Accountability and policies – Part I

May 24, 2020

If you ask about the most important factors behind the failure or success of a policy, accountability would emerge as one of the most important factors. But before discussing that, let’s...

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If you ask about the most important factors behind the failure or success of a policy, accountability would emerge as one of the most important factors. But before discussing that, let’s discuss what some readers have termed as confusion in my previous column about the difference between development and progress.

First, even in academic literature there is no consensus on unanimous definition of such terms. Second, this series of articles is for general and nonacademic readers so there is no harm in presenting complicated concepts with simple ideas. As discussed in the previous column, we may consider development as a much broader concept than progress, but you don’t necessarily have to agree with this simplification. Taking an example from education, one makes progress by completing a certificate course or earning a degree. One certificate or degree completes an educational task and you make progress.

But how much that progress has actually contributed to your development is a different question. You may have to make progress in multiple – consecutive or parallel – educational tasks before you can claim to have developed intellectually. It may or may not involve certificates or degrees. That’s why not all degree-holders are intellectually developed. We may also try to understand this by the concepts of growing old or growing up. When we complete each year of our life, we make some progress by achieving one task of getting one year older. That is progress, not development.

Nearly everyone grows old, but not everyone grows up. Growing up involves substantial development with progress in multiple directions, before somebody can be counted as a grown-up human being. Perhaps the same applies to countries and nations; we are a 73-year-old country, but as a nation how grown up we are is anybody’s guess. Yes, as a country we have made some progress, but development? You tell me. Let’s take one last example from the health sector. We build a clinic or hospital, we make some progress. How much that contributes to the development of general health of people is a different question.

Coming back to our topic of accountability and policies, first we need to be clear about what we mean by accountability. Going by the claims of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) in Pakistan, it has recovered billions of rupees by plea bargains with the corrupt. Well that is some progress; but how far that has contributed to actual reduction of corruption in Pakistani society is a development question. But NAB’s definition of accountability is confined to financial malpractices only. When we talk about accountability as a major factor for failure or success of policies, we have a much broader concept in mind.

Accountability essentially is an obligation to justify actions or decisions. This accountability -- or obligation – may apply to a group, an institution, or a person, who has followed a line of action or has made some decisions that affect other people. A policy, in simple words, is a line of action or decisions, and the thought process behind it. When a group, an institution, or a person makes a policy that affects other groups, institutions, or persons, there has to be some accountability, meaning an obligation to justify those actions, decisions, and the thought process behind it.

This may apply to all policies: from business or corporate policies to defence, development, domestic, economic, and foreign policies to many others. Let’s broaden our discussion and have a look at China. When China occupied Tibet, or decided to contain or even suppress the national and religious aspirations of the Uighur population in Xinjiang, it was following a certain policy – a line of action and made some decisions based on a thought process. That policy may or may not be in a written form. The leadership in China made a policy decision and the army and the party followed it.

Was there any accountability nationally or internationally? Nationally, people were suppressed and internationally there was some condemnation, and that’s it. These actions and decisions crossed the boundaries of many policies such as defence, domestic, and foreign policies. When the policies of the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution were initiated and implemented from the 1950s to 1970s, they affected millions of people and resulted in unspeakable hardships and sufferings of the common Chinese people and even of many party activists and leaders. Was there any accountability of anyone? You may read and find for yourself.

But China is an authoritarian communist country, you say. All right, let’s take another example of the world’s largest democracy, or so they claim. India in the mid-1970s was under the yoke of Indira Gandhi. Though the democratic traditions in India were strong at least in terms of multiparty democracy and regular elections, a nearly independent judiciary, and fairly vibrant press. And it so happened that when Indira Gandhi wanted to assert her authority, she made some policy decisions and took a line of action. The thought process behind that policy was assertive and authoritarian.

The judiciary was manipulated, media subdued, opposition nearly crushed and for a couple of years there was no accountability – Indira did not feel obliged to justify her actions and decisions. Again, her policy cut across many dimensions from development and domestic policies to economic and judicial ones. But since India was a functioning democracy, she was held accountable by the people of India who threw her out of power and replaced her with a new government. Which itself was removed by due process of electoral accountability and the people brought Indira back within three years.

But both China and India were developing countries, prone to such authoritarian tendencies; well, you are right again. Let’s take the most developed country in the world, the USA. The 1950s was an era of McCarthyism. A policy of communist witch-hunt was followed for almost a decade, and targeted not hundreds but thousands of left-leaning activists, actors, directors, intellectuals, and anybody who could be suspected of being a communist or simply a sympathizer. Can it be called a policy? Oh, yes. It was initiated by none other than President Truman, who signed a policy document in 1947 to start investigations against suspected communists.

Was there any accountability? Yes there was; the courts, the media, and the senate itself finally sprung to action and put paid to McCarthyism, and Senator McCarthy himself died a broken man just at the age of 48 in 1957. The Supreme Court led by Chief Justice Earl Warren and media anchor Edward Murrow played an important role in bringing down political suppression and McCarthy himself. As an aside, if you are interested in this type of accountability you may watch the marvelous movie ‘Good Night and Good Luck’ directed by George Clooney in 2007.

But then look at the American policy in Afghanistan, Iraq, and back to Vietnam, resulting in millions of casualties. Has there been any accountability, apology, or even expression of regret? Let me know if you can recall one. What about Muslim countries? Let’s finish this column by one example of the largest Muslim majority country in the world: Indonesia. The first leader of independent Indonesia Dr Sukarno formulated a policy of non-alignment and was successful in it. But then, a policy made by General Suharto resulted in over a million deaths of mostly innocent Indonesians.

In conclusion the point is, if there is accountability the people are bound to explain and justify their policies, meaning their lines of action and decision that affect other people. Without accountability, mostly there are disasters.

To be continued

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.


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