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September 10, 2019

Reform, purpose and people


September 10, 2019

Why is the struggle for a better governed country going so badly? Why is Karachi still suffering steaming piles of garbage? Why are people being killed by the very police that are meant to protect citizens?

Why are education and health budgets suffering from real (and nominal) reductions in allocations and releases? And why, after over seventy years of occupation, are the people of Kashmir still having to endure the brutality of a renewed, new-wave of Indian hatred and hostility? These seemingly disparate questions are linked intricately and deeply by something that is often treated like an abstraction for which we have no time. Purpose. What is the purpose of government?

Don’t answer that. Yet. Just consider this: in the conversations about reform, especially in governance, there seems to be little room for purpose. The reason is simple. Too much of the reform conversation is dominated by technical lingo that is by very definition fearful of, and uncomfortable with, purpose.

The trouble is that purpose is no abstraction at all. Without clear purpose, individuals, organizations, firms, and even governments are rudderless. We have no way of knowing what True North is. Nothing can be measured, but in abstractions. One of the enduring challenges that afflict so many reformers is the absence of clear purpose. Muddled, incoherent and purposeless public policy is a formula for failure. Policies that are purpose-driven, or mission-oriented, even when based on relatively flimsy evidence, tend to be built for the long haul. To understand the current muddle of governance, and to dig beyond the headlines, it may be useful to explore the notion of reform in the Pakistani context, circa 2019.

An examination of recent history can be instructive in helping us disentangle the challenge. Pakistan has attempted three, very ambitious governance reforms in the past two decades. In 2001, the Musharraf regime enacted legislation called the Local Government Ordinance 2001 – which established a new kind of local government system in each province.

In 2010, the 18th Amendment was adopted – re-framing the country’s system from the hybrid federal-central model to a coherent federal system, with a renewal of autonomy for the constituent members of the federation (the provinces) and the vesting of greater power in political parties and their leaderships.

And in 2018, the area formerly known as Fata was merged into the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. My description of choice for this reform is “normalization”, as it essentially erased a seventy years long distinction of the area that prevented normalcy for the people of the seven now newly merged districts.

Nothing lasts forever, as Axl Rose once melancholically sang. Reform is, by very definition, ethereal and transitory. The first pretence we need to dispense with is that any reform is, can be or even should be a permanent and unchallengeable event. If the outcome of any reform became so sacrosanct, it would no longer qualify as reform. The very reason reform is possible (and necessary), is because of the overarching grand social contract logic in a democracy: all public policy is subject to change. If it works, we keep it. If it doesn’t, we change it.

When we measure the three major governance reforms in Pakistan in the last two decades – and indeed when we measure any past reform, and when we conceptualize or ponder any future reform – we need to begin with purpose. Having purpose, in and of itself, isn’t a virtue. Purpose can be good or evil. It can be something we agree with, or something we intensely dislike or fear. And purpose can be multifarious and multidimensional.

All public policy is ultimately about power, but in what direction and for whom? The Local Government Ordinance 2001, or the district nazims system under Pervez Musharraf was purpose-driven, to the extent that a military regime needed to manufacture a new political class that could be managed more effectively than the obdurate PML-N and PPP worker – too many of whom refused to budge, either in the direction of the Patriots or the Q League.

But the purpose of the LGO 2001 was also to fast track vertical programmes directly to some urban centres, in particular Karachi. Whilst it was being conceived, the NRB failed to take into account the roots of predecessor systems of local governance, and the degree to which they were subservient to traditional party politics. But perhaps the most crucial purpose-level gap in the LGO 2001 design was who the decree was stripping of power, and for whom it was doing so.

The beneficiary of the power differential that the LGO 2001 caused was the Musharraf regime, but the adversary that the regime manufactured through it was the District Management Group, now known as the Pakistan Administrative Service. Once the Musharraf regime was gone, the defenders of the system were left to the mercy of a vengeance-driven elite bureaucracy. Convincing the similarly vengeance-driven democrat politicians that replaced the Musharraf regime of the toxicity of the LGO 2001 was not difficult.

And perhaps worst of all, defenders of the LGO 2001 were limited to a small populace of a combination of those that made technocratic-arguments in its favour (like yours truly) and some among the 84,000 Union Council level representatives that the LGO 2001 created. Everyone else aligned quickly with the new incoming regime, including contractors, service providers, and soon enough, even the multilateral and bilateral donors that had, only months earlier, sang the praises of the LGO 2001.

The problem with the purpose of the LGO 2001 was that it had very little anchoring in the people that it was supposedly devolving power to. People are the ultimate guarantors of a reform. They are also the undoing of reform.

The life of the 18th Amendment has been subject to a lot of speculation. It was, in many ways, the ultimate, anti-dictatorship reform. It literally avenged the gutting of our constitution and the hollowing of our political party culture. But over time, it will become vulnerable to attacks by its opponents, if its roots are not traceable to purpose that is related to the people it was supposed to empower and whose lives it was supposed to improve.

The advantage of the 18th Amendment is that the 63 changes it made to our constitution were backed by a new distribution of national resources through the National Finance Commission that was agreed months prior to the amendment. Still, lovers of federalism and democracy be warned. The clock on provincial autonomy is ticking. Connecting the philosophical and conceptual benefits of the 18th Amendment to the lives of ordinary Pakistanis is central to the longevity of the federalist project in Pakistan.

The newly merged districts have been normalized because of the vast gap between the promise of citizenship of Pakistan, and the reality of being from the tribal areas. For over seven decades, this gap was used by both Pakistan itself and by Pakistan’s friends and adversaries, to achieve outcomes that had nothing to do with the well-being of the people of the newly merged districts.

The merger of the tribal areas and the recent elections to the provincial assembly are not free of controversy or warts. But they do represent a bold, fresh and new opportunity. Those that care for this reform need to make it their life’s work to ensure that sooner rather than later, the reforms can be connected to benefits that accrue to ordinary people in the newly merged districts. Once such purpose is established in the eyes and minds of citizens, the space for adverse behaviour shrinks and the options for follow-on reforms expand dramatically.

No system can overcome purposelessness. And purpose, in public policy, must ultimately be connected to the people. Pakistan’s national project, as conceived either by those that believe the country is in a permanent state of war or those that believe that the threats to national security are only imagined, suffers from inertia and vitality. The reason is not the contest between those two exaggerated and contesting visions for the country. The reason is that neither is truly driven by a purpose that is rooted in the people.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.