Posts Tagged ‘Pakistan’

Miseducating Pakistan

December 14, 2018

By Anjum Altaf

Education is a big-ticket item. Clarity is needed about its relationship to economic growth and development before betting the house on it. Otherwise a lot of resources would end up being misallocated.

It is in this context that I respond to Mr. Miftah Ismail’s diagnosis and prescription presented in his opinion in this newspaper (‘Educating Pakistan,’ December 5, 2018). Mr. Ismail begins by asking why any country is richer than another and answers with the assertion that “education is probably the most important factor in determining the wealth of nations.” From this follows the prescription that the path to richness is education.

I offer some cross-country evidence using literacy rates as a proxy for education and GDP per capita as a proxy for wealth — for each country the data that follows in parentheses shows percent of adult population that is literate and GDP per capita in US dollars adjusted for purchasing power parity. Consider the pair Uzbekistan (100; $6,856) and Mongolia (98; $13,000): the latter is almost twice as wealthy at about the same level of education. Now consider Pakistan (58; $5,527) and Bangladesh (73; $3,869): the former is actually wealthier at a lower level of education. Consider Myanmar (76; $6,139) which is one-and-a-half times wealthier than Bangladesh at almost the same level of education and comparable in wealth to Pakistan despite having a considerably higher level of education. For historical evidence consider the fact that in 1700 India had 25 percent of the world’s wealth with virtually no literacy. How did that happen if wealth is the outcome of education? This share dropped to 6 percent by 2015 despite increasing education for a host of unrelated reasons that cannot be ignored in drawing conclusions about the relationship between education and wealth. It is equally important to be aware that both in 1700 and 2015 wealth in India was not widely distributed but was concentrated in very few hands.

The bottom line is that there is no simple correlation between education and wealth and it is deceptive to derive such a conclusion by looking at education levels in developed countries like Japan while ignoring the many other factors that might have been more critical like, for example, the Meiji reforms of 1868. Nor is there a simple relationship between wealth and its distribution. Leaving aside the accidents of history, many, more crucial, factors can determine a country’s development path of which the policy framework is paramount. While it is true that China invested in education, its growth dynamic was triggered by the policy changes in 1979 while earlier, despite the education, it had suffered unimaginable catastrophes during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

This last point highlights the damning inference that it is disingenuous to blame the lack of mass education for lack of development which is primarily due to misgovernance — keep in mind that all policy decisions are taken not by illiterate citizens but by the well-educated rulers. Just like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution in China, the policies in Pakistan to promote fundamentalism and hostility towards neighbours are solely attributable to its well-educated ruling classes. While Chinese leaders learnt from their mistakes, Pakistan’s rulers remain enmeshed in their mindless jingoism and container thought. It is naive to hope that mere education can get them out of this mess of their own creation.

The greater irony is that the kind of education being promoted by Pakistan’s elite is exacerbating and not alleviating the problems of misdevelopment. Fundamentalism and intolerance are the more obvious outcomes of an education designed not to encourage creativity but to buttress a chimerical national identity rooted in fear and arrogance. One must remain cognizant of the difference between the quantity of education and its quality.

Deep down I believe Mr. Ismail is aware that there is no straight road from education to richness because the party to which he belongs did little for education during its tenure. Go over the list of heads of educational institutions appointed during that period and it would be obvious that improving education was not the motivation. Little was done to regulate private colleges that are nothing more than diploma mills turning out graduates without any prospects of employment. And higher education remained plagued by the virus of plagiarism in which the Executive Director appointed by the government to the watchdog institution, the Higher Education Commission, was himself complicit.

Mr. Ismail has made other debatable claims in his article. For example, he has asserted that “for some reason education is not very valued by our modern culture.” This is not consonant with the back-breaking sacrifices made by poor parents to put their children through school and simultaneously pay for supplemental tuition to compensate for the low quality of the latter. This, despite the fact that returns to education are very low in Pakistan where connections matter more than knowledge or merit.

