Archive for the ‘Governance’ Category

Governance in Pakistan: Context Matters

August 13, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

In real estate, the mantra is Location, Location, Location. In governance, it ought to be Context, Context, Context. But while we have grasped the first, our appreciation of the second is deficient because we emulate first-world practices without sufficient appreciation of our conditions.

Take poverty alleviation as an example. In countries where 80 percent of the population is affluent and 20 percent in distress, there are many ways of addressing the situation using transfer payments. Reverse the percentages and all those remedies become financially infeasible. The surplus does not exist to sustain them. Countries like China and South Korea have reduced poverty by creating jobs not by distributing welfare.

Apply the same analogy to governance. In countries where 80 percent of public servants are law abiding and 20 percent otherwise, there are a certain number of ways available to ensure accountability without derailing the system. Reverse the percentages and none of those ways are likely to yield the desired results without unintended consequences.

Let’s put this to the test and ask on oath all holders of public offices in Pakistan to raise their hands if they believe they are honest as determined by the limited criterion on which the prime minister has been disqualified, i.e., for not declaring an income that was due but not received. Then add, as one should, the criterion of incomes received but not due. Let us then subject them to an investigation with no statute of limitations by teams including members of the intelligence services.

How many do we expect standing at the end of the day and do we really believe we can run federal and local governments and public agencies with this number of individuals? If we don’t, we have to admit that attempting to eliminate dishonesty via such a top-down approach is either an example of intellectual bankruptcy or of mendacity and abuse of power.

And that brings us to the crux of the contextual issue. In countries where 80 percent of public servants are unlikely to withstand scrutiny, who shall guard the guardians? Giving discretionary powers to some agents of the state like inspectors, regulators and policemen to apprehend violators is only going to end with endless side deals in which millions of Rupees change hands without any impact on accountability or corruption. Rather, people will invest money in cultivating networks and godfathers that protect them or find ever more creative means to beat the system.

Is it any wonder that the kinds of accountability agencies that deliver in rich countries only end up being used to harass and nab political and business opponents in poor ones? At the worst of times the guardians end up striking deals, proclaiming amnesties, and forgiving each other. At the best of times, one or the other gets run over and the game begins anew with the distribution of sweets, high hopes and loud proclamations that not even the short-term winners believe.

It is hard to conceive that the intelligentsia applauding the elimination of corruption in such a partisan and blood-thirsty manner does not see that it makes no structural difference whatsoever. In this regard, the understanding of common people is much more sophisticated. They are under no illusion that any of their public representatives are, or are likely to be, honest and truthful. Ask the person on the street and he or she would inform you without a moment’s hesitation that “they are all thieves.”

Given their appreciation of the context in which it is virtually impossible for an upright individual to be elected, what then is the criterion they employ to choose their representatives? Very simply, they base their choice on the pragmatic consideration of which thief or set of thieves is going to deliver more for them or their community. Whether this is a sound criterion or not, it is much more in consonance with the socioeconomic reality than the good intentions of the saviours of the nation who supplant the choice of the people with their own, often biased and self-interested, selection of kosher representatives.

This argument is not to suggest that nothing should be done about corruption, only that the way we are going about it is at best foolish and at worst dishonest. We need to find structural remedies for structural problems and these can only be sought in the intelligent reformulation of constitutional and bureaucratic rules. Term limits, shorter electoral cycles, staggering of national, provincial and district elections, recall provisions, and credible due processes are only the most obvious places to start but there are many other reforms to limit the abuse of power and strengthen the hands of citizens and voters.

None of these would be possible unless we pay attention to the context in which we exist and operate.

This opinion appeared in Dawn on August 2, 2017 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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A Unique Ruling Class

March 30, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

Do you remember the time when the necklace donated by the Turkish first lady for flood victims disappeared? After much search it was discovered in the possession of the prime minister of Pakistan. The explanation he offered was that he had close ties with the first family and first lady was like a sister to him – “The necklace belongs to my sister and is with me.”

Now the former chief executive and president has disclosed that the Saudi monarch gave him millions of American dollars to buy apartments in Dubai and London because he “was like a brother to me” and “I was the only one with whom he used to smoke.”

Why are only Pakistani leaders fortunate enough to find such generous brothers and sisters and does this phenomenon, beyond its surreal aspects, merit some serious deliberation? We know of rulers patronized for being the ‘running dogs of imperialism’ as the Chinese used to call them, but is there any other country whose leaders get tips worth millions of dollars just for being nice guys loitering around swimming pools?

Just in our neighborhood, can you imagine, say, Manmohan Singh or Vajpayee pocketing a cool few million to buy apartments in fancy places? If not, what does it signify about our leadership and is there cause for concern?

What deserves attention is that unlike the leaders of, say, India or China or Vietnam, almost all our leaders have arranged safe havens abroad where they can recuperate when out of power or seek refuge when things get hot – apartments in Dubai, palaces in Jeddah, flats in London, estates in Surrey, villas in France, ranches in Texas and Australia, and who knows what else where. Some leaders are permanently overseas directing affairs from abroad; others move back and forth as the situation demands; some just fly in and fly out.

The reason this matters is because there can be a world of difference between the attitudes of political leaders who know they have to live among their people when out of power and those that know they can flee abroad to the protection of patrons who can engineer their return at suitable moments in the future under some kind of ‘don’t-ask-don’t-tell’ deal.

Besides, leaders anchored abroad needn’t just stop at furnishing their foreign abodes for the occasional sojourn. They can go all the way and park the bulk of their assets in safe havens while retaining just enough running expenses in local currency to suffice for the odd buying and selling that may be necessary to keep the gig afloat.

This is how one can end up with an extractive economy in which the game plan of the leaders becomes impervious to the risk of accountability or citizen pushback. They can extract resources till the very last moment at which time they can take flight, literally with the clothes on their backs, and be safe abroad until some patron or the other engineers their return after a decent interval.

Think of a country as a ship at sea with citizens as passengers and the leader as captain. The fate of ships in which the captain knows he will sink or swim with the passengers is different from that of one in which the captain believes he can bail out at the first wave of a storm. For the latter there is little need to pay attention to the welfare of citizens. Projects and schemes, billed to serve people, are initiated more as a source of funds to be added to the capital abroad – think of where the proceeds of a game-changer like Reko-diq went. And thus the strip-mining cycle continues before our eyes.

These extract-and-escape cycles undermine the legitimacy of the democratic process. In India, political contestation is still between political parties (except in the Naxalite belt where the extractive economy is at its most rapacious). Pakistan, however, is spawning groups that reject electoral politics and aim to destroy the entire rotten system associated with rapacious elites beholden to outsiders. The virulence of this rejection also removes from their consciousness any compunctions about the destructive consequences of their actions. Unlike the despised leaders, these groups consider themselves locally anchored. They can survive on a bare minimum without luxury apartments and believe everyone else should too till the transformation from which the nation would rise purer and stronger.

The contrasting imperatives, incentives and strategies of their respective rulers have led to divergent sociopolitical trajectories in Pakistan and India and thereby to the different prospects for their citizens. While democracy slowly evolves and delivers in India, Pakistan has descended into a civil war without end.

At another level, the real question is the following: Why do our leaders, who make so much of national honor, not comprehend there is another option when offered a gift? It is possible to say NO. It really is.

