier question in that it leaves room for only one safe and acceptable answer. This is what is termed a loaded question and it is not considered good pedagogical practice to include such faith-based tenets in examinations.

Consider further how this question might be reconciled with the following question posed in the Islamic History and Culture paper:

“The Spanish Muslims established the foundations of Knowledge which become the mile stone (sic) of progress in Europe. Explain.”

Given that the earlier question calls for an argument for the supremacy of Wahi against other sources of knowledge, did Muslims establish Wahi as the foundation of knowledge in Spain? That is unlikely to have been the case since Europe did not rely on it as a milestone in its progress. So the real question might turn out to be about the evolution of knowledge and the reasons for it in Muslim Spain. Such contradictions are bound to emerge if faith and reason are mixed up in this unthinking manner.

The usual response to such arguments is to deflect attention from their logic and suppress discussion by questioning the nationalism or religious faith of the writer. Such a tendency which has grown manifold in Pakistan is itself an outcome of the kinds of tests of faith to which all students are subjected throughout their education. Many people, including examiners, now believe there is only one correct answer to every question and it is the answer to which they subscribe. Questioning as a quality of mind is to be weeded out rather than encouraged. It is an attitude for which society has to pay a heavy price of which one is the burden of a pliant civil service.

This opinion was published in Express Tribune on June 9, 2017 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission. It is a follow-up to an earlier article, CSS: Probing the Examination.

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CSS: A Summing Up

June 2, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

A diagnosis of the alleged ailments of the Central Superior Services (CSS) requires an evaluation of three independent but interrelated aspects: the quality of the pool of candidates interested in the service; the test that identifies the qualifiers for the service; and the working conditions of the selectees once they join the service.

The average ability of the intake pool is obviously a function of the general quality of education in the country which is considered to be declining. However, given Pakistan’s large population, there is little doubt that more than a few thousand outstanding students graduate each year from the leading educational institutions. This number greatly exceeds the three hundred or so places to be filled in the CSS per annum.

The real issue is that these outstanding graduates are no longer attracted to the CSS. There used to be a time, till almost the end of the 1970s, when the CSS was the most prized career option in the country. This is no longer the case partly because the set of attractive alternatives has expanded greatly over the years. At LUMS I reviewed the career preferences of recent graduates; only two percent wished to join the public sector. The majority aspired to go abroad for education or to join MNCs, international agencies, and global NGOs. Thus the pool of candidates willing to join the CSS is a residual. This is by no means a universal phenomenon; in many countries the civil service continues to remain attractive to top-ranked graduates.

Now consider the second aspect, the selection test that determines who qualifies from among the given pool of applicants. There is a simple criterion by which to assess its effectiveness: Does it identify the most suitable candidates from this pool? The selection can be extremely rigorous and completely meritocratic but the outcome depends entirely on the attribute that is being sought in the ‘most suitable’ candidates.

A stark illustration can highlight the significance of this distinction: When ZA Bhutto was selecting a COAS, was he seeking one most qualified to lead the armed forces (as he should have) or one who would be most subservient to him (as he seemed to do)? It is unlikely the two criteria would have identified the same individual.

The question to ask is whether the CSS selection test places more weight on ideological conformity and pliant behavior than on critical thinking and intellectual independence. And, also, whether the association of competence with knowledge of the English language is excluding otherwise more suitable applicants. These questions can be answered easily by a transparent review of recent examination papers and a random sampling of answers submitted by those taking the test.

Once the most suitable candidates are selected from the available talent pool, their subsequent performance depends on a set of independent factors related to conditions of work. Are civil servants facilitated to perform their assigned responsibilities at their maximum potential? It is almost universally acknowledged that conditions of work have deteriorated over time with civil servants in Pakistan losing the autonomy and constitutional protections shielding them from political pressures. Performance has deteriorated because survival and promotion have become more dependent on pleasing political bosses than on proficiency in the real task of delivering services to citizens.

One can also see how the three aspects discussed above are inter-related. The degrading conditions of employment act to turn away from the civil service many future applicants with a sense of integrity and self-respect. They gravitate to other careers where merit and hard work are better recognized and rewarded.

The establishment, in turn, uses the selection mechanism to attempt to screen out candidates likely to challenge the status quo and ask difficult questions about the prevailing norms of governance. Consciously or unconsciously, adherence to political or ideological positions begins to influence the selection process more than raw talent – loyalty trumps merit. This selection bias, in turn, carries implications for the ability with which the selected civil servants can fulfill the tasks assigned to them.

