DAWN - Opinion; January 18, 2009

January 18, 2009

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A poisoned chalice?

By Pervez Hoodbhoy


RUMOUR has it that the World Bank is on its way back to Pakistan with a bagful of loans, together with plans for how we must spend the money. A major focus of the Bank’s efforts will be higher education reform.

No one doubts the desperate need for reform of Pakistan’s education sector, or the need for assistance, especially since we have shown little capacity to fund or plan our education ourselves. But recent experience suggests the Bank’s help may be a poisoned chalice. If it is to be otherwise, the Bank will have to avoid local snake charmers and be more sceptical of what bureaucrats and ministers claim.

Said to be the world’s biggest research institution working on developmental issues, the Bank employs thousands of technical people at its Washington headquarters and abroad.

Typically, a highly paid World Bank team of experts, trained in the use of sophisticated mathematical and statistical tools and report writing, is parachuted into a Third World country. They could be charged with fixing broken down systems of education, healthcare, agriculture, or electricity. But although its researchers and team leaders are often accomplished individuals, experience suggests they are not adequately equipped to understand the complexity of local issues. As important, the Bank depends on government agencies and cannot easily bite the hand that invites it in and provides access.

The Bank’s limitations are exposed by how it allowed itself to be systematically deceived in its mission to promote and support reform of higher education in Pakistan. For six years, Pakistanis heard endless stories of success about the revamping of their universities under the leadership of the Higher Education Commission and its celebrated chief, Dr Atta-ur-Rahman. With a record-smashing 12-fold increase in the HEC’s funding ordered by Gen Musharraf’s government, new universities popped into existence almost every other month. Production of PhDs and research papers shot up. It seemed obvious that things were improving. At least that’s what HEC and the World Bank said.

A 2006 World Bank report on the HEC’s performance, issued by a team led by Benoît Millot, reads like a paean to the HEC. Written in impeccable English, and embellished with impressive charts and diagrams, this 109-page report finds no fault, nor questions any assumption of the then prevailing authorities, and proclaims that “HEC has placed quality improvement of the higher education sub-sector at the centre of its agenda”. No surprise then that the report was widely quoted by the HEC as evidence of its achievements and used to demand yet more money for HEC schemes.

But now as the bitter truth gradually seeps out, the alleged accomplishments are fading away. Today, the consequences of arbitrary one-man decision making, deliberately exaggerated or invented numbers, and plain sloppy thinking are becoming apparent.The construction of university buildings has been frozen leaving them half-completed. Fantastically expensive research equipment litters the country, much of which is unused. It has been abandoned by even those who insisted on their import. Vice-chancellors are panicking over unpaid salaries for faculty and staff. Thousands of desperate Pakistani students sent overseas have received no scholarship money for months. Until they were cancelled a few weeks ago, many of HEC’s hugely expensive but shoddily planned projects — such as building nine new Pak-European universities — had been furiously sucking resources away from real needs.

Academic quality may be an even bigger casualty. Driven by huge cash incentives to mass-produce PhD degrees, university teachers have banded together across campuses to fight tooth and nail against every attempt to enforce genuine academic standards on PhD graduates. Fearful of losing their bonuses, they oppose setting a reasonable pass mark for the PhD exam, the internationally recognised GRE subject test. They know many of their students would fail, even though these students are now allowed to take the test even at the end of their studies. In China, India, and Iran, students take this exam as part of getting admission to a PhD programme overseas — and do immensely better.

Then there is research. The HEC claimed that prior to the launch of its programmes annual research publication rates in universities were very low. It says, for example, that Quaid-i-Azam University published only 631 research papers between 1998-2003. But, after the HEC’s chairman started his cash reward-per-paper programme, the number of research papers shot up to 1,482 in the 2003-2008 period, a 235 per cent improvement.

But, all serious academics know that what matters is not how many papers are written but how good these papers are. A standard measure of a paper is how many times other academics refer to it in their own papers. According to the International Science Citation Index, the total number of times the research papers published in the 1998-2003 period were cited by other researchers (excluding worthless self-citations) was 2,817. But, in the 2003-2008 period, the citation count was a mere 1,258. The message this sends is loud and clear — producing more papers does not mean more useful knowledge is being produced.