This opinion was published in Express-Tribune on March 28, 2017 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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Healthcare Needs a Warning Label

March 22, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

Healthcare is dangerous to your health. Ask your neighbor for verification. You will likely hear more than one first-hand experience of someone dead who should be very much alive.

This outcome is unsurprising for three principal reasons related to peculiarities of the industry, social attitudes of the population, and  commercialization of the economy.

First, the industry. Healthcare is a field exhibiting the starkest asymmetry of information between providers and consumers. Every incidence of illness is in some way new and patients have insufficient knowledge to question diagnoses or prescriptions without second opinions and retesting for which there is often no time. In healthcare lives are literally at stake unlike, say, in education, where, if dissatisfied, one can change a child’s school and start again.

Second, social attitudes. People, by and large, still attribute unfavourable outcomes to divine will. Even when convinced of poor service, they rationalize that intentions of providers must have been good but that the patient’s time to die, one way or another, had arrived. This no doubt provides solace to the bereaved but does nothing to hold poor service accountable or provide countervailing pressure for improvement.

Third, commercialization. The logic of the market has now fully permeated the provision of healthcare earlier regarded as a social service yielding providers a respected status in society. Income maximization is now a much more salient motivation. In private conversations, medical professionals even point to the emergence of collusive networks among physicians, laboratory owners, pharmacists, and equipment and medicine suppliers aimed solely at fleecing patients without even the pretence of providing care.

As a result standard norms of economic theory are upended – the free market in healthcare does not minimize cost of service, competition does not drive out bad providers, and it is not only the fittest that survive. Because patients do not have the luxury of withdrawing from the market, poor performance actually increases the revenue transferred to providers as patients shuttle helplessly from one facility to another.

Given these factors, the only way to protect patients is very tight regulation in which the state, the traditional regulator, despite continuing attempts, has failed to measure up to needs. In fact, standards of service and accountability have continued to slip simply because growth in the number of providers and facilities has outstripped regulatory capacity.

While there is no alternative to regulation, it is generally accepted that expecting the state to discharge that function in Pakistan is unrealistic. The record shows that the state politicizes the operations of the regulatory body and compromises its independence. It uses its powers for patronage and does not appoint competent professionals to positions of leadership. Many of the officials it does appoint use the opportunity for rent seeking. There is no other explanation for the number of private medical colleges licensed without adequate faculty and the number of facilities advertising themselves as hospitals without fulfilling basic requirements.

Given that lives are at stake, citizens cannot afford to wait indefinitely for a caring state to emerge. A second-best solution is urgently called for. One alternative is to push to privatize the regulatory function while being cognizant of the private sector’s weaknesses and hedging appropriately in the interest of the citizens.

The only function remaining with the state regulator would be to bid out the regulatory contracts for predefined terms to established private audit firms with reputations to defend. Since this is a major departure, the experiment can be piloted in one sub-district or small city. The private regulator would categorize and register all facilities, ensure compliance with minimum requirements, introduce standard record-keeping protocols, and initiate a regime of random inspections. Based on cumulative review of records, facilities would be assigned quality rankings to be disclosed to citizens. Facilities falling below acceptable standards would be given a limited time to improve to avoid losing their operating license. Registration fees could partly finance the experiment.

In parallel with this privatization, a board of credible individuals would serve as an independent watchdog on behalf of the local population. In addition, the federation of newspapers could nominate a set of journalists to report regularly on the experiment. Thus circumscribed, the second-best alternative could be expected to prove more effective than the state regulator. Based on the results of the pilot, the arrangement could be fine-tuned before expanding its coverage.

For the longer run, however, the existing model of curative care is unsuitable in a country where incomes are low, the incidence of ill-health is high, and basic public health infrastructure – safe water and sanitation, clean air, pest control, etc. – is missing. Populist attempts to make curative care affordable will prove to be unsustainable. We need to transition to a wellness model based on preventive care in which households are visited, monitored, and guided at regular intervals independent of episodes of sickness.

Such a model could also be tried on a pilot basis in one jurisdiction. There are a number of very successful examples to learn from. In 2014, the Director-General of the World Health Organization recommended Cuba’s preventive healthcare model to the entire developing world even though it is not considered politically correct to applaud anything happening in that country. In Cuba, family physicians supported by para-medical staff deliver primary care and preventive services at the local level to panels of patients, about 1,000 patients per physician, with patients and caregivers generally living in the same community.

Even an affluent country like England subscribes to a similar model in which family practitioners and ancillary staff responsible for registered populations of patients act as gatekeepers to specialist care.

Healthcare in Pakistan is out of control and in bad shape and it is up to citizens to articulate alternatives to avoid more tragic losses. This can be a common cause for the rich and poor because not even all the well-off can travel abroad for their check-ups and medical needs.

This opinion appeared in Dawn on March 21, 2017 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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Governance and Human Security

July 28, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

It is useful to raise the chicken-and-egg question in connection with the link between governance and human security: does better governance improve human security or does greater human security lead to better governance? Which basket should we put more of our eggs in?

This is a debatable question and each one of us would gain by thinking it through for ourselves. My own position on the subject was shaped over twenty-five years ago by an interaction in rural Sindh. Since then I have favored the opinion that the causality runs more strongly from human security to governance than the other way around.

In a rural area whose political representative was particularly well known for his misdeeds, I asked a constituent why the voters had not chosen a more “honest” individual. The answer was patient, kind, brief, and spontaneous: “Do you think we do not know what kind of person we have elected? Do you really believe a “good” person would be able to deliver the kinds of things we need to survive here?”

There it was, the micro-foundation of our macro-situation, as it were, in a very few words. The response encapsulated the raw wisdom of those exposed to the vulnerabilities of the real world as opposed to the naive idealism or sly cynicism (take your pick) of those who exhort the election of “good” people whenever the rotten system of governance goes through the charade of a new beginning.

This was the bottom line I took away from the encounter. As long as human security is not assured, as long as fundamental rights (access to justice, access to work) are not impersonally guaranteed, the functions of social and economic protection and of political representation cannot be separated. The need for a powerful patron, the more powerful the better, would continue to dominate the calculus of rational, self-interested voters.

Take democracy as a system of governance and note how Tocqueville describes the conditions for its emergence. “Equality, which makes men independent of one another, naturally gives them the habit and taste to follow nobody’s will but their own in their private affairs…. This love of independence is the first and most striking feature of the political effects of equality…. As each [individual] sees himself little different from his neighbors, he cannot understand why a rule applicable to one man should not be applied to all the rest… and legislative uniformity strikes him as the first condition of good government.”

Talking about Americans in particular, Tocqueville observes: “As for particular privileges granted to towns, families, or individuals, they have forgotten the possibility of such things. It has never come into their heads that one cannot apply the same law uniformly to all parts of one state and all the men living in it… the idea of intermediate powers is obscured and obliterated.”

Tocqueville is very clear about the relationship of equality and independence to the system of governance: “Since in times of equality no man is obliged to put his powers at the disposal of another, and no one has any claim of right to substantial support from his fellow man, each is both independent and weak… Men’s hatred of privilege increases as privileges become rarer and less important, the flame of democratic passion apparently blazing the brighter the less fuel there is to feed it.” On the other hand, “When conditions are unequal, no inequality, however great, offends the eye.”

