Sunday September 26, 2021

Elite capture and the PTI

September 04, 2020

In the developed world, citizens are groomed for economic leadership from their first year in school. Preschool and kindergarten reports in government-run schools grade students' performance in ‘thinking’, ‘communication’, ‘self-management’ and ‘research’.

Attributes listed under these categories include: “Creates, designs, develops and innovates”, “Cooperates with others in a range of situations”, “negotiates and resolves conflicts”, “uses time effectively”, “formulates relevant and compelling questions”, “draws conclusions from research.”

Anyone who has worked in the private sector in Pakistan would immediately recognize the similarities between these and the performance metrics used by companies for appraising employees. Developed economies begin inculcating these attributes in their citizens at age 4.

Despite the outwardly strong cultural bonds and strategic alliances, developed economies of the West are locked in a fierce contest with each other – each trying to outdo the other in extracting maximum economic benefit from its citizens, including the disadvantaged segments of society.

Differently-abled citizens, for example, are not seen as a burden. Rather they are empowered to compete and to be at least as productive, if not more, than their differently-abled counterparts in other developed economies. In the process, differently-abled citizens in developed countries end up being far more economically productive than even able-bodied workers in developing countries like ours.

Developed economies fight to retain their talent. They don’t sit back and delude themselves with the idea that citizens will or should stay in the country out of a sense of patriotic duty. They are consistently improving infrastructure and labour laws to ensure they offer a better quality of life compared to other developed economies. In the process, they end up attracting talent from other parts of the globe as well.

When it comes to taxes, governments of developed economies provide individuals and businesses concessions where there is potential for it to result in increased future income. They do this understanding the golden cycle that more income means more taxes, which in turn, allows governments to invest in making attractive towns and cities which attract talent leading to more jobs and more income.

Businesses are thus provided tax concessions for investment in research and development. Individuals are given concessions for expenses incurred on self-education and professional development in the form of purchase of textbooks, attending courses and payment of membership fees for professional bodies.

Developed economies promote community sports and make money from it. Australia, with a population of 25 million people – an eighth of the population of Pakistan – has a sports industry that contributes around $14 billion to Australia’s GDP.

New Zealand, with a population of around five million people, has a sports industry that contributes around $2 billion to its GDP. Both contributions amount to almost one percent of their respective GDPs. Imagine what the 200 million strong sports-loving nation of Pakistanis could achieve if only our leaders were interested in promoting sports in the country.

In addition to economic benefits, developed economies reap the physical and mental health benefits stemming from participation in sport. According to the Australian Department of Health, benefits include reduction in risk of cardiovascular disease, lowering blood pressure, increasing self-esteem and reducing psychological disorders such as depression.

In developed economies, administrative and political power is devolved right down to the community level. Communities are enabled to fund, develop and maintain their towns and neighbourhoods locally. The geographic size of grassroots constituencies span only a few neighbourhoods. This proximity of the elected neighbourhood politicians with their electorate forces transparency and accountability.

If there is one key takeaway I want to impress upon my fellow Pakistanis, it is that the only path to sustained economic improvement is for the government to invest, whatever little it has, in your and your children’s lives.

Please also keep in mind that you and your children are competing with citizens in other developing and developed countries. If you are not being given tax concessions for money you are spending on self-education while your counterparts in other countries are, then you are being disadvantaged by your government. If your children are not being provided avenues for participating in community sports, then they are being disadvantaged by their government.

If you are a dental student in university and have to spend hundreds of hours a year studying unrelated subjects like Pakistan Studies or Islamiyat as compulsory parts of your course you are being disadvantaged by your government. Your counterparts in developed economies are spending those hours conducting research, dabbling in entrepreneurial activities and gaining industry experience related to the field they are specializing in.

When you hear about the federal government getting involved in provincial matters; or hear rumours about the 18th Amendment being repealed; or see prolonged delays in activation of local governments – you should know you are being deprived of your constitutional right to be empowered to manage your own affairs and improve your own neighbourhoods and communities.

While your counterparts in developed countries are being groomed to become independent, empowered and self-reliant citizens, successive Pakistani governments have perpetuated what our racist colonizers used to claim about us: that we ‘barbarians’ are incapable of managing our own affairs and need a benevolent overlord and saviour to look after ourselves.

If you are a woman, an orphan, a single-mother, differently-abled or from any other vulnerable segments of our society, please demand that you are front and centre of any reformative process especially if it is related to reforms in the academic curriculum, ease-of-doing-business or economic policies. The benefits of genuine reformation should not be left to trickle down to you; they need to begin with you.

As a supporter of the PTI government, I urge it caution. While it claims to be fighting against elite-capture, actions on ground seem to suggest it is playing right into their autocratic and self-serving ways.

There are currently no functioning local bodies in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab where the PTI is in power. Instead of pressing for the empowerment of local government in Sindh, the federal government wants us to believe it can solve the province’s infrastructure problems from Islamabad.

The government has been mute with regard to representation and empowerment of vulnerable segments in any plans to revive the economy. There is silence on plans to retain homegrown talent within Pakistan. No tangible steps have been taken to make it easy for graduates and young professionals without connections to start their own businesses.

On the contrary, big-shot industrialists and agriculturalists are advising the PM on industrial reforms. Can we expect such advisors to empower local talent or to attract foreign firms that will set up businesses in direct competition to theirs and those of their sons and daughters?

The greatest irony perhaps in talks of ending elite-capture is that the PTI chose a deliberate strategy of using electables – the fountainheads of elite-capture – to ride to power.

With three years to go to the next elections, there is no sign the PTI wants to groom fresh faces for national and provincial seats on the basis of talent and merit ridding itself of these electables and their capture of politics.

The writer is a water engineer based in Canberra.

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Twitter: @znafridi