This review suggests the elements of a comprehensive reform package that could address the problems of performance attributed to the civil service in Pakistan. First, the quality of general education has to be improved so that the pool of applicants to the civil service is better qualified. Second, the prestige of the service has to be restored so that it becomes an attractive career choice for the best graduates. Third, the selection process has to ensure that the most qualified applicants are picked from the available pool of applicants. And fourth, the conditions of service have to be such that civil servants can discharge their responsibilities honestly and efficiently without political interference or intimidation.

These steps are by no means impossible to implement. They imply a reversal of the weaknesses that have undermined the reputation of a service that used to be held in much higher regard in the past.    

This opinion was published in Dawn on May 29, 2017 and is reproduced here with permission of the author. It sums up the arguments presented in three earlier installments: CSS: Danger Alert, CSS: Why English?, and CSS: Probing the Examination.

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CSS: Probing the Examination

April 12, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

It stands to reason that a poor selection test would be unable to identify the best candidates in any given applicant pool. Given the importance of the civil service I reviewed recent CSS written examinations and discovered serious issues of intellectual ineptitude and quality control.

Questions from the 2015 and 2016 examination papers whose scans are posted on the official FPSC website were reviewed. Those mentioned below are faithfully reproduced without  correcting for errors of spelling, capitalization, punctuation or grammar which the alert reader would spot easily. Commentary is avoided for lack of space leaving the reader to identify problems which range from the amusing to the highly problematic. Some would merely confuse applicants while others might force them to dissemble or risk being failed.

Starting with the less serious, a question from the compulsory English Precis and Composition paper asks applicants to correct the following sentence: “We were staying at my sister’s cape’s code vacation home.” From the British History paper: ““Margarte Thatcher is judged to be best post war Prime Minister of England.” Discuss.” From the History of Pakistan and India paper: “Political Parties are responsible for the imposition of Marshal Laws in Pakistan. Comment.” From the Economics paper: “Discuss the Rostow’s stage of growth with special reference to Pakistan.”

Two questions from the International Relations paper: “Critically discuss the fundamental factors of “Greece Economic Crisis” which need huge financial assistance from European Union and IMF as a debt relief to create “a breathing space” to stabilize economy and explain out-of-the-box solution for the crisis-ridden country.” And, “Critically discuss main political, socio-economic and strategic hurdles between “Afghanistan-Pakistan Relations” and how can both countries come out from the Cold War scenario?”

Two questions from the Comparitive (sic) Studies of Major Religions paper: “What was the secret of success of Buddhism and its effects on the Hinduism? Discuss.” “Describe the effects of biography and teachings of great preacher of Hinduism “SHIRI RAM Chandar G” on the society?”

Two questions from the Sociology paper: “Youth is an asset of any nation but Pakistani youth is inclined towards youth bulge. What strategies being an expert suggests the state to put the youth on positive track? Give your suggestions in the light of sociological theories.” And, “Why social stratification is an inevitable for a society? Explain its determinants in the context of Pakistani society.”

Some questions are out of place. From the Anthropology paper: “What are the major Contemporary Social Problems of Pakistan?” Some lack meaningful details. From the English Literature paper: “After their gift exchange, are Della and Jim richer, poorer, or just about where they were at the beginning? Have they made a wise decision in sacrificing their most precious possessions?”

Some questions reveal a sloppiness that comes in the way of a proper understanding of the question. Consider this from the General Knowledge paper: “Jinnah in his Presidential Address to the annual session of All India Muslim League in March 1940 said, “The problem in India is not of an inter-communal character, but manifestly of an international one, and it must be treated as such.” Write note on the Two Nation Theory and the Lahore Resolution of March 1940 in the light of this statement.”

From the Governance and Public Policies paper: “Do you support the representation of public opinion information diffusion in the policy making process? Support your answer with valid justification in the context of policy advocacy.”

More problematic are questions that really allow only one answer to avoid putting a candidate’s chances at risk. Consider this from the General Knowledge paper: “Discuss the prospects and challenges to the construction of “China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.” How will CPEC become a game changer for the region?” From the compulsory Islamiat paper. “Argue for supremacy of ‘Wahi’ as the solution of human problems against other sources of knowledge.” From the Islamic History and Culture paper: ““Administration of Justice” has been the policy of Muslim Rulers throughout History. Explain.”