Mr. Ismail also claimed, citing Aristotle, that “if parents do their jobs and raise their children well, in one generation all of society’s problems will go away. Every citizen would be educated, decent, kind and well mannered.” How one wishes this were true. What proportion of the set of educated people in positions of authority today are decent, kind and well-mannered? The educated who routinely slap low-paid public servants, mistreat maids, and use foul language in public discourse offer sufficient contrary evidence to challenge this claim.

Good and meaningful education is a basic human right which ought to be pursued for its own sake and not for any instrumental reasons. It is essential for individuals to live fulfilling lives to which they are entitled by virtue of being born. It is a grave failure of the state to have deprived the majority of good education for so many decades. It is adding insult to injury to attempt to pass the buck for this neglect and criminal misgovernance of the ruling class onto powerless people, an allegedly apathetic culture, and parental negligence. The first step towards a better future requires the state to own its responsibility for the welter of serious problems enmeshing the country of which lack of education is only one. The problem is not that people do not value education; it is the abuse of education for patronage, profits, and political ends. This abuse needs to end before the journey to development can begin.

An edited version of this opinion appeared in The News on December 9, 2018 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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Chickens: A Debate

December 9, 2018

[Editor’s Note: Imran Khan’s suggestion to alleviate rural poverty by giving chickens to women was greeted with much ridicule but is there the germ of an idea there that public policy wanks can shape into a viable scheme? On the contrary, is there a convincing enough critique that can show how and why the idea might be infeasible.

Myrah Nerine Butt took the first step in a blog published in Dawn on December 5, 2018 and I requested Faizaan Qayyum to comment on her article. Myrah and Faizaan were Teaching Assistants for a course (ECON 100: Principles of Economics) I taught at LUMS in 2013 and it is gratifying to see them both emerge as articulate public policy practitioners.  Myrah completed a MA in Poverty and Development from the University of Sussex and Faizaan a MA in Urban Studies from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where he is currently pursuing a PhD. After a few email exchanges we decided we would all benefit from making this debate public and provide others a forum for reasoned discourse.

Towards that end, Myrah’s article is reproduced below followed by the discussion to date. We invite others to join and enrich the debate in order to make a contribution to how the issue of poverty can be addressed in Pakistan.]

Why PM Khan’s chicken and eggs solution has been mocked for all the wrong reasons

By Myrah Nerine Butt

At a ceremony to mark the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government’s 100 days in office, Prime Minister Imran Khan announced that his government would provide chickens to underprivileged women in order to lift them out of poverty.

While a number of political stakeholders have ridiculed his statement, there is a lot of research on how and why this intervention can work. The people who are mocking the initiative are actually far removed from the context and lived experiences of rural women.

To understand the magnitude of the problem of poverty — 7.7 million households are living below the cut-off score of poverty developed by the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP).

The fate of a lot of lives rests upon the policies developed by the government and trivialising such programmes can be incredibly detrimental to positive change.

To place the chickens within the policy context of Pakistan, I will compare the chicken intervention to one of the most successful poverty alleviation programmes in recent times, the BISP — an unconditional cash transfer programme.

Any woman who falls below a multidimensional poverty line is eligible for a cash handout. This intervention has been seen as a useful tool in alleviating poverty in Pakistan. As per the Food Energy Intake poverty line, BISP reduced the poverty rate by seven percentage points.

I will start by comparing the cash handout with the chickens handout to poor rural women and why chickens might work better given the household dynamics in place.

Firstly, one is a cash transfer while the other can be termed as an asset transfer. Money is more fungible than chickens. While money can be controlled by the men of the household and spent on non-productive or non-household activities, it is likely that chickens would remain in the hands of the women.

Typically, the men tend to goats, cows and buffaloes; there is a masculine connotation attached to tending to superior forms of livestock.

Because chickens are culturally seen as inferior forms of livestock, women are likely to retain control of these assets.

This is likely to increase the role of women in household decision-making: they control the chickens so they may decide on how to divide the eggs in the house or where to spend the resulting income.

On the note of fungibility, a chicken would also limit spending decisions of the household by virtue of being less liquid. Money can be spent on various activities, both good and bad, like responding to health shocks or gambling.

A chicken is a tied investment or forced saving, nudging people away from certain kinds of spending.

***

As opposed to a cash handout, chickens are an investment. They require low capital and the turnover is high.