I am sure it is no surprise to anyone that Pakistan is characterized by extreme inequalities, by the almost total dependence of some on others, by the strong hold of intermediary powers, and also by the acceptance of these conditions by many as a part of our fate. There is not a single political party with significant following that has a sincere agenda advancing human equality and individual human rights in Pakistan. Since political parties with significant following and non-parties with claims to majority support have all had a turn at the helm of affairs, this assertion rests on strong empirical evidence.

In the absence of any advance in human security, everything else remaining the same, the political formation remains immune to meaningful reform. No matter where and how it is restarted, it reverts back to the form that is compatible with the underlying socio-economic realities—a system of patronage based on patron-client relationships. Thus “good” people rarely get elected; the same “not-so-good” people get re-elected in every round; there is always a “king’s” party; voters do not punish their representatives for switching ideologies or allegiances; and always being part of the winning group is considered a mark of great political acumen.

In this scenario the large sums of money being allocated to governance and governance reform continue to yield extremely meager returns, if any. Recent reports suggest that the quality of governance continues to deteriorate. This is no surprise given the lack of political pressure from below, a lack acknowledged by the fact that no political party considers individual human rights an issue around which voters could be mobilized.

What is to be done in the kind of situation that exists in Pakistan? Referring back to Tocqueville does not yield optimistic or practical suggestions: “All the old political powers in Europe, the greatest as well as the least, have been founded in ages of aristocracy, and they represented and were more or less willing to defend the principle of inequality and privilege. To make the new wants and interests prompted by growing equality preponderant in the government, it was therefore necessary to overthrow or coerce the established powers. This led men to make revolutions…. I do not think there is a single country in Europe where the progress of equality has not been preceded or followed by some violent changes in the status of property and of persons and all these changes have been accompanied by much anarchy and license.”

As we well know from the experience of our leftist parties, however, revolutions cannot be willed into being. The demand for individual equality from below must precede the change and be the motivation for the change. We are not yet at the stage where the demand for individual equality is a serious proposition. We are still struggling for the rights of groups, be they nationalities, ethnicities or sects. The struggle has been for Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sindhudesh, Balochistan, not for the advancement of individual human rights in any given geographical area. Despite the rhetoric, it should be no surprise that the creation of Pakistan has made little difference to the human rights of those at the bottom of the social hierarchy.

The struggle of groups and the stage of development it represents is a subject for another discussion. What does need to be reiterated is that the kind of democratic governance compatible with advances in human security rests on the unqualified acceptance of the individual as the unit of decision-making free to decide according to his or her own judgment without fear of coercion or reprisal. It is incompatible with a world in which governance is a zero-sum game between mutually exclusive interest groups whose leaders convince or intimidate their members to vote in accordance with real or presumed group interests. Democracy cannot fulfill its promise in situations where people feel unprotected as individuals and seek security in the membership of antagonistic loyalty groups.

An argument along these lines never fails to invite the inevitable comparison with India. How, in such a perspective, would one account for the continued existence of democratic governance over more than half a century in India compared to the fiasco in Pakistan? There are a number of relevant answers to this question.

First, we are concerned with the quality of governance in general and not with the form of governance in particular. So the relevant question to pose is how much better is the quality of governance in India, especially as it relates to the most vulnerable groups in society? Has India reached the stage where the dependence of one man on another has ended so that the voter can elect a political representative without thinking of his or her needs for human security and economic and social protection? A thoughtful answer is provided by Pratap Bhanu Mehta in his book The Burden of Democracy. After enumerating the many contributions of democracy to Indian life, Mehta notes that it has “not delivered millions of citizens from the abject dictates of poverty” and identifies the dimensions of the reality, as he sees it, as follows: “the impunity of politicians, the high-handedness of government, the absence of minimum reciprocity in civic life, the lurking threat of violence, [and] the weak hold of the rule of law over all sections of society.”

Mehta argues that “it is the texture of social relations in the Indian society that fundamentally thwarts us from realizing the goods of democracy… in all our social and political relationships, procedures, habits of thought, patterns of conduct, the influence of inequality is palpable.” And inequality “imposes the profoundest burden when it is seen as denying individuals the minimum regard due to them, or when it constantly puts them in situations that are humiliating.” In Mehta’s analysis this inequality remains the biggest burden of Indian democracy and the explanation for its discontents.

Second, we have to consider the various pathways that lead to the emergence of a democratic form of government along the lines articulated by Barrington Moore Jr. in his old but still relevant book Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. In the earlier discussion I have focused on the path where the demand for equality from below is a key element in the emergence of democracy, a process that unfolded, for example, in the case of England and France as successive groups (nobles, merchants) with an independent economic base sought to gain power at the expense of the central authority, usually the monarch.[1] However, a democratic form of governance could also result, especially in post-colonial societies inheriting a legacy of electoral politics, from a power vacuum at the top created by the withdrawal of the colonial power and gridlock amongst the elites when there is no one group strong enough to dominate all the others and no other resolution to conflict is possible except some form of compromise. This was the case in India where no one region, ethnic group or institution found itself with the ability or power to dominate all the others. And this has been a major differentiating factor in the comparison with Pakistan.

Mehta notes that “The desire for democracy is in part a desire to have one’s moral worth acknowledged.” But this has not been the pathway to democracy in India. “The significance of India’s democratic experiment was itself disguised by the historical process through which it came about…. It was not the object of ideological passion, it was not born of a deep sense of conviction widely shared, but it was simply the contingent outcome of the conflicts amongst India’s different elites, or an unintended by-product of the British having produced too many lawyers adept in the idioms of modern politics.” Not surprisingly, this pathway has had political positives at the top but few dividends at the bottom: “democracy’s biggest triumph is that it has proven to be an effective—perhaps the only—mechanism for holding India together. It is true that one of the reasons for the relative success of its democracy, and its hanging together as a nation has been the profoundly cross-cutting character of cleavages within Indian society that has made collective action on a large scale, to overthrow the state, quite difficult to mount.”

In elaborating this pathway to democracy in India (a la Barrington Moore Jr.), Mehta highlights the real issue bearing on the relationship between governance and human security in the subcontinent: “India’s experience with democracy is anomalous in one significant sense. India was one of the few societies where a political revolution preceded a social one… India’s social ancien regime survived into democracy relatively intact…. Therefore, the discourse of equality in Indian democracy often seeks to achieve equality between groups. It aims not at liberating individuals from groups or even necessarily eroding the structural logic of the system that makes group rankings possible in the first place.”

Thus, while the form of governance in India has been democratic for over half a century the gains to the bottom rung of the social and economic ladder in terms of human security and individual human rights have been nowhere commensurate. This is not to say that the existence of the democratic form of governance is entirely irrelevant—there is no doubt that it enlarges the political space for those at the bottom, forces a higher level of competence at the top, at least in relative terms, and helps in conflict resolution. But the fact remains that in terms of gains in human security the democratic form of governance is not sufficient or adequate in itself.

