Saturday July 20, 2024

Looking for direction: Part - II

By I Hussain
August 18, 2022

The experience of several Muslim majority countries that have reduced their population growth can provide valuable guidance. Hans Rosling, the renowned international public health expert and development practitioner, points out in his posthumously published book ‘Factfulness’ that in 1972 Bangladeshi women had on average seven children and life expectancy for the population was 52.

He goes on to indicate that in 2017 women in Bangladesh had, on average, two children while life expectancy in Bangladesh is now 73. This is a remarkable demographic transition (Bangladeshi GNI per capita is around $2600 which is about 73 per cent higher than Pakistan’s per capita GNI).

Rosling also points out that the fastest drop in the number of births per woman ever recorded occurred in Iran in 1984 when women had six babies on average which was down to three in 1999.

So if Bangladesh, Iran and other Islamic countries such as Malaysia can effectively curtail unbridled population growth and take appropriate measures without involving coercive mandates on how many children a family is allowed to have and without hurting religious beliefs so can we.

The issues of education and health are interconnected with that of average family size. Better education for women is associated with lower birth rates and a greater likelihood that children will be healthier and will attend school. And lower child mortality rates are essential for curbing population growth. As Rosling puts it: “Across the world parents have chosen for themselves to have fewer children. This transformation has happened across the world but it has never happened without lowering child mortality”. He also adds: “The data shows that half the increase in child survival in the world happens because mothers can read and write”.

Access to justice is a fundamental right of all citizens of this country. However, it’s quite common to see cases take 20 years or more to wend their way, snail-like, through the courts because of all kinds of legal chicanery. This is hardly compatible with the meaning of the rule of law which is what the constitution of Pakistan enshrines.

The World Justice project (WJP) recently published a ‘rule of law’ index in which Pakistan was placed close to the bottom of the countries in their adherence to rule of law (130 out of 139). However much we may decry the unfairness of the ranking, this is the kind of report that foreigners, especially multinational investors, review before making investment decisions. More fundamentally though it is antithetical to the ‘capabilities’ approach to development espoused by the Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen who envisages development not only in terms of an expansion of economic freedom but also political and social freedoms.

There is an obvious case for making the legal process more ‘user friendly’ so that the constitutional provision for equality before the law becomes a reality rather than just another way that the powerful manipulate the legal process to thwart the ends for which the law is designed.

The privatization of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) has to be undertaken since the government cannot afford to dole out Rs300 billion or so in subsidies annually to prop up loss-making SOEs. However, the political will to confront vested interests blocking progress has been absent so the bleeding of public finances continues unabated.

There is a need for transparency in the identification and selection of major infrastructure projects included in the development budgets. For this purpose, the Planning and Development Division should be spun off as an independent entity with a board of governors much like the State Bank of Pakistan is now constituted; the reconstituted board of governors should appoint its head and key functionaries including the chief economist. The board should have representation from both the private and public sectors. The funding for the new entity should come through annual appropriations in the federal budget.

The new version of the Planning and Development Division would serve as a semi-official think tank that will weigh in on policy matters submitted for review by members of parliament who lack expertise to assess economic issues. Its role would be akin to that of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) in the US and/or the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) in the UK. All large-scale public-sector projects, particularly those with a foreign currency component, would fall within its purview for assessment. Its seal of approval would be necessary for any project to be included in the annual development budget.

In matters of governance, one would want to see new technology being used to give senior officials more insight into ground level realities instead of getting reports from their subordinates in which the facts are almost always obscured for reasons having to do with the way that information tends to get distorted the more bureaucratic layers it flows through.

So, as an example, putting cameras and installing Wi-Fi networks in rural health centers would help senior government officials monitoring the situation off-site to determine what is going on in a particular location in real time. Managers could randomly do a spot check and see whether the medical care professionals are present for duty and get users’ reactions on their interactions with the staff and with the facilities available. This would put medical caregivers on notice that their performance is being monitored and would hopefully be a spur to improved service.

The evidence on the use of innovative technology in assessing performance at public sector institutions such as schools is encouraging. For instance, Duflo, Hanna, and Ryan in an article (published in the American Economic Review) found that placing cameras in classrooms in rural India so as to record the presence of teachers reduced teacher absenteeism by 21 per cent.

There are some steps that one could take to reduce the scourge of corruption by politicians. For instance, we could do what the current Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s character did in his role as the president of Ukraine, Vasiliy Goloborodko, in the laugh-a-minute political satire made for Ukrainian viewers titled ‘Servant of the people’ (now streaming on Netflix). In the television show President Goloborodko decrees that parliamentarians have to submit audited tax returns for public scrutiny as a pre-condition for public office. (Because of its popularity with viewers, ‘Servant of the people’ later paved the way for Zelensky’s election to become the actual president of Ukraine).

Article 62 of the constitution requires our elected members of parliament to be ‘honest and ameen’ and paying one’s share of taxes is surely a part of the requirement of being honest. There is no justification for driving around in large SUVs, de rigueur among politicians, and living in palatial farmhouses while flouting the law on filing tax returns with impunity.

What all political parties need to do when in opposition is to prepare action plans that are feasible and realistic so that they can address issues mentioned above that are critical to the country’s wellbeing. They can hire outside consultants as needed and seek help from the expertise available in our university departments to prepare for that moment instead of just winging it when the time comes and hoping for the best. The country needs substance, not empty slogans.


The writer is a group director at the Jang Group.