Posts Tagged ‘Governance’

How to Aid the Health Sector in Pakistan

August 1, 2010

By Samia Altaf and Anjum Altaf

This op-ed appeared in Dawn, Karachi, on July 30, 2010. It was intended to initiate a discussion on the possible approaches to sector reform and is being reproduced here with permission of the authors to provide a forum for discussion and feedback.

We must state at the outset that we have been wary of, if not actually opposed to, the prospect of further economic assistance to Pakistan because of the callous misuse and abuse of aid that has marked the past across all elected and non-elected regimes. We are convinced that such aid, driven by political imperatives and deliberately blind to the well recognized holes in the system, has been a disservice to the Pakistani people by destroying all incentives for self-reliance, good governance, and accountability to either the ultimate donors or recipients. (more…)


Governance in South Asia: States and Robber Gangs

June 13, 2010

We have frequently reiterated the prominent features of South Asian societies – the social hierarchies, theologically sanctioned inequalities, and extensive economic deprivation. These have given rise to modes of governance dominated by patron-client formations as well as a monarchical ethos among both the rulers and the ruled. The passivity that comes from pervasive religiosity accounts for the slow pace of change in the overarching mai-baap culture. In this post I will describe the interaction of these features with the attempts at democratic governance and refer to a new book on European history to provide arguments useful for a critical analysis of  social and political developments in South Asia.

Transplanting a democratic super-structure onto a hierarchical and unequal sub-structure is like fitting a round cap on a square bottle. No matter how the cap is twisted, there are gaps from where the intrinsic tendencies of the soil escape and sprout. (more…)

Pakistan: A New Phase?

May 29, 2010

By A Pakistani


It was not too long ago that those critical of governance in Pakistan were limited to a handful of academics, journalists, and other professionals. They were the subject of aspersions – being agents of this or that power or being self-hating Pakistanis or Muslims, as the case may be – and advised to “love it or leave it.”

I am not talking of those opposing particular governments in Pakistan – they were many – but those who used arguments from reason to question the structure itself that characterized the governance of the country. To simplify, the opponents of particular governments behaved as if Pakistan was always one good leader away from salvation; the critics argued that given the foundations of the state that hope would inevitably lead to disappointment. (more…)

In Support of Arundhati Roy

May 22, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

Like Vijay Vikram, I too am glad Arundhati Roy exists. I wish, however, to take this discussion beyond her role as a public intellectual and focus instead on her work as a political activist, which has opened a space for us to leverage, provided we broaden our understanding of the political process. It is our failure to see the political process in its entirety that leads many to dismiss Roy as an extremist divorced from reality, and in our aversion from her “shrill” voice and alleged “extremism,” we overlook the vital systemic issues she demands we consider in our capacity as concerned citizens.

Roy’s essential point is that there is a deep structural flaw in Indian governance, which has left the majority of its citizens poor and a significant minority actually oppressed. In a democracy charged with protecting and enhancing the equal rights of all its citizens, this is not supposed to happen, and unless we subscribe to a utopian idea of everything turning out well on its own, the fact that the systematic problem exists should force us to ask some difficult questions. (more…)

China – 2: Making Sense of China

June 25, 2009

I had thought my imagination was unlimited but the first visit to China disabused me of the notion. Despite all the years of reading, talking about, and studying the country, I was surprised. My imagination, free and limitless in theory, was hostage to the reality I knew in South Asia. The phrase ‘poverty of the imagination’ took on a new meaning.

Getting past the physical surprise, I was intrigued by the amazing adaptability of human beings. Here were individuals cut off from the world, living in company compounds and bicycling around in blue Mao suits within my memory. Today, taxi drivers navigated intricate webs of ring roads, commuters rode magnetic levitation trains, shoppers peered at designer goods in exquisite malls – all as if these had always been a part of their lives. (more…)

Governance in Pakistan – 1

March 7, 2009

In this series of posts we will try and provide an explanation of the seemingly intractable problems that afflict Pakistan today.

But first we address the issue of why analysts and observers are so often wrong in their assessments of the Pakistani situation.

The occasion for this is an article by William Dalrymple who has made a name for himself as a chronicler of Mughal history and an analyst of modern South Asia. Writing on March 4, 2009 he says:

Just over a year ago, in February 2008, I travelled by car across the length and breadth of Pakistan to cover the country’s first serious election since General Pervez Musharraf seized power in 1999…. The story I wrote at the time for the New York Review of Books was optimistic.

