Posts Tagged ‘Pakistan’

Language and Society

May 21, 2019

By Anjum Altaf

There is something intriguing about the use of script and language in Pakistan that is crying out for an explanation. My observations of the phenomenon began in the metropolis before being extended to small cities and rural towns in the Punjab but the story is more interestingly narrated in the reverse order.

Next time you are in a rural town in the Punjab raise your eye-level from the cell phone to the shopfront and you shall see virtually all the shop signs in the Urdu script. This is to be expected as very few people in such places can read English. But look again — almost every sign is a transliteration into Urdu script of an English name. The most humble khoka is a ‘Cold Corner’ or a ‘Jus Shop’ written, of course, as pronounced in Urdu — kaarner for corner and shaap for shop. Once attuned to the pattern, you will see Bismillah Burger Point, Iqbal’s Beauty and Hair Salon, Butt Tailoring Services, Well Dress Garments, The Knowledge School System for Boys and Girls, etc., etc. Exceptions would be rare.

Shop Sign

The underlying phenomenon is the same in the small city except that names would now be written in both scripts reflecting the presence of a sizeable population familiar with English. Once you get to the posh areas of the metropolis, however, the Urdu script disappears altogether mirroring the clientele that communicates almost entirely in English. It is like being in California surrounded by Coffee Planet, Gloria Jeans and the like. Even Bundu Khan announces itself in English. The only unusual aspect in such environs, especially if you look at the billboards, is a coy use of Urdu written in the English script — slogans like ‘jeet ke jeeo,’ etc.

So, what’s going on? It needs an expert like Dr. Tariq Rahman to fully interpret the phenomenon but to a layperson like me it seems that the vast majority associates English so obviously with superior quality that even a lowly khoka senses the advantage of labelling itself a ‘kold kaarner.’ This is even more the case for services like education or training of any kind — varieties of ‘shaart’ courses are advertised all over in the Urdu script. Only the thin sliver of the population that has arrived because of its facility with English can afford the reverse snobbery of using Urdu words in its messaging.

This inference is strengthened by the observation that such linguistic practices are confined to goods and services for sale. Civic and moral injunctions continue to be written in Urdu as spoken in the language rather than rendered into more impressive English versions. There is no attempt to raise the acceptability of messages like ‘yahan peshaab karna sakht manaa hai’ or ‘namaaz qaim karo.’

(It is quite possible that the phenomenon I have highlighted is peculiar to the rural towns and small cities of Punjab and may differ in comparable localities in other provinces. I have asked a colleague to extend the scope of the observations and produce what could be a very interesting photo essay. Meanwhile, I request readers to email me any amusing signs they come across in their travels.)

Once alerted to these linguistic anomalies, you will begin to notice other things as well. When I say ‘shukria’ or ‘meherbani’ after getting the receipt at a toll booth the reply received more often than not is ‘welcome.’ I have often wondered how the power inequality in Pakistan stemming from differential access to English can be overcome. Many educational policies are framed on the premise that the mastery of the many can be raised to the level of the privileged few by making English the universal medium of instruction right from the very beginning. Alas, this is impossible given the quality of English language teaching in public and most private schools for the majority. (Pedagogical Alert: The policy is also ruinous for the cognitive development of young children — ask any expert in early childhood education.)

The realization of this impossibility may well be the reason for the radical choice of software used to provide road directions and to manage queues in offices. Both the language and the accent is American English in an environment where the majority of users are unfamiliar with either. I have become used to Multen, Mo-zang and Kasher (Kasur) roads but was completely floored recently by the instruction to turn left on Gallamandi road. For a moment I fantasized being in Italy till the illusion was shattered by a sign in Urdu pointing to Ghalla Mandi.

Our linguistic confusions are compounded by the fact that Urdu, unlike say Hindi, is very carefree with its pronunciation and use of diacritical signs. At a toll plaza in a Daewoo bus, one is always inundated with phone calls from passengers informing families that they have arrived at the ‘tool’ plaza. In this vein, many English signs written in Urdu can be a source of great amusement. I always have a silent laugh at a ‘Police Check Post’ thinking of their cheeks, silent because laughing at the police and the like is most likely a punishable offence in Pakistan.

A striking occurrence of this nature was witnessed at the time of the last elections when, looking up, I spotted an electoral symbol in Urdu written simply as BLA (Bay-Laam-Alif). For a while, one couldn’t figure out if it was really bla (as in the Shah of Blah) or balaa or bilaa or bulaa or balla or billa or bulla. Reverting as one does to one’s own language in dire circumstances, I could only worry about the cost of such sloppiness and mutter, again under my breath, jal tu jalaal tu, aaii balaa ko taal tu.

Many things are changing in Pakistan as is to be expected. Is it possible that linguistic changes of the type highlighted above are signalling a certain direction for the evolution of our society or are they just harmless epiphenomena that can be enjoyed without wasting a worry?    

This opinion was published in Dawn on May 19, 2019 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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Pakistan, Sir Ian Botham, Mothers-in-Law, and Dried Milk

May 4, 2019

By Ibn-e Eusuf

The political scenario in Pakistan is so surreal that only a seemingly far-fetched analogy can highlight its unreal realities.

