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February 25, 2018
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Rules of governance

Opinion

February 25, 2018

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The launch of the book titled ‘Governing the Ungovernable: Institutional Reforms for Democratic Governance’, authored by Dr Ishrat Hussain, that was held in Lahore recently, was attended by development practitioners, bureaucrats, educationists and university vice chancellors. The Punjab chief minister was the chief guest on the occasion.

The book, written by Dr Hussain as the Public Policy Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Centre’s Asia Programme, is a wonderful addition to the existing body of work on the subject. It delves into the question of governance, or lack thereof, in explaining Pakistan’s 70-year journey. The writer has adopted a multi-dimensional approach to examine an array of institutions in a historical context.

The chief highlight of the book is its division into two parts: from 1947 to 1990 and 1990 to date. The first 40 years of Pakistan as an independent and sovereign state were of relative prosperity and development as the country grew at the rate of six percent of the GDP. It was the time when many countries such as South Korea took Pakistan’s economic growth model as a template for fast-paced socio-economic progress. However, we lost our way somewhere in the 1990s onwards, and resultantly our economy hardly managed to grow by three to four percent of the GDP. The current financial year is set to achieve the growth figure of 5.3 percent, the biggest ever in a decade.

Governance is a very complex and multifaceted subject and has drawn scholarly attention from around the world. While dilating upon the subject, the writer has busted many myths associated with development and growth. Despite tumultuous events in the first 40 years, such as the wars of 1965 and 1971, the country was still able to grow at an annual rate of six percent. There is a general propensity to blame external factors for our stagnant growth. The writer masterfully negates all such ideas and highlights the fact that it is the lack of deep institutional reforms that explains our deviation from the path of sustainable development.

Another quality of the book is that it does not look at economic growth in isolation. Rather, the writer has employed broader concepts of social, economic and sustainable development by emphasising on the inter-linkages and inter-dependencies of different institutions on one another. What interested me is the comparison of Pakistan with other neighbouring countries during the same period. The comparison underlines how China and India, which were behind Pakistan in terms of economic growth, managed to outpace us as we stumbled from one crisis onto another and lost our direction.

Ruling out factors generally considered as principal determinants of our below par socio-economic performance, the writer maintains that our main failure lay in developing institutions of governance that are robust and responsive to the needs of the people, that are inclusive and pluralistic and capable of implementing social and economic policies. Over the last 70 years, we have had governments that have been high on governing but low on serving. Citizens’ interaction with institutions leaves a lot to be desired. The points at which a common citizen interacts with the institutions responsible for public service delivery are in dire need of reforms. We need institutions that are capable of addressing the challenges of governance in accordance with the 21st century and are responsive to the aspirations of the teeming millions in a proactive manner.

The link between effective and responsible institutions and social and economic development is underpinned by investment in physical and human capital formation. We are living in an era which is defined by greater democratisation and the emergence of new centres of powers. The growth of Information and Communications Technology has further empowered the common man, resulting in a greater desire to benefit from the fruits of democratic governance. People’s empowerment cannot take place without putting key civilian institutions on the pathways of merit, integrity, accountability, efficient delivery of service and problem-solving. Our wide array of stakeholders have to internalise the challenges of governance in the 21st century and think of ways and means to propose systems that deliver efficient services, not as a matter of privilege but as a right.

In view of the complexity of challenges and fierce opposition that a wholesome reform package is likely to elicit from those threatened by it, Dr Ishrat Hussain has recommended using the incremental approach premised on choosing those institutions for reforms that will have a spillover effect on overall governance.

This argument seems to be built on a weak footing. This evolutionary approach works in societies that are harmonious and governed by a broad consensus on minimum rules of the game. There is enough evidence to suggest that a large number of people consider the governance institutions as being victims of elitism and a source of perpetuating class divide.

How can gradual and isolated reforms satisfy people awaiting for a messiah or a revolution to set things right for them? There is an increasing demand for drastic policy departures worldwide too. Could anyone ever imagine that the US, the sole superpower and champion of human rights, globalisation and market economy, would be led by a president with the slogan ‘America First’ as his guiding policy principle? There has been a resurgence of far-right political parties across Europe. Closer to home, the Middle East has been devastated by popular uprisings rejecting the established governance systems and demanding more say in their countries’ political and economic policy-making.

The point is that, though Pakistan might not have reached a similar point, the possibility of such a scenario playing out in the future cannot be ruled out. Such is the overwhelming demand for firm public action. We are sitting on a volcano that could erupt any time. We do not have the luxury of time that an incremental reform approach would consume to come to fruition.

How do we solve this jigsaw puzzle then? This is where it is imperative to prioritise inter-institutional dialogue with parliament and set the agenda right. We have for long suffered the consequences of failure to build a national consensus on key policy areas of governance. In our effort to reform and improve our institutions, we can learn from the China, which lagged behind Pakistan in terms of the GDP growth rate and per capita income during the early decades of our inception. Today, it is the second largest economy and a paramount global power. Thanks to the leadership of President Xi Jinping, the country is poised to take over the global leadership role. It is a strong proponent of multilateralism and economic globalisation. How did China achieve this miracle? It restrained its foreign policy ambitions and focused purely on internal consolidation, economic reforms and opening up for foreign investment. Once it had strengthened itself economically, it staked a claim for the global leadership role.

These are the lessons Pakistan needs to learn. The solution to our problems lies in looking inwards and fixing our institutions of governance. We have suffered immeasurably and lost too many opportunities due to pointless political wrangling and politics of agitation. The time has come for our political forces to lead the process of revival, growth and national consolidation by agreeing on at least some rules of the game. The writer praises the Punjab chief minister for his ‘superior performance to that of other provinces’ and carrying out ‘far-reaching reforms across a broad spectrum of public services’. This constitutes a healthy trend. As election season approaches, it is time to foster the politics of delivery and performance for a better leadership to emerge.

The book is most valuable because it drew our attention to some of the most urgent issues of national significance and kick-started a debate on a subject of immense importance.

Email: [email protected]

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