Other one-sided questions are ambiguous in addition. From the Islamiat paper: “Highlight the importance of Zakat and prove that economic stability of a society can be ensured through its effective implementation.” Some questions combine many of these problems: From the Islamic History and Culture paper: “The Spanish Muslims established the foundations of Knowledge which become the mile stone of progress in Europe. Explain.” And, “Muslim culture in Pakistan is being dominated by European and Hindu Culture. Do you think we need Renaissance and Reformation? Explain.” From the Political Science paper: “Discuss the features of Turkish model of democracy keeping the distinguished position of the armed forces in the Turkish politics.” From the Public Administration paper: “It is easier to make a constitution than to run it. Discuss in the light of Politics Administration dichotomy.” From the International Relations paper: “Discuss the “Moral Dimensions of Pakistan’s Nuclear Programme.” Explain its essential features and justify its offensive gesture which maintained the national and regional strategic balance.”  

The following problems are quite obvious: The questions exhibit very poor command of the English language and manifest thinking in Urdu while transcribing in English. It is ironic that applicants are asked to write their answers in a language over which examiners have such poor control. There are factually incorrect, incomplete and misplaced questions. Most importantly, there are questions with only one safe answer and where matters of faith are asked to be scientifically proved.

It was Oscar Wilde who quipped that “In examinations the foolish ask questions that the wise cannot answer.” This kind of examination would surely rule out the wise in favor of the dull, the timid, and the clever – those who memorize appropriate answers, refrain from speaking their minds, and say what would curry favor. A selection mechanism cannot identify selectees wiser than the selectors. That might explain the dilemma of the civil service in which each cohort is weaker than the one it succeeds. The order is the reverse in societies moving forward.

And consider that this is the state of the premier examination in the country. What might be the fate of the testing of lesser mortals is best left unexplored.

This opinion was published in Dawn on April 11, 2017 and is reproduced here with permission of the author. The first two articles in this series are CSS: Danger Alert and CSS: Why English?

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Land Grants

February 15, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

Is there any other country that rewards government employees with grants of land? The issue is not whether the grants comply with existing rules or follow precedent but whether the practice makes sense in the modern age.

We are no longer living in the age of monarchy or colonial rule when land was gifted at will by the rulers to whomsoever pleased them – just think of the landed gentry we inherited as a result. We are now in the era of democracy in which public resources belong to citizens and are to be used in accordance with their sanction. In our system these decisions are made by their representatives in appropriate legislative forums. If citizens are not satisfied with the decisions of their representatives they have the well-known triad of ‘Exit, Voice, and Loyalty’ to fall back on which itself is a democratic choice. In short, they can ignore, oppose, or support the representatives depending on whether their preferences are being respected or not.

We are also living in the age of science where all authority can be questioned as long as the mode of inquiry itself adheres to a set of acceptable rules. In this case the rules of inquiry are enshrined in the right to information. Since there are no conceivable issues of national security involved in matters pertaining to in-service and retirement benefits of state servants, citizens are quite justified to inquire into the rules applicable to such benefits especially when they involve allocation of public resources.

Therefore, it seems quite reasonable to ask for a transparent disclosure of the rules applicable to land grants at this time. A number of questions are very relevant to the review: Who made these rules? When were they made? Have they been debated and approved by the legislature? How do they vary across services? How do they compare across countries? Etc., etc.

Such a review might yield a number of advantages: A reformulation of benefits in accordance with modern bureaucratic practices, a more equitable distribution across services, and a legitimized dispensation more acceptable to citizens.

At first blush, it does seem that grants in terms of land are an anachronistic practice dating, as mentioned before, to the age of monarchy and colonial rule when jagirs were assigned at will. Some might be aware of the Homestead Acts of the mid-nineteenth century in the US when, for a nominal sum, grants of 160 acres of land were made to any citizen migrating West and willing to settle on and farm the land for at least five years. In all over 270 million acres of public land was given away under these acts.

One should not forget that in the US all this land was stolen from native inhabitants. It is interesting that similar acts were passed in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, all settler colonies with small immigrant populations in which land was also appropriated from native inhabitants. In this day and age one would want to avoid the impression that land is being appropriated from the citizens of Pakistan and distributed to members of a conquering population.

It also does appear from casual observation that the benefits presently assigned to the armed forces in Pakistan are disproportionate to those for other services and to global norms. The people’s representatives might well decide there are sufficient reasons for the discrimination but it would be good to gain the understanding and acceptance of the citizens to avoid controversies in the future.