Given the above conclusion, placing the eggs in the basket of democracy in Pakistan is likely to leave civil society disappointed in terms of gains in human security. If democracy is being used as a loose codeword for restoration of civilian rule, the focus remains warranted. Civilian rule is preferable to military rule because when dictators run the charade of creating and maintaining a democratic façade it adds innumerable irretrievable complications to national life.[2] However, civilian rule, as has been proven by our experience, is no guarantee of improvements in human security and access to human rights. It only provides a slightly more encouraging starting point for the real struggle that may still not lead anywhere. The social reality is that the political ethos in Pakistan, both of the rulers and of the ruled, remains monarchical. In the age of democracy, elections are the mechanism we are forced to use to settle the succession amongst contenders (both real and the creations of king-makers) to the throne and one that usurpers need to legitimize themselves[3]; the winner of the election, manipulated to a greater or lesser extent, takes absolute control and denies the legitimacy of the opposition often using such medieval devices as forced exile. Rulers, civil or military, very quickly begin to see themselves as monarchs (kings, emperors, or caliphs), all personally anointed by the Almighty with a divine mandate to guide the nation to its salvation. This is an attitude of noblesse oblige, and without any pressure from below (indeed, often with tacit or resigned acceptance) the state has little political incentive to take seriously the issues of those at the bottom of the social hierarchy.[4]

So what is to be done beyond the struggle for civilian rule? In the absence of a political coalition to support the demand for improvements in human rights, civil society groups at the present juncture in Pakistan should look for mechanisms to strengthen the instruments of social control over governments, to weaken the latter’s control over critical areas of resource allocation, and to increase the accountability of its actions. Some aspects of globalization can help in this agenda. For example, the growing importance of the private sector in business driven by competitiveness concerns coupled with the fiscal pressure to privatize state enterprises is stripping the state of key opportunities for distributing patronage. Here, social activists must examine the contradictions in their position whereby they correctly identify the anti-people nature of the Pakistani state yet insist on the same state to deliver key services to the most vulnerable without proposing any mechanism for how this circle is to be squared. The fact remains that, in relative terms, the private sector is easier to hold accountable than the state. There is need to find effective means to enforce the accountability of the private sector. The creation of a citizen’s commission made up of eminent individuals acceptable across the spectrum of civil society groups would be a useful first step to interact with the private sector on behalf of ordinary citizens.

The citizen’s commission could also raise the profile and credibility of interaction with the organs of the state. A critical area is the rule of law where the arbitrary power of the state or of one individual over another needs to be curtailed. Mechanisms need to be found to shelter the judiciary from the predatory powers of the executive and to try to ensure easier and more equitable access to and enforcement of justice. Civil society should devote efforts to wrest a lot more input in the design and staffing of the institutions of government providing justice and enforcing the law and a lot more control over the promotion of officials within these institutions. Once again, we learn from Tocqueville that this is not likely to be an easy struggle: “Unable to do without judges, it [the government] likes at least to choose the judges itself and always to keep them under its hand; that is to say, it puts an appearance of justice, rather than justice itself, between the government and the private person.” Do we need Tocqueville to remind us of this reality in Pakistan? Nevertheless, the efforts need to be made as part of a multi-dimensional strategy to exert pressure on the state.

Other, less difficult, areas need to be identified that can serve to provide the nucleus for autonomous spaces free of state control. Universities are an obvious choice, being the breeding ground for new ideas and reasoned debate, where the legitimacy of state appointments to top positions is very weak and needs to be challenged. Similarly, state appointments to associations representing the arts and sports, do not have any serious rationale. These are areas where a much greater role for a citizen’s commission can be envisaged and advocated.

The accountability of the state can be increased by concretizing its very general promises of delivering benefits to citizens. For example, the state routinely makes the promise to deliver clean drinking water to all citizens within a stipulated time period. Civil society groups could nominate one or two districts in each province as test cases of the government’s credibility and monitor and publicize the progress there on a regular basis. Such efforts could be spread across the spectrum of public services to include health, education, justice, etc. Panels of the citizen’s commission could also strive to win the right to make independent random checks of the efficiency and quality of the public services delivered with the legal authority to make such findings public and claim compensation for damages to the lives or health of citizens.

Civil society needs to be creative in identifying the vulnerabilities of the state at the present time. It was mentioned earlier that in the absence of political pressure from below the state has no reason to take the demands of the majority of its citizen seriously. The same state, however, is much more sensitive to the projection of its image abroad as evidenced by the history of recent gang rape violations in the country.[5] This sensitivity provides a wedge for civil society to leverage its campaign for the promotion of human rights. The use of the media, both local and foreign, would be a vital tool in these struggles as it becomes increasingly more effective in the age of the Internet, cable and satellite television. Scoreboards could be created and updated to report delivery on promises and the quality of the services delivered; every instance of state failure and violation of human rights and human security could be highlighted combined with aggressive lobbying for due process and justice. This would generate an alternative source of pressure for systemic reform.

All these efforts should aim to further the creation and strengthening of a social coalition by targeting benefits and delivering tangible gains to the most vulnerable individuals in society. Even so, it will remain a difficult situation in the short run. The political demand for individual human rights cannot be artificially hurried beyond a point. The continued strong grip of religion is a handicap in this particular dimension because it encourages the acceptance of the state of affairs as divinely ordained and characterizes injustice and deprivation as a test of one’s faith that, if borne with patience, would earn its reward in the next life. Some facets of globalization and international political developments are strengthening this religious grip in Islamic countries quite unlike the weakening that occurred in Europe during the Enlightenment: a Voltaire would find it hard to survive in today’s Pakistan. The weakening of religion in Europe was a major element in the rejection of abject poverty and deprivation as divinely ordained and in the emergence of the realization that they were susceptible to political solutions.[6] Doctrines promoting the individual rights of human beings—liberty and equality, in particular—followed and were the spurs to the demands for representative governments based on the will of the people. Such forces remain weak in the subcontinent. It is still much easier to mobilize people on the elimination of a column for religion in the passport or on real or imagined insults to self-respect related to religious beliefs as opposed to the right to clean water or access to basic health and justice in the twenty-first century.

One should remain skeptical of the returns from electoral democracy in terms of improvements in human security. A creative challenge for civil society would be to examine and debate governance alternatives that might be more promising. Zakaria mentions that “One effect of the overemphasis on pure democracy is that little effort is given to creating imaginative constitutions for transitional countries. Constitutionalism, as it was understood by its greatest eighteenth-century exponents, such as Montesquieu and Madison, is a complicated system of checks and balances designed to prevent the accumulation of power and the abuse of office. This is accomplished not simply by writing up a list of rights but by constructing a system in which government will not violate these rights.”

Zakaria highlights the South African constitution as “an example of an unusually crafted, somewhat undemocratic structure [that] secures power for minorities, both those regionally based such as the Zulus and those that are dispersed, such as the whites. In doing so, it has increased that country’s chances of success as a democracy, despite its poverty and harrowing social catastrophes.” Malaysia could be considered as another example where customized power-sharing arrangements were negotiated as an alternative to pure democracy and worked to yield meaningful gains in human security.[7] This provides another area of focus for civil society groups engaged with the long-term objective of obtaining meaningful gains in human security and fundamental rights as the stepping stones to the emergence of a workable mode of participatory governance.

