Meritocracy: state and society in Pakistan

February 18, 2024

Meritocracy: state and society in Pakistan


eritocracy, a term coined by British sociologist Michael Young in his 1958 satirical work, The Rise of the Meritocracy, has sparked considerable debate and fascination over the years. Rooted in the belief that individuals should advance based on their talents, abilities and efforts rather than inherited privilege or social status, meritocracy is a cornerstone principle in various societal systems. However, its implementation and implications have undergone significant scrutiny and evolution over time.

At its core, meritocracy espouses the idea that individuals should be rewarded and recognised based on their merit — their skills, achievements and contributions to the society. Under a meritocratic system, success is theoretically attainable through hard work, intelligence and talent, irrespective of one’s background, wealth or social connections. In essence, meritocracy seeks to provide equal opportunities for all individuals to excel and advance based on their abilities.

The conceptual history of meritocracy can be traced back to ancient civilisations, such as China, where the civil service examination system was established to select government officials based on merit rather than birthright. The concept resonates with the ideals of equality and fairness championed during the Enlightenment period in Europe, particularly by thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Stuart Mill.

However, the term “meritocracy” gained prominence in the 20th Century, primarily through Michael Young’s work. In The Rise of the Meritocracy, Young presented a dystopian vision of a future society where meritocracy had become the dominant ideology, leading to a rigid class system based on intelligence and talent. Despite Young’s intention to critique the potential pitfalls of meritocracy, the term gained widespread acceptance and became synonymous with the ideal of a fair and just society.

Since its inception, the concept of meritocracy has evolved and been adapted in various contexts, including education, employment and politics. Proponents argue that meritocracy promotes fairness, encourages innovation and maximises societal productivity by ensuring that the most qualified individuals occupy positions of power and influence.However, meritocracy has also faced significant criticism.

Critics argue that meritocratic systems often perpetuate existing inequalities by overlooking structural barriers and systemic injustices that prevent equal access to opportunities. Moreover, the emphasis on individual achievement can lead to a narrow definition of success, marginalising those who do not conform to traditional standards of merit.

With a complex socio-political landscape marked by historical inequalities and institutional challenges, the implementation of meritocratic principles in the state and society of Pakistan presents both opportunities and obstacles.

While focusing on meritocracy with reference to Pakistan, one must bear in mind that Pakistan inherited a colonial-era administrative framework characterised by hierarchical structures and a reliance on patronage rather than meritocracy. This historical legacy has left an indelible imprint on various facets of Pakistani society, fostering a culture of entrenched nepotism, widespread corruption and a glaring absence of accountability.

The education system in Pakistan assumes a paramount role in the cultivation of meritocratic principles. Nevertheless, a myriad of challenges impedes its efficacy in fostering a truly merit-based society. Foremost among these challenges is the pervasive issue of unequal access to quality education, perpetuating a cycle of disadvantage wherein marginalised communities are systematically deprived of opportunities for intellectual growth and socio-economic mobility.

Moreover, the prevalence of rote learning methodologies, which prioritise memorisation over critical thinking and analytical skills, poses a significant barrier to the cultivation of a meritocratic ethos within educational institutions. Compounding these challenges are glaring disparities in educational resources, with underprivileged regions and communities often lacking access to basic facilities and qualified educators. Such systemic deficiencies undermine the very foundations of meritocracy, perpetuating cycles of inequality and hindering the realisation of individual potential.

The civil service in Pakistan has traditionally been seen as a pathway to power and influence. While half-hearted efforts have been made to reform recruitment processes and promote merit-based appointments, political interference and bureaucratic red tape continue to undermine these initiatives.

In the business sphere, meritocracy is often overshadowed by entrenched family dynasties and crony capitalism. Limited access to capital, bureaucratic hurdles and a lack of merit-based incentives further exacerbate the challenges faced by aspiring entrepreneurs.

The pervasive politicisation of critical institutions and appointments represents a formidable impediment to the realisation of meritocracy in Pakistan. This entrenched pattern finds its roots in the tumultuous political landscape of the mid-1980s, notably during the era of Gen Zia-ulHaq, whose experiment with ostensibly non-partisan national elections inadvertently lifted the lid off a Pandora’s Box of corruption. From that juncture onward, patronage networks and political loyalties have consistently superseded considerations of merit and competence.

The trajectory of Pakistan’s political evolution has been marred by the spectre of authoritarianism, which not only perpetuated but also institutionalised these deleterious practices. This insidious entanglement between politics and patronage, born out of a turbulent historical milieu, has significantly stymied the prospects of genuine merit-based social advancement.

Deep-seated socio-economic disparities, entrenched along the fault lines of class, ethnicity and gender, pose formidable barriers to the realisation of meritocratic ideals. Within this societal framework, marginalised communities find themselves ensnared by systemic obstacles that effectively curtail their access to critical resources, such as education, gainful employment and meaningful political representation. These barriers perpetuate a cycle of disadvantage, wherein the few individuals and families who wield considerable privilege inadvertently exacerbate the chasm of social inequity, rendering it seemingly insurmountable.

Foremost among the perpetuators of this entrenched inequality is the spectre of dynastic politics, an enduring scourge that perpetuates and exacerbates social divides. This pernicious phenomenon, characterised by the concentration of political power within elite familial circles, stands as a formidable impediment to the cultivation of egalitarian values and the establishment of a truly meritocratic society.

Corruption, meanwhile, has become an endemic affliction in the fabric of Pakistani society, penetrating every echelon with insidious impunity. This systemic malaise not only undermines the very foundations of meritocracy but also erodes public trust in the integrity of institutions. The insidious tendrils of nepotism and favoritism, interwoven into hiring practices and bureaucratic protocols, further corrode the ethos of fairness and perpetuate a culture of entitlement among the privileged.

Regrettably, such corrupt practices and entrenched mindsets have become disturbingly normalised in the socio-political landscape, leading some commentators to regard them as immutable fixtures rather than an aberration. Thus, the pervasive nature of corruption and nepotism poses a formidable challenge to the realisation of meritocratic ideals and the cultivation of a more equitable society.

The pursuit of meritocracy in Pakistan is intertwined with broader socio-economic and political dynamics. While significant challenges persist, there are opportunities for progress through concerted efforts to reform institutions, invest in education and empower marginalised communities.

By addressing systemic barriers and promoting a culture of fairness and accountability, Pakistan can strive towards realising the ideals of meritocracy and fostering a more inclusive and equitable society.

As society continues to grapple with issues of inequality and social justice, the debate surrounding meritocracy will undoubtedly persist, challenging us to re-evaluate and refine our understanding of this foundational principle.

This article is an expanded version of my talk to the participants of Mukalma, an Islamabad-based forum for intellectual debate.

The writer is a professor in the Faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse

National University, Lahore

Meritocracy: state and society in Pakistan