A flavor of the pros and cons was conveyed in a recent discussion where it was mentioned that since members of the armed forces risked their lives in the service of their country they were entitled to disproportionate benefits. This point was conceded but it was mentioned that those working in coal mines and stone crushing factories exposed themselves to greater risk of death. Not only that, they faced the certainty of shortened lifespans because of lung diseases caused by inhaling the coal and silica dust. These workers were not even compensated for work-related mortality or morbidity. The conclusion was that there was a justification for compensatory awards in the event of death or disability at work but not really for the normal execution of duties for which one received adequate emoluments.

It was also mentioned that since our armed forces were the best in the world they were entitled to benefits exceeding global norms. It is indeed quite acceptable to have higher rewards for services over and above expectations but again it would eliminate areas of contention if the global norms are made part of the public disclosure.

An indirect disadvantage of rewarding government employees in this manner is that still far too many aspire for government service without really wanting to serve in the interest of the public. This may be one reason why there is so little innovative activity in Pakistan. Given that such civil servants have been complicit in the mismanagement of public enterprises, a particularly just solution might be to substitute the allocation of scarce land with shares in bankrupt state-owned enterprises like the steel mill or the national airline. This might create some self-interest to improve the profitability of these assets for the shares to yield value. In a capitalist economy there is no quarrel with becoming rich but it is socially beneficial if fortunes are made by entrepreneurial and managerial ability rather than through capturing rents.

No patriotic Pakistani wishes to malign the institutions of the state but citizens do wish to avoid tarnishing the image of the country by conveying the impression that it is a governed by a kleptocratic and authoritarian clique that assigns resources to itself and stifles discussion through intimidation. A little bit of transparency should dispel all such doubts.

This opinion appeared in Dawn on February 14, 2017 and is reproduced here with permission of the author. There is a logical connection with an earlier post: A DNA Test for Our Democracy

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CSS: Why English?

January 6, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

The most recent written examination for the Central Superior Services (CSS) has been characterized by two stark statistics: a dismal overall success rate of about 2% and a steep failure rate of 92% in English, a compulsory subject.

The first statistic has attracted much attention with commentators attributing the abysmally low pass percentage to the poor standard of education in the country. The second has been cited in passing only as reportage without generating any serious analysis. I believe there is much to be gained by exploring what it reveals.

On face value the CSS results do suggest a declining quality of education in the country, something educationists have been been highlighting for a while. Irrespective of other causes, this is an inevitable consequence of the supply of competent teachers lagging the demand in the absence of any serious investment in teacher training. More than one survey has identified the low quality of many teachers in the school system.

However, little can be done to improve the quality of education in the short term. Critical to any education system are curricula, pedagogical ability, and room for open inquiry. All have to move together for the system to improve in any meaningful sense – changing one or two is not enough. Given the balance of forces in the country, there is little hope that the right combination can be achieved to make a difference to, say, the CSS results in the near term.

The one unexplored aspect in this regard is the nature of the CSS examination itself. It is not at all obvious whether the examination is screening for competence and intelligence or for conformity and compliant behavior. If the latter, the very low success rate may not be an accurate indicator of the quality of the applicant pool.  

Part of this bias in the testing instrument is, I suspect, deliberate. The nature of questions comprising the compulsory papers and the orientation of coaching in preparatory centers lend credence to the hypothesis that the test is consciously screening for a particular type of candidate.

But there is a less obvious bias related to the 92% failure rate in English which raises a profound question: Is it possible to be competent and intelligent without an adequate command of English? If so, how many otherwise qualified applicants are being excluded by the CSS examination? Keep in mind that asides from the compulsory English paper most other papers have to be answered in English as well.

[Consider the double burden under which even the best of the students labor. Here, from the FPSC website, is the instruction accompanying the CSS English Essay paper: “Candidates will be required to write one or more Essay in English. A wide choice of topics will be given. Candidates are expected to reflect comprehensive and research based knowledge on a selected topic. Candidate’s articulation, expression and technical treatment of the style of English Essay writing will be examined.” Pity the examinee attempting to articulate a research-based reflection and expressing it in accordance with the technical treatment of the style of the English essay. English appears as elusive to the examiners as it is to the examinees.]

This is a self-inflicted problem that does have a short-term solution. It may seem radical at the outset to suggest that applicants may be allowed to answer all papers in the language in which they are most comfortable with English being made a non-compulsory paper. But how radical is it really?

Accepting for the moment that competence in English is necessary for Pakistani civil servants, is it not possible to attain this by having the selected candidates undergo intensive language instruction with expert tutors during their first year? How difficult is it for an intelligent adult to learn English as a foreign language? Many Pakistani students awarded scholarships for higher education in European countries are able to learn the languages sufficiently to pursue their degrees. It is by no means an impossible task.

