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Wednesday May 22, 2024

Reimagining governance

By Mosharraf Zaidi
April 23, 2024
In this picture taken on April 16, 2023, people throng a market area during shopping in Lahore. — AFP
In this picture taken on April 16, 2023, people throng a market area during shopping in Lahore. — AFP

One of the frameworks that has been most influential in shaping my understanding of governance has been the Capability, Accountability and Responsiveness or CAR framework, developed in the early 2000s by my then-colleagues at the artist formerly known as DfID (Department for International Development).

DfID used to be the development ministry within the UK government, and during Boris Johnson’s run as prime minister, it was absorbed into the country’s foreign ministry and is now part of the wider FCDO. DfID’s ideas about governance were central to how the issue of governance was thought about for the first two decades of this century in part because the UK has had, at least until Brexit, an outsized influence on how international aid and assistance is talked about, disbursed and spent.

The dizzying pace of China’s growth as a global leader, the gradual withdrawal of the West from its position of moral leadership over the last two decades, and the rise of middle powers like Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia has meant that governance is defined more and more diversely than ever before. What was unthinkable even a decade ago is now widely embraced and what was widely seen to be sacrosanct is no longer even part of the conversation.

A religious extremist like Narendra Modi is held up by Western governments and businesses as the epitome of democratic reform. Rapid economic growth and its ability to create jobs for Americans and Europeans are increasingly the only metrics that matter in Washington DC, New York, Brussels and Geneva. These changes have profound implications for countries in the ‘Global South’ – and especially those whose elites are lazy and incapable of finding their own voice and purpose in a fast-changing, always dynamic world.

Pakistani elites are a perfect archetype for the floundering among the countries of the Global South. Remember: most developing countries are still floundering. It is easy to get caught up in the narratives of a handful of successful, positive-trajectory countries. It is also easy to misdiagnose exactly what they have got right and what most countries, including Pakistan, keep getting wrong.

India is in a category all its own – even prior to the rapid economic growth it has experienced since the turn of the century, India had a tradition of forming and sticking to its own postures and approaches – both to domestic public policy and to how it related to the rest of the world. Bangladesh, as an exemplar, is over-referenced in Pakistan because it used to be the same country. It continues to enjoy impressive economic growth and admirably balance great and rising powers. But it is hardly a world-beater. Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia are all much better positioned to be seen as exemplars.

In each of these examples, the distinctive differential is how they stack up on the Capability, Accountability and Responsiveness framework. But because each of these three terms is so generic and often poorly understood, it is easy to misdiagnose exactly how more successful countries leverage their systemic capability, accountability and responsiveness – and how less successful ones waste even the little capability, accountability and responsiveness that their systems have. To see this clearly, we need to lay out each term as it relates to governance in 2024.

Capability is the getting things done metric within the CAR framework. Can a system do things? Can it do them fast? Can it do them in a manner that people can see? Maybe even a manner in which people like that things are getting done? Can a system do things within a reasonable budget, or at least a budget that doesn’t make the thing that is being done unpopular? Capability is not just the “delivery” angle of governance. It is delivery aligned with context – political and financial.

Traditionally, Pakistan has been seen by foreigners as a high-capability country, largely because of a well-trained generalist bureaucracy that can hang with the best in the world when it comes to speaking about Pakistan. The Pakistani elite have hung their hat on this generic capability for the last two decades at great cost because even though the bureaucracy continues to be very highly capable by the metrics of twenty years ago, it has gradually lost the relevance and ability to be effective by the metrics of today. The big deltas that have worked against Pakistani ‘capability’ in this era have been demography, global geopolitics, and technology.

Accountability is the most misleading of the three legs of the CAR framework. It traditionally means exactly what it seems to mean – but in Pakistan, it has always meant something different. Accountability is the formal recognition that individuals and organizations are answerable for their performance. First-order reactions to this in Pakistan are always about civil-military relations, or about financial management and fiduciary risk. But these are distractions from what accountability should mean.

Accountability is whether anyone is ever rewarded for getting things done (demonstrating capability) or punished for not getting things done. Listen to the most seasoned political analysts in Pakistan and they will tell you, “Vote delivery ka nahin hai”. Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif – whose entire personal brand is built on delivery – laments this. His opponents, both inside his party and among the opposition, celebrate it.

But the wider point gets missed here – much to Pakistan’s disadvantage. Accountability is impossible if there are no institutionalized or formal relationships between key actors in the critical pathways of governance. The dismantling of the 2006-2010 reforms (Lawyers Movement, 18th Amendment, 7th NFC) has had a cancerous and enduring impact above all: it has destroyed whatever little accountability there was in the Pakistani governance landscape.

From the patwari, to the judge, to the station master, to the commander, to the district commissioner, to the sub-inspector, to the XEN, there is a wholesale erosion of the system’s ability to do the things it is supposed to do. Here too, demography and technology have played a role – but a bigger and more important story in this might be the manner in which a focus on accountability is lost because of the third leg of the CAR framework: responsiveness.

Responsiveness used to be about the behaviours of the public sector (where capability was about the attributes and accountability was about relationships) but it has evolved into the great lie of governance. In Pakistan, it has become a farce of epic proportions. When the cameras are on. no political system in the world is more ‘responsive’. From the assistant commissioner, keen to score followers and likes on social media, to the newly crowned political heir, keen to establish his or her independent stature as a leader, to formal military institutions, keen to set the tone on important issues, to government ministers, keen to demonstrate their loyalty to either Rawalpindi or their political overlords – the pantomime of faux responsiveness has blown a hole the size of Balochistan in the wider governance matrix of the country.

If a newspaper or a television channel has a story that individual incident will receive a wave of attention which will make the entire system feel like it is engaged in doing what the system is supposed to do (thereby falsely building a sense of achievement) in governance. Worse, the noises around that incident will give the key actors and protagonists from the government a false sense of having demonstrated a keen sense of accountability. Yet few if any will ever ask why that story or that incident took place to begin with. Fewer still will ask how many more such stories or incidents take place every day – without the benefits of the lights, camera and action that a DSNG has brought to that single story or incident.

Combined, global geopolitics, Pakistan’s demography and the influence of technology have created a car wreck of the CAR framework. The US, Nato and ISAF are long gone from Afghanistan, and India is the proxy of choice for the Western front against China. Yet Pakistan’s geopolitical posture has hardly evolved at all.

In 1998, there were 140 million Pakistanis. Today there are 100 million more. All below the age of 25. Social media companies set their own algorithms and their own rules – resulting in large-scale disinformation and misinformation being consumed as the biblical truth. Form and function across all governing verticals are completely mashed into each other. Many individuals’ ability to articulate the problem, passionately at times, is seen as a proxy for capability. Political victimization is seen as accountability. No one is ever rewarded for doing good work and worse, no one is ever fired for being bad at their job. Dancing for retweets and likes is seen as being responsive.

The country’s leadership needs to establish a new language for governance. Instead, it chases down an obsolete world, with even more obsolete equipment. More pain is coming – no matter how many shiny new organizations and built in this governing structure.


The writer is an analyst and commentator.