They can also potentially help households climb out of poverty. However, the return on investment argument can be slightly confusing.

The remarkable high returns on investment are linked to commercial poultry farming; there are economies of scale on large chicken farms.

Rural households cannot tap into these massive economies of scale.

So, while rural households might not be able to capture the economies of scale, the eggs would still initially support subsistence of households and provide a steady basic income once the brood of chickens multiplies.

The idea of handing out chickens instead of cash is largely appealing because there is some evidence of its effectiveness in South Asia.

In addition to supplementing household income and providing subsistence, research shows that increased capacity gained by women and children through village poultry projects have impacts well beyond the improved village poultry production: chickens have increased food security and improved nutrition.

A possible pitfall of the chicken intervention could be the crystallisation of the role of women in the households.

A conditional cash transfer programme in Mexico handed out the cash to women if certain conditions were met, one of which was that the children of the household must regularly go to nutrition monitoring clinics.

The idea was to spur a household-level behavioural change.

However, because the money was handed out to women, they were responsible for meeting the requirements enforced by the state and thus the women had to take the children to the clinics, rather than the men.

This crystallised their role as caregivers and increased their burden of work.

Similarly in this case, women might be limited to the role of raising chickens and could be actively discouraged from other activities, like seeking higher education or formal employment.

It may also contribute towards increasing hidden child labour. Unintended consequences are always a possibility that should be considered when designing an intervention.

Ensuring an intervention that works

The chicken intervention cannot be rolled out in a vacuum — there would be a need to set up supporting infrastructure as well. Ancillary facilities like veterinarian services and training support need to be setup.

Additionally, serious work needs to be done to provide the women access to markets and strengthening market linkages.

There also need to be steps to organise women to work collectively in order to gain from some of the economies of scale and connect to markets.

Poverty alleviation interventions should be incremental and build on lessons learnt from previous interventions. The poverty scorecard developed by the BISP is a huge step in terms of understanding the dimensions of poverty.

The BISP has been able to develop an extensive database of poor households. The scorecard collects information on the various characteristics of the household as well as its assets.

It enables the programme to identify eligible households through the application of a proxy means test, which determines the welfare status of the household on a scale of zero to 100.

This can be very useful for targeting poor households in this programme too.

Additionally, the BISP has been tested and retested, its impact measured at each step. An intervention of such nature would require similar level of rigour in its design and implementation.

Bill Gates and the chickens

The global world is obsessed with finding a magic bullet to eliminate poverty. There is a reason why big donor organisations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation love such interventions.

They demonstrate quick results and are easy to measure. The global push towards “value for money” pushes policymakers to consider such interventions.

I would add a note of caution here. Poverty is deprivation on multiple fronts, not just income.

Aspects of time use, productive resources, health, education, rights and availability of services are equally important. Income is used as a crude indicator for all these other aspects.

Because of the multidimensional nature of poverty, it cannot be alleviated with one-time interventions. The causes of poverty are structural and run deep within societies.

Rather than viewing poverty as material deprivation, we need to understand it as a product of inequality and prevalent power relations. We need to analyse the process of design and implementation critically while being realistic about the impact.

The chicken intervention can and should be one of a number of poverty alleviation interventions, not a comprehensive solution. We cannot put all our eggs in one basket at the end of the day.

My fear, therefore, is that the intervention is top-down instead of being bottom-up. While global research and evidence is important, we need to ask ourselves: would it work in our context?

I am curious to find out whether a needs assessment has been conducted. Have the beneficiary women been consulted? Do they want chickens or are we going to force an additional burden on them? What kind of chickens work best in the local context?

For any intervention, the local communities need to be consulted right from the design stage. The intervention should be context-specific and bottom-up rather than top-down.

My key suggestion is to ignore the politicians sitting in the centre. They don’t need chickens like the rural woman might, but ask her before investing money first.

There is a need to step away from mocking PTI’s move to push forth this intervention. The decision is based on international research rather than a complete blind jump.

Let’s try giving the chickens a chance.