I have articulated the position that the political demand for equality and fundamental human rights is the prime motivation for improvements in governance. This political demand cannot be willed into being—the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment were major inputs into the emergence of such a demand in Europe and a continued struggle, as evidenced by the gradual extension of suffrage over more than a century, led to the will of all the people being incorporated into the structures of governance. In the absence of such a political demand in Pakistan, civil society needs to concentrate on locating alternative sources of pressure and exploiting the existing vulnerabilities of the state to advance the agenda for increased human security and greater respect for human rights.

End Notes

[1] A key marker of this struggle was the signing of the Magna Carta, a charter of baronial privilege, in 1215 between the English nobility and King John.  The earliest secular expression of democratic political egalitarianism was voiced in 1647 by the Levellers during the English Civil War. The idea of the natural equality of all men was a major theme from that time on (as reflected in the writings of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Kant) and were an integral part of the revolutionary movements by the end of the eighteenth century (l’egalite in France, for example, rejecting privileges based on birth).

[2] In The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, Fareed Zakaria notes that “We live in a democratic age…. Dictators such as Egypt’s Hosni Mobarak and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe go to great effort and expense to organize national elections—which, of course, they win handily. When the enemies of democracy mouth its rhetoric and ape its rituals, you know it has won the war.” Democracy may not have won the war but it is a necessary façade that has to be maintained by the holders of power.

[3] Note the procedural change from the later Mughal period, as described by G.S. Cheema in The Forgotten Mughals, in which “all ruling monarchs were ‘legitimate’ and the exercise of de facto power was sufficient to legitimize the usurpation of the most outrageous upstart.” Now we need the doctrine of necessity and subsequent elections to provide the legitimacy. Note the similarity in outcomes between elected political representatives in Pakistan and the Mughal nobles of that time: “it is interesting to note the completely apolitical nature of the Indian umara. The readiness with which great nobles switched sides, often in the midst of a battle…”

[4] This monarchical ethos is not restricted to Pakistan although here it reveals its grossest aspects. One does not have to look very far to see that the hold of dynastic rule and darbari culture in all South Asian countries is pervasive and not entirely by accident. And human security remains an outstanding issue in the entire region.

[5] Mehta’s description of the situation in India links this political manifestation with the nature of social relations: “Despite the improvements of the last decade or so, even a basic recitation of India’s human development indices, a casual perusal of their landscape, will bring home the violence built into India’s political economy with unnerving force. But the sad truth remains that we mostly pay attention to these facts, if at all, mainly because they are an embarrassment to us, not because we experience them as profoundly unjust. The fact that we are more embarrassed than outraged by these is a sign of the distances that separate us as citizens.”

[6] In his essay On God, the philosopher Leszek Kolakowski writes “Suffering has always existed, but it seems only now to have become such an obvious and compelling argument against God. It is hard to say whether this is because there is more of it now than there was before. Perhaps we just feel, nowadays, that all suffering is unfair. This, however, is the result rather than the cause of our unbelief.” Here we are less interested in arguments against the existence of God and more in the political implications of suffering being seen as unfair and thereby susceptible to change through struggle.

[7] An interesting point along these lines is mentioned by C.M. Naim in his book The Ambiguities of Heritage. He mentions that before 1947 the nationalist ulema had in mind a future constitution of India based on a pact between Muslims and non-Muslims on the pattern of the one between the Muslims and the Jews of Medina. This was a self-serving idea but one wonders if some creative variant not fixated on electoral politics could have avoided the tragedy of a million deaths and the forced homelessness of ten times as many individuals. However, the perverse politics of ascriptive groups, totally incompatible with the spirit of democracy, was too far advanced by that time for creative solutions to have found sympathetic consideration.


Cheema, G.S., The Forgotten Mughals: A History of the Later Emperors of the House of Babar, New Delhi, Manohar Publications, 2002

Kolakowski, Leszek, Freedom, Fame, Lying and Betrayal, London, Penguin, 1999

Mehta, Pratap Bhanu, The Burden of Democracy, New Delhi, Penguin Books, 2003

Moore, Barrington, Jr., Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Master in the Making of the Modern World, Boston, Beacon Press, 1966

Naim, C.M., Ambiguities of Heritage, Karachi, City Press, 1999

Tocqueville, Alexis de, Democracy in America, New York, Signet Classics, 2001

Zakaria, Fareed, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, New York, Norton, 2003

This paper was presented in December 2006 at the HRDN conference on Human Security in Islamabad. In the context of this conference human security includes both the economic and physical security of individuals. I am grateful to Professor C.M. Naim for comments on an earlier draft. At the time the author was a Visiting Fellow at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in Islamabad. He is presently Vice-President and Provost at Habib University in Karachi.

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A Skeptical Guide to the Budget

May 30, 2015

By Anjum Altaf in Herald

The budget affects everyone and therefore everyone ought to understand it. The fact is that very few do. I confess that I don’t but more than that I do not even wish to try. Let me explain why that is the case.

The simplest way for a layperson to begin making sense of the national budget, at least its purpose, is to think of the household analogy even though the experts will be quick to tell us that there are significant differences between the two. To mention just one, sovereign nations can print money while households can’t. But we can set that detail aside for the moment.

As everyone does know, at least intuitively, a household budget has two essential parts – income and expenditures. If a neighbor wished me to go over his household budget for the forthcoming year, I would look at his total income, the sources of the income (which might be stable or fluctuating), and its allocation over various expenditures (which would always include consumption and often investment). As a good neighbor, privy to the circumstances of the family, I might have some advice to offer.

But how would I react if I suspected the neighbor to be a member of a mafia, likely to hide more than to reveal, and who might have manipulated both sides of the budget? The income may be derived from undeclared sources, say extortion, and laundered under innocuous heads; the expenditures may include payoffs to one set of agents and buyouts to others. There may be off-budget items of which there would be no record. What if I suspected further that there was a capo di tutti capi who had instructed the local boss not to indicate more than a certain deficit at the cost of losing future favors?

In such a case, I might pore over the budget only if I were some kind of a Sherlock Holmes interested in figuring out what was really going on beneath the surface. But why would I be interested in doing that? I have nothing at stake and being too inquisitive might trigger an expense item in the budget that would not be to my advantage.

To push the argument to its logical conclusion, I wouldn’t trust the budget and so ignore it minding my own business. I have a little more at stake in the national budget because some of my income is going into the revenue streams and some of the expenditures are ostensibly intended to make my life easy. But the bottom line remains the same. I don’t trust the numbers – who does? – and I don’t believe my efforts at unraveling them would have any real impact.

Given that, I pay my dues for peace of mind, provide the services I need myself, and protect myself as best I can from the services that governments pretend they are providing from me, the police, for example. Knowing that a knock on the door at six in the morning in Pakistan is not the milkman, this is a reasonably safe strategy to follow if one intends to continue residing in the country.

My interest in the budget is lessened by the fact that I have no say in how the taxes I have contributed are to be spent. I am in favor of clean water, reliable electricity, good education, and an effective health system. I am not in favor of raising proxy armies to wage wars here and there. I am not in favor of endless delegations to Saudi Arabia. I am not in favor of bullet trains without feasibility studies or environmental clearances. But, of course, I don’t really know what’s going on and nobody has bothered to inform me how all these expenditures are vital to the national interest and the protection of our ideology.

