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September 25, 2018

Policy without strategy?


September 25, 2018

Shortly before he died in 1984, Michel Foucault wrote what could be described as a summary of his thoughts on institutions and power. In it, he explains the word ‘strategy’ in three ways:

“First, to designate the means employed to attain a certain end; it is a question of rationality functioning to arrive at an objective. Second, to designate the manner in which a partner in a certain game acts with regard to what he thinks should be the action of the others and what he considers the others think to be his own; it is the way in which one seeks to have the advantage over others. Third, to designate the procedures used in a situation of confrontation to deprive the opponent of his means of combat and to reduce him to giving up the struggle; it is a question, therefore, of the means destined to obtain victory”.

Prime Minister Imran Khan has been in office for less than two months. Much of the criticism of his new government is informed not by analytical considerations, but by political ones. The most egregious examples were manifest over the weekend as many critics of the PTI sought to use India’s shameful retreat from a meeting between foreign ministers on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly as a means to criticise not India and its cowardice, but instead Pakistan and its leadership’s efforts to engage in dialogue.

Such ridiculous critique should surprise no one. The terms of political discourse, not just in terms of the role of politicians but of all citizens (including the free press), were not set by beat reporters or editors. They were set by politicians that sought ‘to attain a certain end’ – like PM Khan. Now that he is prime minister, the strategies he employs need to align more with ends such as the well being of Pakistanis, or budget deficit reductions, or assuring national security.

Despite the early criticism, and the many mistakes the government has made, PM Khan still enjoys a honeymoon period. His voters, the international community, the religious right wing, big business and corporate interests and the military are all still reasonably sweet on the prospects of a well-intentioned prime minister and his potential.

This is his first attempt at running the country. Every mistake is at least partially perceived to be rooted in inexperience, rather than malign intent. But getting away with a bunch of mistakes is not strategy. One at a time, or all together. An effective, whole-of-opposition strategy brought Imran Khan to power. Only an effective, whole-of-government strategy will keep him in it, delivering on the promises he has made.

A day before the revised budget was announced, PM Khan’s housing czar Aneel Musarrat announced a $180 billion plan to build five million homes across the country. Shortly thereafter, among the bright spots in an otherwise uninspiring budget was news that Rs4.5 billion has been retained for housing. A total of 8,276 homes are to be built with these funds. Building affordable housing for Pakistanis that struggle in their day-to-day lives, and are vulnerable to flooding, earthquakes and extreme temperatures is a noble public policy endeavour. Getting this right is important – not only because of the nobility of the overall objective, but because failure in such ventures is usually because of the two things that PTI claims it is the antidote for: corruption and incompetence (inspired by corruption).

To have an effective strategy for affordable housing however, we do not need more slogans against corruption. We also do not need any certificates of patriotism being issued to Aneel Musarrat or Zulfi Bukhari. What we do need is clear, evidence-based and holistic public policy.

The Market Rate System (MRS) is the document published by the finance department in a given province, in conjunction with the communications and works department of the province, to establish legitimate costs for construction. The MRS is published by district in Punjab, and for the entire province in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. In both cases, MRS documents are over 160 pages of details on the prices of literally anything and everything one would need buy to build a classroom, or a school, or a basic health unit, or indeed a house. An MRS analysis document published by the KP government last year was over 2,700 pages long.

The average cost of building a classroom for a donor-funded project in KP and Punjab was nearly Rs1.5 million, though at government MRS rates, they tend to cost more. A low-end, basic construction of any sort tends to cost a minimum of Rs1,500. At a thousand square feet per home, a low-cost or ‘affordable’ house should be manageable at the same cost as a classroom: Rs1.5 million.

At that price, and at 1,000 sq ft per home, the government’s Rs4.5 billion will only be able to build 3,000 homes. In order to build the reportedly 8,276 homes identified in the revised government budget, the square footage for each home will need to be reduced to 362 square feet. All of this assumes that the land for these homes has already been acquired and prepared for construction.

It seems increasingly clear that the market failure that prevents Pakistanis from living in safe and dignified homes is not so simple to solve. The $180 billion plan sounds exciting, because of the sheer scale it represents. But speak to any credible home builder, or any investor, or any foreigner with money, and a number of immediate questions are raised. None of these may be the fault of this government – but all of them are now its responsibility to answer.

Foreign investors do not want to invest in Pakistan today if they know that tomorrow, when they are repatriating their profits, their hard-earned rupees will be worth less dollars than they are now. Devaluation and depreciation will help exporters – but if they are unpredictable or designed only to boost exports, it will become very difficult to convince foreign direct investment in our housing sector. In turn, this will dull the allure of the government’s $180 billion housing plan.

But considerations for housing don’t start or end only with square footage, or land acquisition, or financing – whether government or private sector. There is more.

Building houses comes at a cost to the environment. The cement industry is a massive consumer of ground water. What impact will a massive spike in demand for cement have on water-table levels? Vast land tracts to build horizontally are not available in the places that need affordable housing the most: Pakistan’s teeming and increasingly ungovernable cities. To deal with urban sprawl and urban decay, affordable housing requires building up, rather than out. High-rise buildings are impossible to build without a substantial revisiting of local government building codes that ensure both the safety and security of tenants and the environmental and heritage value of our cities. The PAS/DMG officer will ask our politicians whether newly empowered local governments can be trusted not to award unsafe and rent-seeking contracts to build vertically in the hearts of our cities – especially those in Punjab that are likely to be governed by PML-N candidates. How will PTI government ministers respond?

Finally, in places like China and the UAE, 3D printing technology has been adopted as a vital tool in the construction projects of the future. Entire buildings are now being fashioned through materials developed via high-tech building technology. To what extend should federal, provincial or local regulation help instigate and drive such innovations?

To ask and answer these questions will not require one-liners and quips from federal ministers. Nor will it require task forces or committees made up of old men. To ask and answer these questions will require a commitment to developing and executing a strategy for governing. PM Khan’s reputation for single-mindedness and focus now faces its greatest test. The time for theatrics is over. The time for learning from gaffes and the excuses of inexperience is not over yet – but it will be soon. Soon, the only question that PTI voters themselves will begin to judge the government on will be how many of the promises they were made might be kept. To prepare for when they do ask the question merits strategy.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.

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