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Ali Baba and Robin Hood

November 21, 2018

By Anjum Altaf

Daniel Kahneman (2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics) has a lovely book called Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011) in which he distinguishes between the two modes of thought. Fast thinking is instinctive and emotional and subject to many cognitive biases; slow thinking is deliberative and logical and much to be recommended when stakes are high and situations are unfamiliar.

In Pakistan, we have succumbed over time to fast thinking and the graver the situation the more instinctive and emotional the thought process tends to become.

It’s time to take a deep breath.

Look at the current situation which offers a surreal scenario of a major country reduced to a farcical contest between Ali Baba and his forty thieves on one side and Robin Hood and his merry men on the other. Ali Baba’s gang purportedly looted the people and got phenomenally rich under the protection of earlier kings while Robin Hood and his gang are vowing to get it all back to the poor with the support of the reigning monarchs.

Those with the luxury to enjoy the spectacle can let their imaginations roam and fill in the secondary characters of King Richard, Maid Marian and the Sheriff of Nottingham but the poor who have been looted and to whom the loot is to be putatively returned are paying a very heavy price for the fast thinking.

This fast thinking incorporates a number of biases. The Ali Baba-Robin Hood frame assumes that there is a fixed pot of money in the economy that has to be in one set of hands or the other; that nothing can be done till this money is recovered; that all those on one side are thieves while all those on the other are saints; and that the end of corruption is the precondition for development.

All these assumptions are flawed as even a cursory look at any real world economy would reveal. There is no country in which corruption has been completely uprooted and there are vibrant neighboring economies in which the size of scams is much bigger than those in Pakistan. Corruption exists in developed countries like Japan and Korea where prime ministers have gone to prison, as well as in China, India, and Bangladesh. Nowhere has life been put on hold till the end of corruption. China and India have been growing at unprecedented rates for extended periods and even the Bangladeshi economy is growing faster than Pakistan’s despite being rated more corrupt than the latter.

There is no argument that corruption is a problem to be addressed but it is also an ironic fact that its extent is often a good indicator of the size of the economy. Fast-thinking attempts to go after corruption can often strangle the economy or, like similar perennial attempts to purge prostitution, spread it even further into the interstices of society. Slow thinking would force one to balance the difficult choice between a fast growing economy with some corruption and a land of the pure that is mired in equitably shared poverty.  

It is also silly to posit that saints and sinners are distributed non-randomly in the world. Here we do not even have to look beyond our borders. How can it be when so many of Robin Hood’s merry men were earlier members of Ali Baba’s set of heartless thieves? And what does one make of the fact that our Ali Babas and Robin Hoods share the same set of ever-ready advisers, a phenomenon that would have been quite alien in Sherwood Forest.

Slower thinking would help absorb the reality that the primary task of any government dedicated to the welfare of the poor is to make the economy grow, even at the cost of some corruption, and to understand the concept of sunk costs and let bygones be bygones as the price of moving ahead. The biggest impediment to that realization is the obsession with purity, proving oneself holier than thou and chasing the mirage of hidden wealth and looted plunder. This instinctual urge to move money from one pocket to another, a corollary of fast thinking, is consuming precious time that should go into formulating policies to move the economy forward.

A deliberative stocktaking is also part of slower thinking. China and India both commenced their historic trajectories of rapid growth, in 1979 and 1991 respectively, following major innovations in their policy regimes. Neither owes its economic success and poverty alleviation to ending corruption, recovering looted wealth, or indiscriminate harrassing of non-filers of income tax in countries where vast majorities do not even earn enough to be liable for taxation.

All these are lessons that are there for the learning, preferably sooner than later, but it would be much more ominous if the fast thinking on display masks a lost ability to think slow in policy terms. If that turns out to be the case, the merry men would push the country over into a certain catastrophe.    

This opinion was published in Express-Tribune on November 16, 2018 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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Hanif Kureishi, Naipaul and Pakistan

October 22, 2018

By Anjum Altaf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forty years later, it still is.

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

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The Morning After

September 29, 2018

By Anjum Altaf

It is a fact that no one outside Pakistan considers the most recent electoral exercise to have been even-handed — some analysts have gone so far as calling it a ‘soft coup.’ This is no surprise. Most outsiders also insist that Pakistan sponsors terrorism. But while there are many Pakistanis who contest the latter, it is striking that the number believing in the fairness of the recent electoral exercise is relatively small. Even partisans benefiting from the outcome, while offering various justifications, do not really dispute the charge.