My interest is further diminished by the depressing experience of the political economy of both sides of the budget. I am quite well aware that many who should be taxed are not, that many who are supposed to be taxed continue to evade their taxes, and that indirect taxes on the helpless bring in the bulk of the revenues. While the collection is widely distributed on the majority of citizens, the expenditures are concentrated on those with political and economic clout – to take one example, there is very little for the pedestrian and a lot for the owner of a private car. The American Revolution occurred because of a refusal to be taxed without representation. We have representation but still no say in how our country is to be governed and for whom.

Sometimes I wonder what I would need to do if I took the whole exercise seriously. First of all, I would read the budget in conjunction with the economic survey which lays out current problems that budgets should be designed to address. I would also look at the national budget in conjunction with all the provincial budgets because almost half the national revenues are transferred to the provinces who are supposed to be responsible for the provision of most social services. I would see what projects are being approved by the Planning Commission to be sure they are compatible with the expenditures that are being emphasized in the budget.

I also know that the budget is not simply about collecting money and spending it. It is equally meant to give signals that channel the decisions of firms and households in directions intended to stabilize or grow the economy. Tax rates influence the allocation of investments to some sectors rather than others; subsidies encourage consumption of particular commodities in preference to those that are offered at market prices.

All this requires serious examination and discussion by the representatives of citizens in parliament supported by subject experts. There isn’t any worth talking about. Due diligence by civil society organizations requires faith in the credibility of the numbers, faith that what is slated to be spent would actually be spent, and faith that snap supplementary budgets would not overturn the logic of the original allocations.

This is a tall order and not something I am willing to bet my shirt on. However, in the spirit of being constructive, I am proposing a radically different approach that can simultaneously interest, educate, and empower the ordinary citizen while at the same time begin to pressurize governments to be more transparent, honest, and accountable.

I would recommend a bottoms-up process of budgeting in which one would begin from the level of the union council. Each union council would have its annual revenue posted for public viewing on the door of its office. This would include transfers from higher levels of government and any local taxes, if applicable. Against this budget, residents of the union council would begin posting their choices for major expenditures. Any of a number of mechanisms could be used to elicit these choices. The choices with the majority votes would then form the expenditure side of the union council budget.

If the residents conclude that their revenues are insufficient they would suggest additional taxes that could be raised locally, broader coverage of existing taxes, or voluntary contributions. Over the course of the year, the expenditure side of the budget would be updated regularly to show money already spent and balances remaining. A simple monitoring and evaluation exercise managed by the residents themselves would verify that the expenditures have resulted in satisfactory progress with milestones achieved as stated. Any course corrections would be a follow-up to the regular monitoring and evaluation exercises.

This suggestion is not as far-fetched as it might seem. The late Dr. Akhtar Hameed Khan ran something very akin to this prototype when he was heading the world-famous Orangi Pilot Project in Karachi. The practice needs to be institutionalized across the board.

In a similar manner, municipalities that comprise more than one union council should also have their budgets posted for public scrutiny. Municipal budgets are not simply aggregations of the budgets of their constituent union councils because some infrastructure, particularly for networked services, cannot be devolved down to the lowest tier of government. Electric grid stations, water treatment plants, etc., are good examples of investments that make sense only on municipal or regional levels.

Such open-disclosure mechanisms would prevent the hijacking of local government prerogatives by higher levels of government and the arbitrary inclusion of investments not properly budgeted or approved by residents of any particular jurisdiction.

It is my belief that a few years of this regimen would restore citizen confidence in the budgetary process and pave the way to more accountable governance. I have a feeling that citizens would come to be much more involved in discussing the national budget once they have gained confidence in the credibility of local ones.

Till such time, whenever I am asked to comment on the budget I always recall Voltaire’s reply to a reminder to look at a letter from a correspondent: “I’m seated in the smallest room in the house. Your letter is before me. Soon it will be behind me.”

The rest of the article is here.

Anjum Altaf is the provost at Habib University. This article appeared in Herald online on May 28, 2015 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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A Single-Point Agenda for a Better Pakistan

February 16, 2015

By Anjum Altaf

I believe strongly that single-point agendas can reverse the continuing decline in Pakistan. The catch, of course, is the unlikelihood of agreeing on one. But there too, I am hopeful enough to make the case.

There are literally thousands of civil society organizations (CSOs) with, rightly so, their own local objectives. The good ones among them are making a difference in their limited domains. The impact at the level of society, however, remains insignificant. This is inevitable given that the organizations are focused on many different tasks, pulling, as it were, in different directions. The cumulative impact is real but diffused.

I believe that without abandoning their local objectives, CSOs can exercise collective influence by agreeing additionally on one global single-point agenda every year. All of them would then pull in the same direction corresponding to the nature of the agenda adopted for that year. The weight of numbers would make itself felt at least to an extent greater than we have been able to exercise to date.

We can find mechanisms for a democratic choice of the annual single-point agenda for which the CSOs would then lobby collectively. This would be different from an Imran Khan-type dharna which is also focused on a few major demands, e.g., an end to corruption and clean election practices, but, for one, is very much top-down, one man’s crusade in the old populist style of politics that has been found wanting in the past.

For another, its demands are such that except for die-hard loyalists not enough people are convinced that Imran Khan could deliver – his party includes leaders who were allegedly on the wrong side in the past. This is inevitable given the structure of parliamentary democracy in Pakistan – it is virtually impossible to win a plurality without compromising with traditional power brokers.

The choice of single-point agendas has to be such that they bring together citizens across the various divides – ethnicity, sect, class, etc. – that ruling groups use to fracture popular movements. Single-point agendas that are impervious to such divisive possibilities are therefore necessary as starting points to have some hope of success.

But even within such single-point agendas, there are critical choices – some would require much more resources than others. Take for example the demand to provide clean water to all. There is no conceivable reason for the failure to do so in the 21st century – the underlying technology is among the simplest. However, the state can plead lack of resources as it has for decades. Similarly, the right to education is a unifying demand but one should anticipate the divisions that would ensue on the content of education.

I have a suggestion for a single-point agenda that is free of such constraints. CSOs should lobby to transfer the prerogative of appointing the chief executives of public sector organizations (PSOs) from the state to civil society. The benefit-cost ratio would be infinite simply because the costs are zero and the benefits, as all would agree, significant. There is little doubt that competent leadership of PSOs can make a huge difference to their performance.

In theory, the state has a claim on such appointments by virtue of being the principal owner of PSOs. However, the state exercises this prerogative on behalf of the citizens who are the true owners and who have delegated the responsibility to their representatives. Given that the state has so grossly and scandalously abused this trust over decades, citizens are within their right to take it back into their own hands.

There is need to lobby for the creation of an independent appointments commission free of state control. Although it is possible to delegate the authority to a bi-partisan committee in parliament, the track record of parliamentarians in Pakistan does not inspire confidence that the arrangement would yield the desired results.

The appointments commission ought to be completely under the control of civil society and comprised of a mutually agreed board of private citizens who have established their credibility over a lifetime of service. It would distract from the subject to suggest names at this stage but I can allude to individuals from the past who would have been eminently qualified had they been alive. I would confidently have nominated people like Dr. Akhtar Hameed Khan, Professor Karrar Hussain, Justice Rustam Kayani, and Justice A.R. Cornelius, among others. Individuals of similar integrity exist today and would step in to serve the country.