The fact is that for years numbers were twisted around and no one noticed, including the World Bank. What’s worse is that the Bank did not even bother to check. Its trained and intelligent observers could have easily investigated several of the HEC’s claims without even stirring from their desks. All they would have needed is a good Internet connection and access to standard science citation indexes.

Rather than simply sign off on HEC claims that it had worked miracles, the World Bank could have undertaken its own study. It could, for instance, have looked for evidence of improvement in university teaching quality (rather than a mere increase in enrolment). To do this scientifically it would have needed to work out the parameters that define teaching quality and then gathered the relevant data.

This might have involved establishing some reasonable metrics for gauging the quality of the faculty and student body, assessing the state of library and laboratory facilities, the content of university courses, the standard of examination papers, the presence (or lack thereof) of academic colloquia and seminars on campuses, the suitability of those appointed as vice-chancellors, the number of days in a year that the universities actually function, satisfaction of employers with university graduates, etc. But there is no sign that the World Bank bothered to do this groundwork. At least, having searched available databases, I could find none.If the Bank is again going to try support higher education reform in Pakistan, it needs to be more serious. It must focus on quality and demand greater accountability.

What Pakistan needs from the Bank is help for improving the dilapidated infrastructure (buildings, libraries, laboratories) of ordinary colleges where the bulk of Pakistani students in higher education study, not more half-baked universities. Mega-sized projects for producing qualified junior faculty for universities and colleges are badly needed. The importance of quality teaching in colleges and universities must be emphasised, not meaningless publications and more junk PhD. degrees. Better institutional governance and ethics is the key. Encourage this and the rest will follow.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

A long haul for democracy

By Kunwar Idris


JUST at a time when religious militants are in control of vast swathes of Pakistan’s territory and are suspected worldwide of staging terrorist attacks in Mumbai, a complex and divisive constitutional wrangle is looming ahead.

The mettle of our leadership is, thus, being put to the test twice over — in taming the terrorists and in accommodating divergent viewpoints in a constitutional formula which is nationally acceptable and also workable.

The draft of the amendments to the constitution to which the PPP and PML-N had agreed in 2006 and which both still own, the PPP albeit hesitantly, was not made public till Friday. According to the PML-N spokesman Ahsan Iqbal the amendments handed to the PPP conform to the contents of the Charter of Democracy that the chairpersons of the two parties, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, had then signed in London. Here, only two aspects of the amendments stipulated in the Charter have been chosen for comment.

The president of the republic will be once again, as he was in the constitution before the 17th Amendment, reduced to a figurehead. The president, surely and rightly, should be divested of the power to dissolve the National Assembly when in his opinion the government “cannot be carried on in accordance with the provisions of the constitution and an appeal to the electorate is necessary” (Article 58-2[b]). But he must remain involved in the appointment and removal of the governors and chiefs of the armed forces.The president and the prime minister should jointly decide these appointments. Leaving it to the prime minister alone is not free of hazards as Mr Nawaz Sharif must know to his cost. Surely, even President Rafiq Tarar, if he had a say then, would have counselled Nawaz Sharif to not arbitrarily remove Gen Jehangir Karamat or allow Gen Ali Kuli Khan to be superseded to make Pervez Musharraf chief of the army.

In deliberating such sensitive appointments two heads are better than one. Notwithstanding that, in our society a president who is handpicked by the prime minister and is given no role in the higher affairs of the state is more of a target of ridicule (as indeed were Chaudhry Fazal Elahi and Rafiq Tarar) than a symbol of the unity of the federation.

The provision for the appointment of judges through an independent commission as envisaged in the London Charter deserves applause. No attempt should be made to retract from it. Such an apprehension arises when a junior judge is mentioned as the next possible chief justice. Going a step further, it would be appropriate if the appointment of the chief election commissioner and chairman of the public service commission were also to be made through the same commission.

While the thrust of the PML-N’s amendments is on the restoration of the constitution as it was before Musharraf’s coup (barring the changes he made in the electoral laws and system), the MQM, quite unexpectedly, has come up with many and radical proposals on provincial autonomy. Interestingly enough, the MQM’s autonomy scheme gives no more power and functions to the federation than Mr Jinnah had agreed to cede to the central government under the Cabinet Mission Plan that was put forth as a last ditch attempt to keep India united and avert the division of Punjab and Bengal.

