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No capacity to deliver

Updated Jul 19, 2013 07:36am


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A BUS full of schoolchildren has an accident in Kallar Kahar in September 2011. Later we get to know that the vehicle was not roadworthy as the body was not up to specified standards and the brakes had not been properly checked.

A van, again full of schoolchildren, blows up in Gujrat in May 2013. We find out that faulty CNG installation was responsible. There was a can of diesel lying in the van, the pipe connecting the can and the CNG cylinder was not up to the mark and had not been properly secured.

A factory fire kills and injures hundreds of people in Karachi in September 2012. We find that the factory did not have enough functioning exits and the safety precautions that factories are supposed to take had been ignored. There was a factory fire the same day in Lahore, where the casualties were fewer, but reports pointed out similar problems and lacunae.

Most recently there was a fire in a chemicals warehouse in Lahore. The warehouse was located in a residential area of the city. One of the first things that was pointed out was that the chemicals had been stored at this location illegally and such chemicals should not have been stored in a warehouse in a residential locality.

The newspaper report had gone on to say that there were a number of warehouses in the vicinity of the one that had caught fire that were also storing chemicals illegally. But again, the revelations came after the incident.

These incidents, costing precious lives and the loss of millions of rupees, raise a number of issues. We seem to have lots of rules, regulations and laws but they do not seem to be observed by people, while mechanisms for enforcing these seem to be flawed. We do arrest the bus or van driver and the factory owner, if they survive, and some of them may go to jail, but that clearly does not go to the heart of the problem.

The rules and regulations we have are too onerous and people cannot reasonably observe them, the detection systems are so weak and corrupt that there is incentive to save on expenditure by not fulfilling the requirements or improving the implementation mechanisms, including the flawed system of checks and balances.

In this scenario, most people must be flouting the rules — we only get to know of a few when accidents occur. The rot must be a lot deeper and wider.

We need to institutionalise a thorough reform process to look at safety codes and other issues. We need to look at the rules and regulations to figure out if they are suited to current conditions and are optimised.

Then we need to redesign mechanisms to ensure their implementation: we need mechanisms for regular inspections and checks to ensure compliance and appropriate fines or other punishment for infringements of the law.

This is easier said than done. Why has government after government failed to take action? Every time an incident occurs, the government promises action, but nothing much happens in the end.

The problem is deeper and more entrenched. The concept of ‘isomorphic mimicry’ and ‘capability traps’, developed by economist Lant Pritchett, may be helpful if we wish to reflect.

Pritchett believes that a lot of institutions and organisations in the developing countries, in the public sector in particular, have the outer form or structure of comparable institutions and organisations in the developed world. But they do not have the capability to deliver the basic and core functions of such institutions and organisations.

They mimic actions by managing visible and easy-to-monitor variables, but where core functions are concerned, they do not have the capability to deliver. And these organisations are trapped in these mimicry structures.

We might have schools that look like schools anywhere. We might even have teachers and students in classes, and uniforms and books. But when it comes to delivering on learning outcomes, we fail. And the trap has to do with the fact that when we talk of reforms, we talk of infrastructure (boundary walls, bathrooms) as the main issue and do not focus on learning outcomes.

But parents send their children to schools to learn. Should these learning outcomes not be our main measure of output or success? Instead reforms usually focus on everything other than these outcomes and indicators. Our schools mimic what other schools

do, outwardly, but do not deliver on variables of interest.

The same seems to be true of officials like building and motor vehicle inspectors as well as a number of governmental departments. They have the outer form of these departments but are incapable of delivering the services they are required to provide.

Making laws is the easy and most visible part. That the government keeps doing. But when it comes to implementing them, the government lacks delivery mechanisms and the requisite capability and competence.

Government departments give salaries to bureaucrats and clerks; they produce much noise and a lot of paperwork. When disaster strikes, the incompetence of the departments is highlighted, but even catastrophes fail to induce change as incompetence is entrenched because of the poor abilities of bureaucrats, clerks and the system surrounding them. It is a hard equilibrium to break.

Capability traps can be broken but that requires long-term and intensive work focusing on redesigning organisations, institutions and systems. Political governments do not seem to be interested in doing that. It is easier to make underpasses, motorways and bus systems.

But if we want sustainable and sustained growth we have to change gears and work on longer-term governance reform plans.

The writer is senior adviser, Pakistan, at Open Society Foundations, associate professor of economics, LUMS, and a visiting fellow at IDEAS, Lahore.


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The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (4) Closed

Maha Kamal Jul 19, 2013 02:39pm

Absolutely true. Governance & capacity building remains a systemic challenge for Pakistan. We look for short-term fixes, like the recent payments to IPPs after we failed to meet payments -- but there's a real dearth of Root Cause Analysis for our problems. Our solutions are usually like putting bandages on wounds that need surgery.

Hussain Jul 19, 2013 03:07pm

You hit the bull's eye here. I see it everyday around us and wonder at the apathy demonstrated by public institutions towards the people and their lives. But we're burning from both the ends. We have no enforcement of health and safety regulations and we don't have life saving/firefighting infrastructure. We have high casualty rate in any accident or catastrophe because of paramedic inadequacies. Our fire ladders can't reach past 9th floor and buildings don't have exit doors. Situation is pretty serious. We have thousand of explosions and casualties in last 10 years and yet our bomb disposal squad is poorly equipped and underesourced. And if we, somehow, able to bypass corruption and may actually make sound procurement decision, equipment may keep getting rot in warehouses due to capability traps. How a nation bear that its President dole out millions on sufi shrines but don't buy a fire brigade?

Faysal Hameed Jul 20, 2013 12:59am

Faisal, the issues which you have pointed out, is no doubt up-to the mark. But these challenges are not new to our governance system. From top to bottom, we as a nation are careless bunch of human being (excluding few good men). The main reason out of many in my school of thought is the teaching and learning system of our society (homes, schools, masques, neighborhoods, offices, etc). We are divided in our vision, mission and objectives about

Avtar Jul 20, 2013 06:03am

Good explanation. In the sub-continent we mimic the Western countries in terms of organizational set up and talk the talk but rarely do we walk the talk. I do not even trust some of the companies claiming to be compliant with ISO standards. Companies rarely back up their claims. In India, a franchise of the international car rental company over charged me 3 years ago. When I told the company re the overcharge they asked me send the information and account information for refunding the amount overcharged. In India, the amount was never refunded after many attempts. Finally, I was refunded by the parent company in the US.