This proposal might seem far-fetched but is very doable. It is also a necessity at this point in time and just raising consciousness about the issue would be a major contribution. Above all, it is a unifying objective that does not call for resources except for the allocation of time divided over millions of citizens. All we need are a few brave CSOs to step forward and organize the challenge.

Anjum Altaf is the provost at Habib University. This op-ed appeared in Dawn on February 15, 2015 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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Why are Political Parties Not Issue Oriented?

October 7, 2008

The implication in an earlier post (Who Wants Peace in the Subcontinent?) was that the non-existence of political parties advocating peace was evidence that voters did not want peace with neighboring countries.

Here we immediately fall into the trap of taking foreign concepts and applying them uncritically to alien situations. Are political parties in Pakistan really ‘political’ parties or are they something different?

When one thinks about it, there are no major political parties in Pakistan today that advocate anything specific in terms of policy. One would be hard pressed to unambiguously associate a party with big or small government, free trade or autarky, protection or competition, privatization or public sector dominance. What one does find are parties associated with various personalities all of whom promise to do the same things better than anyone else.

This observation calls for a closer look at the nature of democratic systems and the place of our own variant of democracy in that scheme. It seems reasonable to argue that an ideally functioning democratic order requires the existence of a sufficiently large number of undecided voters open to being persuaded to switch party affiliations. It is this pool of undecided voters that creates the possibility of a political party transforming itself from a representative of the minority to a representative of the majority. It is this possibility that motivates a political party to present an agenda that is most responsive to the preferences of the voting population. And this requires it to spell out its positions on issues of foreign and domestic policy like war, health care, land reform, minimum wage, etc.

The essential requirement of this system is the existence of a sufficiently large number of voters open to being persuaded to change their voting preference in response to a more attractive policy agenda. It is not necessary that all voters be in this category. The majority of voters in all democratic systems are lifelong supporters of one party or the other based on their agreement with the broad philosophies of the contending parties. But without the large pool of undecided voters such a system would cease to function because there would be no possibility of a minority party gaining enough marginal votes to win an election.

This brings us to the most critical aspect of such a system that remains neglected in discussions of democracy in Pakistan. What are the conditions that govern the behavior of undecided voters? First, the issues of policy must figure reasonably prominently in their hierarchy of needs and, second, they must have the confidence that their representatives would honestly and consistently represent the political preferences of the voters.

Now contrast this scenario with the reality in Pakistan. Here the calculus of the majority of voters is quite different because their basic physiological needs and rights remain unfulfilled and dominate their concerns. They look upon their representatives as potential lifelines to social protection, livelihoods, and access to basic entitlements; the political representation of their policy is a secondary concern at this stage of economic development.

In the absence of the rule of law, all political systems tend towards a system of patronage and the rational voter seeks to be on the side of the strongest patron. It is of little importance whether the moral or policy positions of the voter are in harmony with those of the representative. Voter behavior bears this out. Voters regularly elect representatives who they know to be dishonest and a constituency is much more likely to reject a representative in a subsequent election if he has proved to be without influence than if he has changed his political position or loyalty by 180 degrees.

It is no surprise therefore that the same people or families get elected time after time and freely change parties or swing from one policy position to another. And it is also no surprise that the primary objective of political parties is not to put together policy agendas (because they can take voter behavior for granted) but to try and win over as many of the strong patrons as they can to their side. The party with the greater number of patrons wins and then has to reward the patrons. The size of political cabinets is an indicator of this phenomenon.

This is not something aberrant. All social systems reflect their history and are shaped by them; change comes slowly at best. The mistake is to take a concept or institutional arrangement from a system at a different level of development and apply it to one where it is not relevant. The lens through which we examine reality has to be the right one for the task.

It is important therefore to understand the evolution of the democratic order in Europe. One would realize the important role of the options that opened out to commoners in Europe by the spread of the rule of law. The rule of law allowed the separation of the functions of political representation and social and economic protection. The voters were not dependent any more upon one representative for both. They could now vote their true political preferences and still be assured that their basic rights and entitlements would be protected. This milestone marked the emergence of ‘political’ parties in the real sense of the term.

Without equality under the law and access to impartial justice, Pakistan is not yet at a similar level of development. We may choose to call our system democratic but it is a uniquely peculiar democracy embedded in a hierarchical society operating without the rule of law. In such conditions, what we call political parties are really patronage groups. It is not surprising that these groups are owned by families, have dynastic transitions, and have no loyalties to any political positions or principles.

In the event of disagreements within groups, they give rise to splinter groups that are exactly similar except for the office-bearers. Hence the alphabet soup nomenclature of the groups. It is not something you can envisage in the UK; the existence of Labor (N), Labor (Q), and Labor (P) would be inconceivable.

This is a long explanation for why the absence of a political party in Pakistan advocating peace with neighbors might not actually signal the existence of a population that really believes in the virtue of confrontation with India.

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Governance and Morality

August 27, 2008

People are frustrated with continued poor governance in Pakistan. So frustrated that one often hears a strange claim – we are afflicted with poor governance because we are bad people; we deserve our fate.

This logic implies that good people get good governments while bad people get bad governments. Does this logic make any sense?

First of all, there is no country in the world where people are all good or all bad – however good and bad are defined. And no one has yet adequately demonstrated that some countries have a larger proportion of bad people than others.

(Of course, some countries have relatively more educated populations but education has little to do with the mix of goodness and badness. In any case, all countries have passed through the stage when education was much less common than it is today. It is difficult to make the case that the quality of governance has improved with the prevalence of education. The literacy rate in Pakistan has increased steadily over the years with little impact on the overall goodness of society while the quality of governance has continued to deteriorate.)

Second, even if one concedes for the sake of argument that good people get good governments, one cannot conclude that the good governments always do good things. One would need to specify who exactly are the governments good for?

There are governments that are good for their own citizens but absolutely disastrous for people of other countries whom they have no hesitation in hurting to promote their own national interests. Examples of such actions by “good” governments are so many and so well known that there is no point in recounting them here. Anyone with a sense of history should be able to come up with a long list.

This happens because even most good people hold their governments accountable only for what happens inside their own countries and care far less for what the governments do outside the national borders. Good governments routinely lie to their good citizens about what they are up to elsewhere and the good citizens attach little importance to distant affairs unless the repercussions begin to affect their personal welfare. The reality is that politics is still very local while national interests have long been global – think of the slave trade, colonialism, etc.

Third, it is said that in countries like Pakistan people elect “bad” representatives who are outright crooks and not even good for their own countries. But do people choose in this manner because they themselves are bad? Or could the choice be due to some peculiarity of circumstances that forces good people to elect bad representatives.

Consider one such circumstance. Pakistan is an example of a society that does not offer its people access to justice or jobs unless they have the right connections. All such societies gravitate towards a system of patronage and the most effective patrons are the local strongmen who wield the most power and influence in the system.

Voters are smart enough to realize this plain truth and their electoral choices reflect this reality. The choices have very little to with the goodness and badness of the voters and everything to do with their need for survival in an unfair and unjust society. Voters are fully aware of the moral credentials of the representatives they vote for and also of the reasons for their choices.

This social reality forms the basis of the argument that the rule of law and equal opportunity based on merit are pre-conditions for good governance. Only when people can do without patrons will they be able to choose competent representatives instead of local strongmen. There is not much point in advising people to elect “good” representatives if they continue to need powerful patrons to obtain jobs, justice and protection.

