Posts Tagged ‘Reform’

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.

Back to Main Page

Advertisements

CSS: A Summing Up

June 2, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to Main Page

Education Reform in India

December 19, 2009

Excerpts from the foreword by Professor Yash Pal to the Report of ‘The Committee to Advise on Renovation and Rejuvenation of Higher Education.’ December 2009.

 

(We are gratified that the logic of the report supports the premises of The South Asian Idea.)

We were struck by the fact that over the years we have followed policies of fragmenting our educational enterprise into cubicles. We have overlooked that new knowledge and new insights have often originated at the boundaries of disciplines. We have tended to imprison disciplinary studies in opaque walls. This has restricted flights of imagination and limited our creativity. This character of our education has restrained and restricted our young right from the school age and continues that way into college and university stages. (more…)

Education in Pakistan: Ten Big Questions

March 31, 2009

By Anjum Altaf

This is an edited version of the submission made on behalf of the International Coalition for Education Reform in Pakistan (ICERP) to the Pakistan Conference organized by students at Harvard and MIT. The questions are intended to stimulate discussion; supporting arguments can be found in the listed resources. A number of the resources pertain to India reflecting the generic issues common to the two countries.

The Big Questions

1. Why is Pakistan still half illiterate?

The lack of political will or of money are not convincing answers. There is not enough political pressure to make education a high priority issue for governments. Ruling elites tolerate only as much mass education as is necessary because it is subversive of the status quo especially in societies based on oppression.

2. Can NGOs fill the gap?

The arithmetic does not support this contention. The issue of scale is important. The problem is too large and growing at a rate faster than the capacity (physical and financial) of the NGOs to eliminate it. The only effective solution is reform of the public education system.

3. Is illiteracy the main problem in Pakistan?

All management and decision-making has been in the hands of the educated and it has been abysmal. Blaming the illiterates reflects either the ignorance or the callousness of the literate.

4. Why are the educated increasingly bigoted and intolerant?

The content of education and the style of pedagogy are both problematic and need attention. A literate individual taught to accept falsehoods and prejudice unquestioningly would be more dangerous than an illiterate person. There is a difference between education and indoctrination.

5. What is the problem with the content?

In the worst case, the content has been subverted to promote ideological objectives. In the best case, it is oriented to the job market and is overly information and skill oriented. The humanities that inculcate critical thinking are considered a waste of time and poorly taught. The product is either an unthinking ideologue or technician. The technician could be very competent but not likely to be innovative or flexible.

6. What is the problem with pedagogy?

The pedagogical style rewards memorization and suppresses critical thinking. This can be by intent, by self-censorship motivated by fear of persecution, or by capacity constraints imposed by very large class sizes.

7. What is wrong with philanthropy in Pakistan?

NGOs set internal goals like doubling the number of students enrolled in five years and celebrate their achievement even though such goals have no relevance to the scale of the problems they wish to address. In unequal societies, philanthropy is primarily a vehicle for feeling good not for effectively solving problems. Charity is laudable if the objective is to be charitable. It should not be conflated with problem solving.

8. What is the ideal role of NGOs?

NGOs have a vital and critical role to play but it is not one of filling the resource gap. NGOs should be experimenting with new content, pedagogy, incentives, and financing mechanisms to be mainstreamed into the public education system. They should be acting on behalf of citizens as a lobby to raise the political priority of education and presenting effective models for reform of the public education system.

9. Can the existing problem be solved in the traditional way?

The resource gaps, especially in teaching capacity, are now too large and the vested interests too entrenched to allow traditional approaches to succeed. Recourse to modern technology (Internet and mobile phones) is needed to leapfrog barriers of state resistance, mass illiteracy, and low incomes. Note that mobile phone is a technology that will scale to the magnitude of the problem and become more functional at the same time. By 2020 almost every individual is expected to have access to a mobile phone and the ability to afford it. Experiments have confirmed that illiteracy is not a bar to the acquisition of knowledge and information.

10. What is the bottom line?

Access to education and control of content are as much political issues as social or financial ones. They need a political strategy spearheaded by NGOs and backed by technological innovations overcoming state resistance, capacity constraints and income limitations.

Resources

  1. International Coalition for Educational Reform in Pakistan.
  2. Elite Dominance and Under-investment in Mass Education (Indian States).
  3. Annual Status of Education Report 2008 (Rural India).
  4. Are NGOs Relevant?
  5. On Philanthropy.
  6. The Subtle Subversion: the State of Curricula and Textbooks in Pakistan.
  7. Producing Thinking Minds.
  8. The Problem with the Educated Middle Class.
  9. Technology and Education: Internet; Mobile Phone.
  10. The South Asian Idea.

Dr. Anjum Altaf is a member of the advisory council of the International Coalition for Education Reform in Pakistan and a contributor to The South Asian Idea, an experimental e-learning resource for college students in South Asia. Contact: thesouthasianidea@gmail.com

Back to Main Page