It seems that in nudging the choice, the power elite (the segment of the elite that has the ability to affect other people’s lives) may have overplayed its hand. Does this, and the intervention itself, come at a price? Recall that negating the electoral mandate of 1971 resulted in dismemberment of the country. What kind of price might we expect this time around?

First, there is a clear loss of institutional credibility. While praetorian rule in the past was attributed to individuals — Ayub, Zia, Musharraf — the narrative this time is depersonalised and centred on the uniform — slogans are in the air that have never been heard before.

Second, there are still many Pakistanis who, while accepting the reality of nudging, justify it as being for the good because the previous dispensation was allegedly so corrupt and anti-national that giving it five more years would have spelled disaster for the country. This predicament arguably legitimized the use of any available means to replace the predecessors with an upright and patriotic team. If the expectations of this segment of the population are belied yet again, it could erode the legitimacy of the power elite, and its claim to represent the national interest, for good.

Third, the probability that the above-mentioned expectations could be fulfilled is not high. Leave aside the fact that the new dispensation is peopled largely by the same individuals who were part of the erstwhile lot of the corrupt, and subscribe, for the sake of argument, to the comforting myth that an honest leader could keep them in check. There is nevertheless no escaping the reality that no leader, however upright personally, can defy the structural imperatives that define a system and circumscribe the room for maneuver.

To start with, there are structural imperatives that push from below in a society characterised by widespread poverty and the dependance of the many on the few for rights and entitlements. With a parliamentary system, and the majority of electoral constituencies having a dominant rural vote, such a configuration cannot but throw up the kinds of power brokers now characterized as ‘electables.’ The motivations of such representatives, who have dominated Pakistani politics throughout, are well known and they do not barter their loyalties for free. Let us assume, however, that a truly great leader can keep them in check.

But then there are structural imperatives from above. A leader beholden to the power elite cannot but acquiesce to its dictates which means that foreign and defence policies could remain out of bounds. At the same time, if the leader is not inclined to take on the theocracy, the internal dynamics are unlikely to change if not become more dangerous — consider the abject surrender on Atif Mian. Add to this the constraints that would accompany the recourse to the IMF that has already been signalled as inevitable and the fiscal vice would tighten some more.

Pakistani politicians are very much reduced to the status of the princes in pre-Independence India who were rulers only in name while power was exercised by the British — they can revel and indulge thier egos in their restricted domains while the real business is conducted elsewhere. It is not any fault of of the politicians, just a reflection of the reality on the ground. The princes, to their credit, left us a glorious cultural heritage of art, poetry and music that continues to enrich our lives and provide solace in trying times. Our politicians have focused on enriching themselves and adding concrete to our lives. Imran Khan may make different choices but he would nevertheless be operating at the margins turning opulent rest houses into hotels and colleges.        

This is ironic because the broad framework outlined by Imran Khan points in the right direction — the country can move ahead only if it prioritises the productive uplift of the bottom forty percent and invests heavily in its security and human capital. But will there be enough left to do that after satisfying the obligations of all the paymasters listed above — defence, debt repayments, conditionalities, luxury imports, political payoffs, and the inevitable leakages — that would leave the kitty bare and beyond the reach of minor austerities and absurdities like forbidding cheese and inviting donations to build dams?

When Imran Khan recognises these constraints, as he inevitably will, and attempts to wriggle free of any of them, he will face the same reality as all those who have had the crown placed on their heads before him. And so one might expect the cycle to repeat and the status quo sustained. But there might well be an accompanying downward drift with the continued erosion of institutions and their loss of legitimacy. Already, we are in a surreal situation in which every organ of state is carrying out the functions intended for another. This is not a lasting arrangement and the lost time in which competing economies move further ahead could exert an enormous toll.

