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July 16, 2019

How not to pursue reform


July 16, 2019

The list of indignities and injuries to Pakistan seems to be accumulating at a faster than normal pace. The sobering video of the NAB judge that convicted former prime minister Nawaz Sharif was followed by the even more sobering affidavit testimonial from Judge Arshad Malik himself.

This saga is far from over, but the international scene is alight with action. After the Karkey judgement against Pakistan in 2017 that awarded over $700 million to the Turkish power company, two more international judgments have gone against Pakistan last week. The first is the curious case of British firm Broadsheet, in which the military regime of Gen Musharraf sought to establish the facts of alleged corruption against the very same Nawaz Sharif after the second time he was deposed in 1999. The second is the Reko Diq mines case in which Pakistan has lost its appeal against Tethyan Copper (TCC) and is now on the hook for a court-mandated penalty of over $5 billion.

While the country was still reeling from these news items, a tabloid paper in the United Kingdom published a story that attempts to smear both the UK government’s Department for International Development and former chief minister Shahbaz Sharif. It seems self-defeating for leaders within the PTI to pursue this line of attack given their own past, current (and likely future) association with the very same initiatives that are undertaken in partnership between DFID and Pakistani governments at the federal and provincial levels.

One such initiative from the past is tax administration reform. This is relevant once again because of the latest traders’ revolt, and the shutter-down strike many traders’ associations have announced in response to the efforts of the Federal Bureau of Revenue (FBR) to document the economy, and get a real handle on retail and wholesale transactions that go untaxed. How long tax evaders can continue to escape the tax man is a more important question than ever before, as Pakistan’s economic future, for the moment, hinges on a radical overhaul of the fiscal regime through which the country pays its bills. The IMF programme that has recently been kicked off will test the country’s capacity to raise domestic revenue like never before.

It is easy to become despondent in times like this. Spare a thought for naïve and innocent PTI supporters. Like PML-N supporters before them, and PPP supporters before them, and military coup supporters before them – sooner or later, the failures, the injuries and the black eyes accumulate to a magnitude that is unsustainable. Sooner or later, the honeymoon ends, and ordinary, decent, kind, patriotic, rational people lose hope – no matter what party they belong to or sympathise with. But something about the common thread across the last two decades, and the sustained themes of failure over this two-decade period – including eleven months of a PTI government at the centre, and year six of the same party in power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – should help us. There are two ways to examine the common threads. One is to focus on the failures, and the other, is to examine moments of success. Being the incorrigible optimist that I am, allow me to begin with success.

There are three big lessons in governance from the past two decades in Pakistan. The first is that the will of the people is the most irresistible force in the country, fragmented, misguided, divided, easily duped, it may be. But once mobilized, all forces in the country eventually bow to it. This is what was at the heart of the successful movement for the restoration of the judiciary (2007-2009). This is what was at the heart of the country’s response to terrorism (2014-to date). This is what has created and sustained the country’s longest, and most unprecedented and uninterrupted period of electoral democracy (2008-to date). These three big picture events are proof that all key national institutions understand and recognise that Pakistanis cannot tolerate undemocratic means of governance.

The second is the 18th Amendment. No other big picture reform in the country in the last twenty years has had the support, and the longevity of the renewal of Pakistani federalism that the 18th Amendment represents. Far from perfect, the over sixty changes enacted by the amendment all merit debate and deliberation. But as a moment in governance, the 18th Amendment (and the seventh NFC award) stand out as being definitional in their scope and scale.

The third are the innovations in public policy. Despite being spectacularly inept at serving the people, Pakistani state institutions have developed the ability to extract success and excellence out of an otherwise morbid, and defunct stock of organizations and human capital. The National Highways and Motorways Policy began in 1997, and has somehow continued to stand out as an island of excellence. A dengue outbreak in Lahore in 2011 caused over 300 deaths, and it seemed like nothing could stop it from becoming an annual epidemic. Yet one year later, the total number of cases was a fraction of the 2011 outbreak, and there were zero fatalities. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the ‘reform’ instituted by a single inspector general in 2013 led to a dramatic shift in policing in the province, helping forge the conditions that enabled the victory against terrorists that began in 2014.

Model courts established by the Supreme Court across the country have shown an astounding array of results, in terms of clearing of pendency and delivery of speedy justice. In the first two months of the operations that began on April 1 this year, these 100 courts had recorded nearly 20,000 witness testimonies, and decided over 1,500 cases of murder. Dozens of similar stories of excellence exist in Pakistani governance.

So what lessons can we draw for the current scenario for Pakistan?

First, governments are not islands. Anything that is really worth doing in Pakistan requires a whole-of-society consensus that motivates the ruling elite to seek a whole-of-polity consensus.

Pakistan keeps losing international cases because there are incompetent people who do not understand how the world works making important decisions about the future of the country. More competent people in positions of authority requires a reform of the judiciary, a reform of the civil service and a reform in how decisions that are contested and controversial can be moderated or arbitrated. A reform of the judiciary is a legislative process. Civil service reform cannot be sought in the manner currently being pursued – it only produces change at the margins, with little or no fundamental challenging of system-wide inefficiency and incompetence.

How Pakistan’s institutions – our public discourse, our judiciary, our executive, our parliament, and our military – engage with each other on the issues they do not agree upon cannot be fixed through stapling together disparate mechanisms and personalities. Much of the absence of coherence and coordination between institutions is a product of a broken administrative system in which BPS-21 and BPS-22 officers have both too much power in some matters, and now power at all in others. The country is organized to manage 100 million people in the 1960s. It is trying to prepare to manage 300 million people in the 2030s. The divide between capacity and needs is now so vast that every day this country does not implode is another day of proof that Allah loves us.

In almost every single example of public policy success or innovation, we find the establishment of a small space within which agents of the Islamic Republic are afforded the freedom and autonomy to deliver results, without the organizational, structural, fiscal or administrative burdens that they normally must deal with. This isn’t a formula for how things should be designed. It is a warning signal for how badly designed things are. When we start to preach the exception as the model, we need to revisit the framework itself.

This revisiting is not possible in an environment of political hatred and vindictiveness. Prime Minister Imran Khan is not cleaning up the country by hunting for the proverbial smoking gun against the Sharifs and the Bhutto-Zardaris. He is merely perpetuating an environment that ensures the status quo will remain untouched. If change is what he is genuinely committed to, he needs to tear up his existing playbook, and invest in cross-societal, cross-polity consensus. There are voices within the PML-N and the PPP that are aching for the same things the PTI is. Real leadership is in finding and working with them.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.