Like most other people given the option, Pakistanis clearly want the ability to choose their own rulers, and to determine their own future, I wrote. The country I saw over the last few days on a long road trip was not a failed state, nor anything even approaching ‘the most dangerous country in the world … almost beyond repair’ as the Spectator (among many others) recently suggested … By and large, the countryside I passed through was calm and beautiful, and not obviously less prosperous-looking than its subcontinental neighbour. It was certainly a far cry from the terminal lawlessness and instability of post-occupation Iraq or Afghanistan.

 A year on, however, the situation could hardly be more different, or more grim…

So this is our question for readers: Why was as astute an observer as William Dalrymple deceived? Why was he unable to correctly predict the future one year ahead?

Let us get some feedback on this question before we try and speculate on the possible reasons.

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Ghalib – 15: The Scream of Silence

November 9, 2008

This week’s verse requires us to remind readers that on The South Asian Idea we do not aim to provide an interpretation of the selected she’r. Rather, we use it as a point of departure to discuss the contemporary relevance of issues suggested by the verse.

Of course, for the sake of completeness, we do provide links to the most complete and accessible literary interpretations at A Desertful of Roses and to ones that explore related themes on Mehr-e-Niimroz, our companion blog in the Ghalib Project.

This week’s choice is the following:

kyuuN nah chiikhuuN kih yaad karte haiN
mirii aavaaz gar nahiiN aatii

why should I not scream because I am only remembered
if my voice is not heard

Let us use this to explore relations between the rulers and the ruled in our land today.

The majority of the ruled are voiceless. When they do raise their voices, they are either ignored or labeled as a handful of miscreants who need to be dealt with an iron hand.

When they remain silent, their silence is taken as a sign of approval – they are trumpeted as the Silent Majority that fully supports the policies of the day.

Thus the ruled find themselves in a no-win situation. It is not that they do not have grievances but voicing or not voicing them in public makes little difference to their fate. So they voice them silently telling whoever cares to listen that no one cares about them. These are the screams of silence. But those who control the reins of power do not listen to the screams of silence.

What is the way out of a no-win situation of this sort? Why, in an electoral system, is there no political party that gives voice to the voiceless? Why are huge numbers of the Silent Majority so irrelevant in a system based on the vote of every individual? How is such an outcome possible in a democratic system? Why are the screams of silence falling on deaf ears?

Is there a role here for the Civil Society that exists between the deaf rulers and the silent majority?

Is there a model in the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s that gave voice to marginalized blacks whose screams had failed to make an impression on the WASP elites? Is there a parallel between the Black Panthers and the Dalit Panthers? Was there a relationship between the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Panthers movement?

Is Barack Hussein Obama, born out of those mix of movements, saying something to South Asians?

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Ghalib Says – 6

August 28, 2008

The selection this week:

bandagii meN bhii vuh aazaadah-o khud-biin haiN kih ham
ulTe phir aaye dar-e ka’bah agar va na huaa

even in servitude we are so free and self-regarding that we
turned and came back if the door of the Ka’bah did not open

This is an expression of pride in one’s being. The poet is saying that we may be indebted to you but you still have to treat us with respect. The point is made by exaggeration – we are servants of God but even God has to come and meet us halfway. A detailed interpretation is available at Mehr-e-Niimroz.

Once again we are treated to Ghalib’s ability to think far ahead of his times. Remember, he lived in the age of patronage; artists especially were almost completely dependent on their patrons for their livelihoods. And the patrons were quite willful, withdrawing their stipends at the slightest provocation. In such an environment to be able to think of a relation of social equality was quite remarkable.

The more typical sequence is that changes in material conditions lead to changes in attitudes and ideas that in turn have a profound impact on society. We have alluded many times on the blog (see the posts on modernity) to the material changes in Europe that led to the Enlightenment ideas and subsequently to the emergence of democracy as a form of governance compatible with a society in which all human beings enjoyed a status of equality.

The most important of these changes was the lessening in dependency of one human being upon another – something de Toqueville called ‘equality of condition’. We have commented on this in the post Democracy in India – 7. Such an equality of condition still does not obtain in South Asia. A domestic servant, for example, will not find a seat at the kitchen table.

In the West, by comparison, the master-servant relationship has been replaced by contractual agreements. I may be contracted to serve you in some capacity but I still remain your social equal in all other aspects. The director and the janitor can be found at the same table in the office cafeteria.

The question that we have asked earlier is what does this continued social inequality in South Asia imply for the functioning of democratic systems?  Our own answer was that it is the democratic process in India that is serving as the vehicle for the attainment of social equality. The European sequence has been reversed.

The journey to the self-respect that Ghalib alluded to is not yet over.

We would like to hear the views of readers on this issue.

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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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