Tuesday June 25, 2024

Illusions of development

By Waqas Younas
May 31, 2017

Recently, an advertisement issued by Punjab’s higher education department appeared in the newspapers. It stated that: “In the initial three phases, 310,000 laptops have been provided at a cost of Rs 20 billion”. The advertisement pointed to the e-Youth initiative by the Punjab chief minister whereby laptops will be distributed among thousands of students across Punjab.

Is distributing laptops to students a great initiative? Maybe it isn’t. Even though students are provided teachers, school buildings and other basic facilities, the passing percentage in the CSS and matriculation exams remains two percent and 33 percent, respectively. How can we expect students to do wonders by giving them laptops – which expose people to both the wonders of knowledge and a sea of misinformation – without providing them any guidance?

On the other extreme, maybe we are totally wrong and it is a great initiative. Only prudence, planning, a cost-benefit analysis and properly discourse – factors which we have sadly avoided in matters that affect citizens – can help us discover the benefits of this initiative.

Don’t our rulers act prudently in matters that concern them? It appears that they do. I mean, don’t our rulers wear the finest clothes possible? They go to the best stores possible to choose what to put on. The same applies with real estate. Do they not acquire real estate at the best locations possible – both in Pakistan and elsewhere?

Don’t they select the best possible health facilities for themselves when the need arises? Similarly, do they not send their children to the best possible schools? Therefore, isn’t one justified in thinking that our rulers choose the best value for themselves that money can buy, but don’t apply the same principle when they are choosing for us?

Should they not require only the best for the future minds of this country when they require only the best for their bodies, their health and their children? Isn’t it unjust that they apply the greatest prudence in matters that concern them but avoid it in matters concerning hundreds of thousands of people – including the old, the infirm, and children?

It’s mindboggling that we keep going ahead with projects worth billions of rupees without detailed cost-benefit analyses. Is this an issue of a lack of capacity or dexterity? Or is it an indication that our planning process is vulnerable to cognitive biases and doesn’t have mechanisms to deal with them? The way projects are being executed render institutions like the planning commission quite feeble.

Planning is important. One can see its manifestations in how humans have learned to make or treat different things. Making items that are minor in scale – such as watches and needles – requires precise engineering and planning. Likewise, objects that are major in scale require thorough planning. For example, when we want to build a bridge – which will be used by countless people for many years to come – we settle only on architects who have gone through extensive training and have sufficient experience in successfully building similar projects. These architects, in turn, do extensive planning in advance.

Likewise, when we are sick and in dire need of treatment, we don’t settle for just anyone. Instead, we rely on a doctor who has undergone extensive training and has successfully treated many people in the past. This doctor, in turn, carries out thorough analysis and investigation before he or she comes up with remedies. If one bridge and one human life warrant years of thoughtful study, experience, and significant planning, then should we not apply the greatest human prudence in matters that affect millions? We therefore need thorough reform of how our projects are proposed and executed.

As projects are analysed, they should go through significant discourse. Discourse can improve and strengthen projects and regulations. The level of existing debate over the socio-economic analysis of monumental policy issues is depressing. There aren’t any extensive debates that weigh the pros and cons of this laptop initiative on the provincial assembly’s website.

So what may happen when our public projects are not subjected to

debate and analysis? The same that can happen to a patient who is being treated without thorough investigation or by someone who is not trained as a doctor. Or what can happen to a bridge built by untrained architects. Imagine the fate of many bridges and humans that are ill-treated. The welfare of the country is neglected without sufficient planning.

We have to realise that top politicians alone shouldn’t select projects on their own whims. Choosing projects in this manner may result in alienation and a sense of deprivation in our citizens. No business or corporation can survive if it starts executing projects proposed only by the executive. Projects undergo a rigorous selection and execution process in companies that perform consistently well.

We, as voters, should demand reforms. We need to conduct sound economic evaluations of our projects rather than celebrate the announcement of mega projects, particularly before an election when the incumbent government are on a spending spree.



Twitter: @wyounas