This suggests a radically different approach to selection: Pick the brightest applicants and teach them enough English rather than rejecting potentially superior students because they have been inadequately schooled in the language. The pool of qualified applicants could be expected to increase despite the admittedly poor system of education in the country.

The sceptics should consider the precedent for the selection of British civil servants in Colonial India. The ablest candidates were screened for general competence and subsequently trained in Indian languages under highly qualified teachers at Fort Williams College. Imagine if they had been selected based on prior familiarity with a foreign language.

Improving the health of the ailing civil service in Pakistan is possible. As for all maladies, the first step is a credible diagnosis.

This opinion appeared in Dawn on January 5, 2017, in English and Urdu and is reproduced here with permission of the author. This is the second article in this series. Read the first part here.

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CSS: Danger Alert

December 21, 2016

By Anjum Altaf

The result of the most recent examination for the Central Superior Services (CSS) – in which around 10,000 candidates appeared and 200 passed – has elicited much commentary. Most of it, a lament on the falling standard of education, has been predictable. A different perspective is more intriguing: It lauds the examination for being meritocratic and so rigorous that it selects the very best for the civil service, which, it argues, is all to the good.

Does this claim hold water? I argue otherwise based on evidence, observation, and investigation. First, the evidence: If the claim is correct, the quality of the civil service should have been improving over time. Even insiders accept that is far from the case.

Second, the observation: As one involved with mentoring undergraduates, I have seen the most creative and perceptive students fail the test and the relatively mediocre succeed. This observation so intrigued me that over the past two years I have investigated the experience of students who appeared in the examination.

Here is an example to set one thinking: A student went into the CSS examination with a 94th percentile ranking in the SAT writing test, an A+ in a BA writing and communication course, a 85th percentile ranking in the GRE essay test, and a 100 percentile ranking in the TOEFL. In the CSS English essay he was awarded 12 marks out of 100 and failed. In contrast, a number of students who found writing a coherent paragraph difficult, cleared the essay.

Something was clearly amiss and my investigations led to the following hypothesis: An examination can be strictly meritocratic and extremely rigorous and yet be entirely misleading at the same time.

To pass judgement on an examination one has to know what it is testing for. I can assert with some confidence that the CSS examination is not testing for intelligence or creativity or command over language. Rather, I sense it is testing for obedience to a metanarrative, loyalty to an officially sanctioned ideology, and the forswearing of all questioning of the status quo.

I found that a four-year undergraduate education, even from the best institutions in the country, is not enough to sit the CSS examination successfully. Close to another year of preparation in a coaching centre is needed where students are drilled in what is considered acceptable in answers to typical questions, what authorities are to be cited prominently or avoided at all costs, and even what part of the text is to be highlighted.

Then there are the questions themselves about which candidates are instructed not to express their own opinions. Rather, they are required to demonstrate knowledge of the acceptable answers and reproduce them without error in the required format. Many questions are formulated in ways that leave room for only one acceptable and safe answer.

Smart students entered the year of coaching aware of what it entailed but with the confidence that they could play along to pass the examination and then revert to what they really believed in. While some did survive, many emerged with their personalities altered. This was indoctrination at its most effective. I could not help thinking of the CSS academies as upscale equivalents of the much criticised madrassas. All that might be separating the two would be the back-and-forth swaying.

To summarize: For some years now the examination is selecting those who will “do or die” not those who would “reason why” and I suspect this is being done consciously. I hope I am wrong but to prove that one would need to open up the system for review. I can offer the following suggestion. First, all those who passed the most recent written examination should be administered a standard international test,  ideally at the GRE level since the applicants have completed their undergraduate education. Given that there are only 200 applicants this would be quite affordable and would provide an immediate assessment against a global benchmark of the ability of individuals being inducted into the civil service.

Second,  the CSS examination papers and a random sample of answer books of successful candidates should be given to an international panel representing the selection boards of a number of countries, like the UK, France, and Singapore, with highly regarded civil services. The panel would be charged with identifying weaknesses in the CSS selection system and with recommending appropriate changes.

The intellectual calibre of the civil service is a key attribute in its ability to implement the programs on which the future of the country depends. It is dangerous to start off forcing applicants to dissemble to enter the service and necessary to ensure that their selection screens for the skills and talents needed to be effective. A genuine commitment to civil service reform would be alert to these dangers.

This op-ed appeared in Dawn on December 20, 2016, and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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