To attribute the actions of powerless, helpless and dependent voters to their intrinsic goodness or badness suggests a failure to understand the constraints of their social reality. It also detracts from understanding what needs to be done to ensure good governance in the future.

It is the system that needs to be changed. Changing the people is not an alternative.

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Is Illiteracy the Cause of Poverty?

August 18, 2008

It is often argued that illiteracy is the biggest problem in South Asia and also that illiteracy is the reason for poverty. What is the evidence for such assertions?

Let us start with a couple of concrete examples:

Over the past fifteen years, the proportion of the population living under extreme poverty in Pakistan has risen from 13 to 33 percent but illiteracy has declined during this period. Therefore, the explanation for the increase in poverty in Pakistan cannot be attributed to illiteracy.

India has a considerably higher literacy rate than Pakistan but the incidence of poverty in India was comparable to that in Pakistan for many years.  The recent trend in poverty reduction in India cannot be attributed to a sudden increase in literacy.

This is not to argue that illiteracy does not matter. Clearly a literate work force can be much more productive than an illiterate one everything else remaining the same. And literacy can contribute positively to the quality of life of an individual for which reason it is considered a basic human right. But the fact remains that there is not sufficient evidence to establish that illiteracy is the most basic reason for poverty.

Similarly, there is also no obvious link between poverty and the lack of democracy and human rights.  The most dramatic reductions in poverty have been in East Asian countries under non-democratic governments much criticized for their human rights records. By comparison, poverty reduction in democratic India has been much slower. Once again, this is not an argument for authoritarian governance; there are many other unrelated benefits of democracy. The point is that there seems no direct link between the lack of democracy and the incidence of poverty.

A closer look at the evidence might suggest that the causes of poverty have less to do with literacy or democracy and much more to do with economic and political policies.

The evidence of the impact of economic policies on poverty reduction is quite impressive. East Asia is a well documented example where the number of people living on less than one dollar a day has fallen almost two-thirds, from 720 million in 1975 to 210 million in 2002 almost entirely because of the rapidity of economic growth. India has also begun moving in the right direction after key economic reforms have relaxed the stifling grip of the ‘license Raj.’

On the other side are countries like Pakistan where ruling groups allocate the bulk of national resources to defense, foreign policy adventures, fomenting domestic strife to manipulate political power or in stifling business to protect vested interests. It is not surprising that foreign and domestic investors are reluctant to invest in such countries. Without investment, there is little job growth; and without job growth little prospect of reduction in poverty.

The political and economic choices of such ruling groups are not directly influenced or constrained by the illiteracy of their populations. Policies, good or bad, are all decided by people who are quite literate. What we need to explain is why some literate ruling groups make consistently bad political and economic decisions. One such decision is not investing in raising the literacy levels of their populations. Why did Sri Lanka and China invest in raising their literacy levels to over 90 percent while Pakistan and Bangladesh remain at around 40 percent? Why is the rural education program in India so weak compared to its urban program?

What we really need to explain is the persistence of illiteracy in some countries or parts of some countries. And this has to do with the interests, choices and decisions of the literate sections of these countries.

When analysts begin to explain the political economy of continued impoverishment, when people understand the real causes of their poverty, and when political parties mobilize them on the basis of this understanding, perhaps then there will be hope for change in countries that have shortchanged their citizens by keeping them poor and illiterate.

For the contrary argument, see Is Poverty the Cause of Illiteracy?
ee also, Is Overpopulation the Cause of Poverty?

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Democracy in India – 7

July 26, 2008

Let us put the big question on the table.

Modern democracy as a form of governance has evolved following the emergence of the belief that “all men are created equal.”  How do we look at Indian democracy in this context? Do Indians believe today that all men are created equal? If not, how does it affect the nature of democracy in India?

In the West it took social revolutions to force the acceptance that all men were created equal. So the sequence of events was the following: the emergence of a realization that all men should be equal; a social revolution overthrowing the hierarchical aristocratic order to force the recognition of that equality; the gradual emergence of representative governance (the franchise was extended very slowly with women becoming “equal” much later than men) as the form of governance most compatible with a society comprised of individuals equal in all fundamental attributes.

On can start with the Enlightenment thinkers to understand the social conditions out of which the aspirations for equality emerged – we have done that in earlier posts. But the quickest summary of the second phase can be gained by looking at the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-59) who sought to persuade his fellow intellectuals to accept the legacy of the French Revolution warning them that it was impossible to turn the clock back.

De Tocqueville pointed out that the growing equality was inevitable and urged a focus on how liberty could be preserved in an egalitarian age  (one of de Tocqueville’s major fears was that democracy would degenerate into despotism). Equality of course meant political equality by definition because every man would have an equal vote. But more than that, de Tocqueville kept referring to the growing “equality of condition” which was not the same thing as economic equality. It meant that men had started viewing each other as social equals and wished to be treated as such irrespective of the differences in their income levels. To translate that into our frame, there were no longer any institutions or places (including the kitchen table) to which an individual could be denied access because of his birth or level of income.

In an excellent primer (Democracy: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2002), Bernard Crick distinguishes three dimensions of democracy: democracy as a principle or doctrine of government; democracy as a set of institutional arrangements or constitutional devices; and democracy as a type of behavior (say the antithesis of both deference and unsociability). And he points out that “they do not always go together.”

Crick elaborates the third dimension as follows: “democracy can be seen as a recipe for an acceptable set of institutions, or else as a ‘way of life’ in which the ‘spirit of democracy’ becomes at least as important as the peculiarity of the institutions. For some think that the hallmark of such a way of life lies, indeed, in the deed and not the word: people acting and behaving democratically in patterns of friendship, speech, dress, and amusements, treating everyone else as if they were an equal” (pages 9-10).

Let us now come back to India. It satisfies Crick’s first two dimensions but not the third. And this is the peculiarity of Indian democracy. The historical sequence mentioned above has been reversed. Democracy with universal suffrage has arrived before a social revolution that removed a hierarchical aristocratic order. In fact, even the idea of equality itself is not fully grounded in the polity.

Thus almost all comments about Mayawati feel it necessary to include the reference to her being an “untouchable;” there are quite unselfconscious remarks about the voting behavior of the “lower orders;” and one comes across journal articles with titles like the following reflecting the reality of contemporary Indian life: They dress, use cosmetics, want to be like us’: The Middle Classes and their Servants at Home.

Visionary leaders were quite well aware of these contradictions. Here is what Dr. Ambedkar had to say in 1949:

In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions?

It takes a long time to change structures and it is very messy. What one is seeing in India today is unique in human history – democracy and the vote being used to both bring about equality and to force the acceptance of a belief in equality. Democracy is the instrument that will accomplish what the Enlightenment and social revolutions did in the western world. But, in doing so, will it degenerate into the despotism that de Tocqueville feared?

It is history turned on its head and a fascinating process to watch and be part of.

The journal article mentioned in the text is to appear in Amita Baviskar and Raka Ray, eds., The Middle Classes in India: Identity, Citizenship and the Public Sphere.

The quote from Dr. Ambedkar is from Sunil Khilnani, The Idea of India, page 15.

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