Start with tackling deprivation

July 31,2018

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As I wrote last week, the new incoming government will be welcomed by four major crises that need to be tackled urgently.

The first is the macroeconomic crisis – Pakistan needs to generate more foreign exchange than it currently does, and this will entail an IMF programme, or a bilateral injection of cash, or a bond or sukuk issue, or some combination of these. Dealing with this crisis will mean that the new government, through no fault of its own, will start off by having to explain some inflationary trends and questions about what is new or different about it. How this crisis is managed will shape the economic trajectory, and political perception of this trajectory, for at least the first year of the new government. One hopes the PTI has a clear plan for how it will manage.

The second crisis is the degree to which international confidence in Pakistan leaves the country vulnerable to economic, military and political attacks from its enemies. Dealing with this requires a Foreign Office that is agile, capable and conscious that it operates in the 21st century.

The third is a severe lack of trust between the elected civilian leaders, the military, the judiciary and the national media. This crisis will not be solved by merely saying the right thing, or even doing it. It will require the new leadership of the country, starting with Imran Khan, to proactively seek and destroy irritants in relationships between institutions and within them. The clumsy interventions in the election have unnecessarily stained the exercise. To avoid a long-term stench, and ensure that parliamentary debates are focused on policy instead of on “mujhay kiyoun nikala”, the PTI will need to continue to demonstrate the same uncharacteristic grace and maturity that Khan gave the nation a glimpse of during his post-election victory speech.

The fourth and most serious crisis is the dual threat of economic deprivation, on the one hand, and political disenfranchisement on the other. Combined, the Pakistani that feels left behind, left out and with no path to a better life is the most potent threat to the country’s bright future.

The good news is that the last decade has demonstrated both the overarching consciousness within the mainstream Pakistani body politic that this problem exists and the evidence that attempts to tackle it have been made.

Let’s take stock of the efforts already made. The Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) basically began as unconditional cash grants to women-led households below a certain income level. Today, it operates multiple cash grants, including conditional ones that reward those families that educate their children. The Prime Minister’s Youth Loans Scheme, the Punjab Chief Minister’s Laptop Scheme, scholarship programmes like Zevar-e-Taleem and the Punjab Educational Endowment Fund (PEEF), and the Balochistan Aghaaz-e-Huqooq programme are all instruments devised by the previous two democratic governments to tackle economic deprivation and the sense of political disenfranchisement, particularly among young people.

No programme is perfect, but these programmes clearly indicate that the political elite has sought to assuage the obvious contempt and disconnect that many young people feel towards the Pakistan that has left them behind. The bad news is that, even all combined, the efforts thus far are nowhere nearly good enough.

To understand the depth of the deprivation issue, we need to look no further than our honourable chief justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan. How is he able to conduct inspection tours of hospitals, medical colleges and prisons with no discernible sense of panic about jurisdiction in the national media?

The seemingly unlimited appetite of the chief justice to engage in public affairs that stretch far beyond the jurisdiction of our courts goes unchallenged because

the chief justice has tapped into a long-standing and unmet demand for someone in a position of power to demonstrate that he or she actually cares about the struggles of ordinary people. As early as next week, the burden of the chief justice’s inspection regime will have to be borne by Imran Khan, regardless of the fact that none of it outside Khyber Pakhtunkhwa can be blamed on him.

Instead of meekly claiming institutional victimhood, the incoming government should consider establishing a mechanism that brings the voice of the people directly to the leader that the country seems to have voted for in reasonably large numbers. A toll-free number such as 11 KHIDMAT or 111 INSAAF that rings at a large call centre that then connects to the relevant provincial and local authorities may be helpful. Luckily, the new government does not need to begin from scratch. Under Shahbaz Sharif, many brilliant officers across Punjab were encouraged to innovate and find ways to address people’s problems. A former DMG officer named Zubair Bhatti created something called the Jhang Model as DCO Jhang. That model was taken to scale by Dr Umar Saif at PITB. It may not be perfect or even everything it is advertised to be, but it represents the kind of effort PTI leaders need to examine and build on.

Such innovations are often seen as gimmicks by dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists. Those same folks that neither want the chief justice meddling in administrative affairs, nor want private talent serving in government, nor want bright young officers to have the space to innovate. It would be a mistake to treat all traditionalists with contempt. A great deal of wisdom and judgement will be required by the new government to discern the few bureaucrats that are genuine blockers of good ideas and innovation, from the majority of bureaucrats that want to serve this country just as much as you or I do – but who are tasked with following rules and protecting the republic.

A call centre that complains directly to the prime minister may be a terrible idea from a classical governance standpoint – but classical governance isn’t what has led Imran Khan and his team to the PM Office. The PTI must listen carefully to what the Pakistani people have said in this election.

They have undoubtedly voted for change a la PTI. But they also voted, in large numbers, for more electricity and better roads and infrastructure (ie PML-N), and they voted in various regions for their identities to be recognised (MQM-P, BNP-M, ANP, PkMAP, MMA). Perhaps most importantly, they voted for the Tehreek-e-Labbaik. In Punjab, the TLP received the third most votes of all parties. In Sindh, it won at least two provincial assembly seats.

Pakistan haters in India and the West will use the PTI win and the advancement of the TLP as a sure sign that the country is veering off a cliff and into Taliban rule (utter nonsense). And many uber-patriots will protest any ink being used to write about them at all. But the truth is that TLP votes are more an expression of socio-economic hopelessness than they are of ideological fervour.

The PPP and the PML-N have ceded ground to the PTI for many reasons, not all of them fair or organic. But the most important one tends to be talked about the least. The Pakistani that feels left behind, left out and with no path to a better life has spoken in this election. Imran Khan and the PTI better listen, and do something to assuage them. These Pakistanis need jobs, and income support, and skills. And they need to feel that they are being heard. And it all needs to begin next week.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.


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