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No capacity to deliver

Updated July 19, 2013

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.