Pakistan has a very young population, poorly educated and trained, that is looking for employment to survive. What will happen when the dreams dissolve and its survival is at stake? I suppose one could tell them to go climb one of the trees that might be sprouting by that time. On the other hand, the descent into anarchy could accelerate, the power elite flee to its foreign abodes — Dubai, Jeddah, Paris, London — and the parties that have been mainstreamed as part of the electoral engineering step in to destroy the old and rotting system once and for all. This might well be a triumph that could bear the mark of a colossal tragedy in the making.

An edited version of this opinion was published in The News on September 27, 2018 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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Lessons from History

September 3, 2018

By Anjum Altaf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Better Cities — An Argument and a Manifesto

August 8, 2018

By Anjum Altaf

What is to be done when we believe strongly that the present in which we live falls very much short of what it ought to be? Clearly, we don’t need to prove that that is indeed the case —  widespread poverty, hunger, marginalization, discrimination, and exploitation stare us in the face every day.

While almost everyone, especially in countries like ours, agrees on the discontents of the present, there is a very clear split when it comes to thinking of what is to be done. There is a segment of the population that believes the solution lies in going back to a past in which all these problems did not exist. And there is a segment that believes that such a return is not possible simply because one cannot step into the same river twice — too many things have changed to allow a reconstruction of any, let alone some very distant, past. This latter segment believes that the only recourse is to build a better future.

A further division occurs at this point. There are those who believe that this task is best left to the benevolence of a larger power. Others believe that the onus is on people to strive to make the future that they desire. They believe that human beings have the agency to change situations for the better.

Our task is not to convince those who believe in returning to the past nor those who wish to leave the future to supernatural intervention. It is their democratic right to act in accordance with their beliefs.

Our task is to craft a manifesto for those who believe in human agency. But here again we are faced with two perspectives. We can choose to conceive an ideal utopia and strive for a meta systemic change that yields that utopian future. Or we can choose to work within an imperfect present and attempt to redress it one flaw at a time — the outcome would still be less than desired but better than what we started with. The premise is that if this process is followed consistently over time many of the most egregious flaws would be addressed. More importantly, there could be a snowball effect in which, by virtue of its achievements, the movement for change is strengthened by the addition of those who were sceptical and sitting on the margins at the outset.

Based on our experience we advocate the latter course of action. Issues that require intervention at the national scale, e.g., foreign and security policies, notwithstanding the reality that they have an immense bearing on the state of the present, are beyond the scope of the individual to influence at this time. Coalitions to attempt such change are virtually impossible to build even if one subscribed to the opinion that the vote, the primary vehicle for change at the national level, represents a true expression of the popular will.

Any feasible manifesto must perforce be a pragmatic one. It must delineate a scale of action at which the forces that are confronted and challenged are reasonably proportionate to the strength of those striving for change.

I propose that the city offers just such a scale and therefore the manifesto for a better future must be crafted around an agenda of municipal activism.

I propose that we concentrate on attracting a set of core municipal activists in as many cities as we can. Each set would then identify a program of action for its specific city under a common umbrella, e.g., Behtar Sialkot, Behtar Mardan, Behtar Shikarpur, Behtar Zhob, etc.

The first task of municipal activists in each city would be to identify the set of municipal rules and practices that lead to the most egregious injustices for its citizens. As a further concession to pragmatism this list would be reordered to enable the formation of the widest coalitions possible across the spectrum of municipal residents. The activists would then formulate the possible remedies within the law and including advocacy and lobbying of various forms.

These lists of actionable items and possible courses of actions would then be the subject of deliberations at a national convention of municipal activists — Behtar Pakistan. A steering committee would be formed to link the city teams and it would engage like-minded professionals at think-tanks, law firms, and universities to act as advisors to the initiative. Based on the outcome of these deliberations and the resulting guiding principles, each municipal team would commence the program of action in its city.

This argument and manifesto is set out as a preliminary call for discussion. Those who subscribe to its fundamental premise are welcome to provide their input. Based on the feedback, the manifesto would be finalized and readied for implementation.   