Imagine the MI5 in the UK, fed up with the incompetence of Conservative and Labour politicians over Brexit, conspiring to install Sir Ian Botham as Prime Minister and selling him as the Great White Hope because he had been a hugely successful and popular cricketer. Now imagine a lady, from deep in the Yorkshire moors, emerging to declare Sir Ian Botham not only great and popular but specially sent by the Almighty to save the British nation from itself and lead it from hell to heaven. Sir Ian Botham weds the miracle-bearing lady, the union accompanied by a huge resurgence of otherwise agnostic people praying in churches for the health of the couple and the nation. A delighted Archbishop of Canterbury declares it the Event of the Millennium and Sir Ian Botham is both anointed a Saint and appointed Chancellor of Durham University to signal the blessed marriage of the sacred and the secular.

What would we in Pakistan make of above scenario?

Before we could make anything of it, in the twinkling of a nystagmus eye, a coalition of wily old foxes, sharpshooters, and eternal optimists would immediately spot the silver lining recalling that Ian Botham (then unknighted) had, during England’s 1983-84 tour of Pakistan, declared the host country “a place where every mother-in-law should be sent for a month.” Anticipating the speedy issuance of one-way tickets to Pakistan for all British mothers-in-law, since Great Men not only never forget but get more messianic with age, the coalition rubber-stamped post-haste the revolutionary visa-on-arrival scheme to signal their ever readiness for manna, or in this case mamma, from heaven which would yield an immense boost to our tourism industry flailing because of all the vituperative and fake news spread by our enemies regarding various ailing but virtuous Maulanas and their doings. Visionary images of dried milk flowing in Pakistan, accompanied, of course, by the obligatory honey given that it is an Islamic country, were plastered all over the crumbling walls and the drooling mealy mouths of TV anchors while an immensely grateful populace, including public servants on duty, redoubled their attendance at mosques to thank the Almighty for sending such wonderful sporting heroes with equally wonderful albeit mysterious spouses along with their divinely mandated handlers to our wretched world to entertain as well as to dispense justice and fair play sometimes from the tops of very mundane containers.

Allah be praised — truly no one can ever know His unknowable ways.

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The Warfare State

March 6, 2019

By Anjum Altaf

Pakistan should be a welfare state. With millions of people straddling the poverty line, there is no other way forward. Those who believe the market will offer a solution are driven by ideology, blind fundamentalists in the same category as religious fundamentalists.

Only the state can cater for such destitution and the fact that a state has no interest or ability to do so does not mean that the task should be turned over to the market. The plain truth is that the market cares nothing for those without the ability to pay and there are many more in that category than should be acceptable. Not just that, without a strong state the market doesn’t trickle wealth down it siphons it up. The only viable alternative is to force the state to deliver on its responsibility and in the long run the only peaceful weapon citizens have to achieve that is the power of their votes. Let not this power be exhausted by either subverting it or ignoring its claims. The demand for bread can be fobbed off only so long with the promise of cakes.

We should pay heed to the fact that instead of moving towards a welfare state we are consciously turning into even more of a warfare state than we already happen to be. It is in this context that one should consider the most astounding decision of the cabinet delivered without any sense of irony by the Minister for Information at the time of the recent mini-budget: “The country’s defence budget is already low as compared to other states in the region, and therefore it should be increased.”

Hello, Mr. Minister. The country’s budget for everything else — health, education, public transport, environmental sanitation, you name it — is also already low as compared to other states in the region. So why just the privileging of defence? On the contrary, the budget for everything else is being reduced even further to make up for the increase.

The deficit is intended to be made up “through the generation of more revenue” but given that no elite has ever taxed itself voluntarily except under extreme duress, this burden of taxation is also likely to fall on the middle and lower classes through dubious withholding taxes on cell phones and the like.

In actual fact the deficit is being made up by scrounging around for a billion here and a billion there on terms that cannot be disclosed to citizens and by printing money like there is no tomorrow. All that the printed money is causing is inflation that is eroding the purchasing power of the helpless even further. I am sure the poor are ready to sacrifice for the nation but what does the interest of the nation entail? Is it always more guns at the cost of butter? And will the sacrifice ever be equitably shared or will one category continue to be evicted from tiny plots where they have lived for decades while others are allotted plots on which pets live better than the humans who feed them?

Where is the sense of irony in all this? Recall the out-of-the-box policy of some wizard in the Economic Advisory Committee who advocated a ban on imported cheese with the justification: “Does a country that has no foreign exchange afford to eat cheese?”

Hello, again, Mr. Jack-in-the-Box. Granted a country that has no foreign exchange ought not to eat imported cheese but can its leaders still afford to fly around in helicopters and ride in SUVs? Why doesn’t the cabinet set an example by getting to work on camels and setting up offices in tents instead of sprawling complexes with perpetual air-conditioning? And while they are demonstrating how people — all people — ought to be living in a country with no foreign  exchange, why don’t they turn off the hot water as well since that has now been declared a luxury in the New Pakistan?

Have we learned nothing from history? The Soviet Union collapsed ballooning its defence budget while making people wait in endless queues for the necessities of life. Countries that neglect the minimum welfare of their citizens and fight endless futile wars get hollowed out from within and ultimately implode. This insight was obvious even to a President like Reagan who was otherwise not a very bright man. All the US had to do was to engage the Soviet Union in an endless arms race and the latter ran out of space.

Modi is a much sharper politician and he is following the exact same strategy with Pakistan — no negotiations till the room for maneuver disappears. And we are blithely helping him along. When two countries are developing at radically different rates, every day that passes weakens the negotiating position of the laggard till the only recourse left is capitulation or the madness of mutual destruction.

Verily it is said that those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad. And when they wish to destroy completely, they make them madder still.

This opinion was published in Dawn on March 3, 2019 and is reproduced here with  permission. Anjum Altaf is the author of Transgressions: Poems Inspired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz published recently by Aakar Books, Delhi.

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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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