Dr. Anjum Altaf was dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS where he pursued research on small cities. He has a PhD in Engineering-Economic Systems from Stanford University. His writings on urban issues can be found at https://thesouthasianidea.wordpress.com/#Cities

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Governance Trap

July 18, 2018

By Anjum Altaf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Another Plea to the Chief Justice of Pakistan

April 12, 2018

By Anjum Altaf

Once upon a time there was an amenity plot assigned as a playground to a school in a central part of Karachi. Then, one day, the Government of Pakistan (GoP) took it over and handed it to the Ministry of Defence (MoD) which turned it to commercial use prompting the late Ardeshir Cowasjee to direct “A plea to the Lord Chief Justice” which appeared in this newspaper on 14.6.2009.

Lo and behold, the Lord Chief Justice took note, the case was brought to court, and a judgement pronounced on 18.12.2009 by Justice Jawwad S. Khawaja. What follows from court documents is a summary of this astounding land grab and an update of its status following the judgement.

According to the citizens the 5 acre plot was transferred by GoP to the City District Government Karachi (CDGK) on 12.8.1976 for the Lines Area Redevelopment Project and designated in the Master Plan as an amenity plot to be used as playground. It was subsequently claimed by GoP that while contiguous land was indeed transferred to CDGK, this particular plot was excluded and remained part of the Karachi Cantonment.

Following this reclamation, General Musharraf, the then military ruler, granted on 19.12.2002 a 90 years lease on the plot to the Army Welfare Trust (AWT) at the nominal yearly rent of Rs. 6,020 only. The court noted that contrary to its name that suggests some institutional affiliation with the Pakistan army, the AWT was registered as a Non-Government Organization, a private society, under the Societies Registration Act. It was however a fact that General Musharraf was at the time the ex-officio Patron of the AWT in his capacity of COAS.

On 31.7.2006, the AWT in turn transferred the land to a private party (Makro-Habib Pakistan Limited) by way of a sub-lease for an initial term of 30 years receiving an advance rent of Rs. 100,000,000 based on a variable annual amount of at least Rs. 17,500,000 and a maximum equivalent to 1% of the annual turnover of Makro-Habib which was initially incorporated as a joint venture between SHV, a Dutch multinational, and the House of Habib, a Pakistani corporate group. SHV held 70% of the equity in the venture but later divested its share to the House of Habib with permission to use the ‘Makro’ brand name. After the execution of the sub-lease, Makro-Habib constructed a wholesale centre on the plot.

Following a meticulous examination of the argument advanced by GoP, AWT, and Makro-Habib that the playground was not transferred to CDGK, the Court concluded it was “wholly untenable.” Based on this finding that the land was not the property of the MoD, both its lease of the land to AWT and the subsequent sub-lease to Makro-Habib were declared null and void. Makro-Habib was allowed “three months from the date of the judgement, to remove its structures and installations from the playground, restore it to the same condition as existed on the date of the sub-lease and hand over its vacant possession to the CDGK.”

The Court was also “led to the inescapable conclusion that Government land was virtually thrown away at great financial loss to the Government and in utter disregard of the CLA [Cantonment Land Administration] Rules.”

In addition, the Court referred specifically to a paragraph in a Ministry of Defence Summary for the Chief Executive dated 20.9.2002 which read as follows: “Since Rules do not permit leasing out defence land free of cost, MoD supports payment of nominal premium and rent by AWT, being a welfare organization.” With reference to this paragraph, the Court observed: “We have also noted the cynical play with the CLA Rules” and that the document “presents a damning indictment of dictatorial one man rule.”

The aggrieved parties filed a review petition against the decision which was dismissed by the Supreme Court on 27.8.2015. But even after the dismissal of the review petition, the orders of the Court remain outstanding. The Makro-Habib structure continues to stand although without transacting any business. The result is a lose-lose proposition in which a valuable property is fulfilling neither its original nor its engineered purpose.   

This unsatisfactory outcome prompts the following questions: How is it possible that a judgement of the Supreme Court can remain unimplemented for nine years? What is the recourse for citizens if Supreme Court judgements can be stonewalled even after the dismissal of review petitions? Why does the Supreme Court not have the powers to have its judgements implemented?

These are important questions and deserving of another plea to the Lord Chief Justice: Please take suo moto notice of why judgements on prior suo moto notices cannot be implemented. And if they cannot, to explain why the practice deserves to continue in the future.

This opinion appeared in Dawn on April 10, 2018, and is reproduced here with permission of the author. The author is indebted to Dr. Syed Raza Ali Gardezi for his critical review of the facts presented in this opinion. Dr. Gardezi continues to represent the citizens in this case.

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Living in Unhealthy Times

March 30, 2018

By Anjum Altaf

There was a time not too long ago when the burden of disease seemed disproportionately biased against the poor. That someone was always dying among ‘these’ people was the irritated refrain of many an exasperated ‘Begum.’ ‘Fauteedgi’ (an event of death) was a dreaded word that came to be interpreted as a ready excuse to buy a few days off for the staff.

Times have changed. It is hard now to find an affluent family without its own share of prolonged and painful illnesses and ‘fauteedgis,’ often premature. The speed at which graveyards are filling up in rich communities tells a story if anyone is willing to listen.

What happened? Simply, money reached its limit in the ability to buy health. It could protect against many of the factors that caused the most mortality amongst the poor but lost its edge once the factors proliferated.

Take the causes of the majority of the deaths amongst the poor — dirty water and unsafe sanitation. The rich could afford to boil water, filter it, or even switch to the bottled alternative. And everyone who could, moved to a faraway housing society served by water closets and underground sewers. ‘Whoosh’ and the offensive stuff was gone — out of sight, out of mind. Instead of cleaning up the city, the state obliged these fugitives from pestilence favouring them with ring roads and signal-free corridors to transport them back to their places of work quite oblivious to the toxic emissions being added to the environment.

More of this pursuit of one-dimensional progress led to pollution of the air which was a leveller in terms of its negative effects upon the citizenry. The rich could still isolate themselves partially by living in air-conditioned homes, travelling in air-conditioned cars, and working in air-conditioned offices. Still, the protection was not complete and the Begums walking briskly in the public parks and the menfolk indulging in outdoor sports were forced to inhale the same carcinogens that inhabited the air they shared with the have-nots.

Then, along the way, another discriminant between the haves and the have-nots, started to come undone. The quality of food in cities, both cooked and raw, took a nosedive with growing doubts about the safety of virtually any product on the market. The causes were many — plain greed on the part of producers, the failure of quality control on the part of the state, and industrial progress itself with the increasing use of chemicals and chemical processes to increase the weight and shelf-life of produce. There were few who could continue to source their ‘asli’ (pure) supplies from ancestral villages and, for once, the refuge of the rich — processed foods — only added to the likelihood of negative outcomes.

It took a while, but the burden of disease became much more equalized. It did not lessen for the poor but increased sufficiently for the affluent to become a matter of private concern and grief — the number of ‘quls’ (prayers for the dead) per month the affluent felt called upon to attend became occasions for the sharing of woeful tales.

Turn now to the other side of the picture. There was a time when the affluent could literally afford to inoculate themselves against the most common diseases of the poor like diarrhea, cholera, smallpox, measles, etc. But such inoculations were less effective against the carcinogens that began to percolate through polluted air, toxic waterbodies, and contaminated foods. Not only that, it became increasingly difficult to tell spurious medicines from the genuine articles and the overall quality of medical care declined precipitously with the glut of poorly trained providers graduating from substandard private colleges. Once again, the regulators turned a blind eye to what was happening in the pursuit of short-term gains as if money could ward off the damages being inflicted on their own bodies.

There are still a very few left who can afford to travel to Dubai or London or New York for their medical checkups but since they have been ruling the country there is no relief in sight for the rest, rich or poor. A government for the people would recognize that the path to good health requires attention to basics that are simple to conceive and implement — clean water and clean air, safe sanitation and safe food, unadulterated medicines and regulated healthcare, compact cities and public transportation.  

Simple as these measures are, there is little possibility of an intelligent response to the warning signs. In 1952, despite persistent warnings from scientists of precisely such a disaster, a killer smog descended on London killing 4,000 in less than a week and accounting for another 8,000 premature deaths in the months that followed. Do we need a catastrophe of such magnitude to wake up to the obvious dangers accumulating in our environment?

This opinion was published in Dawn on March 21, 2018 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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