The arrangement then contemplated was to assign only the subjects of defence, foreign affairs and communications to the central government. The rest were all to belong to the three zonal governments in two of which the Muslims were in majority.

The MQM in its scheme proposes to assign defence, foreign affairs and currency to the federation. Thus, taking just one instance, while the central government of India would have been operating post and telegraph, railways, airlines and shipping services and building and maintaining highways and strategic roads (had the Cabinet Mission Plan been implemented), the MQM’s scheme seeks to assign all these to the provinces. It is hard to imagine how each province would manage these services which are faltering and failing even under the unified direction of the federal government — just look at the past and present state of the railways and the airline.

The MQM proposal also restricts the taxation jurisdiction of the federation to corporate incomes and levy on oil and gas. Particularly irksome for the armed forces would be the abolition of the cantonments which is also a part of the MQM plan. It may be recalled that even the local government laws that Musharraf’s National Reconstruction Bureau drafted for every provincial government did not extend to the cantonments which remained an island of central military authority over which neither the provincial nor the district government had any control.

It would be interest to note that even the much dreaded confederal scheme that was put across in 1985 by Mumtaz Bhutto, Hafeez Pirzada, Ataullah Mengal, Afzal Bangash and Khalid Leghari assigns communications i.e. railways, post, highways, etc to the confederation. It would be of even greater interest to note that conceptually the MQM’s autonomy plan comes close to Mujibur Rahman’s Six Points. He too then was prepared to concede the very three subjects to the centre — defence, foreign affairs, currency — that the MQM is proposing now. The only assurance he sought was against the flight of capital from East to West Pakistan through “effective constitutional provisions”.

The motive of Altaf Hussain in proposing a high degree of autonomy for the provinces obviously cannot be the same as was Mujibur Rahman’s. But surely he is seeking to consolidate MQM’s hold on Karachi and the rest of urban Sindh. That also explains MQM’s anxiety to find a place for the district government in the constitutional scheme with its powers and subjects defined.

President Zardari, however, is in no hurry. Six months have gone by and the parliamentary committee which is to consider the amendments to the constitution is yet to be formed. It may soon be notified. But consensus being the keyword of the current dictionary of Pakistan’s politics, the committee may have to debate the issue of provincial autonomy and status of districts in the province until the cows come home or until “an appeal to the electorate is necessary”. For the supremacy of parliament and the independence of the judiciary it seems to be a long haul.

kunwaridris@hotmail.com

Strange politics

By Asha’ar Rehman


A SET of queer statements makes up politics in the country. Chaudhry Shujaat Husain has reminded an as yet estranged Nawaz Sharif that he would be the president now if he had the wisdom to reach out to the PML-Q immediately after elections last year. A day later Chaudhry Sahib blurted out his formula that would have replaced an extremely undeserving Asif Zardari from a land afar with our own Mian Sahib in the presidency. It was a simple task that required the PML-N leader to win the support of almost all parties, the one glaring omission being that of Mr Zardari’s PPP.

Then Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan came up with his guidelines about who should and should not be meeting foreign guests and the media. The army chief and the ISI director-general, who had recently spoken to a German paper, were most definitely off his list of people who should be accessible to foreigners and the media. The remarks must have come as a shock to those who still swear by Chaudhry Nisar’s strong links to the establishment close to his constituency in Rawalpindi. For others his unusual tone confirmed a reality the DG ISI had hinted at in his interview with the Germans: that the PPP government did command some respect in the military.

We have also learnt that, despite its reputation, Lahore is a city cut off from the stream of power — on the authority of Mehmud A. Durrani. Asked why he had hastily given away our best-kept secret, Mr Durrani responded he couldn’t let the prime minister know that the government had decided to admit to Ajmal Kasab’s Pakistani nationality since the prime minister happened to be away in Lahore at the time and, hence, out of the loop.

This needed the prime minister to assert his position. He did just that when he sacked Mr Durrani as his adviser as also when he said Gen Pervez Musharraf had come out of his uniform due to a certain Joseph Biden. If not all, a few honourable Pakistanis do seem to believe the prime minister and don’t grudge Mr Biden his Hilal-i-Pakistan. For when a yet again angry Imran Khan returned a national medal, he did it in protest against the conferring of an award on US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher.

For all his reasoning, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani couldn’t effectively counter those who discovered a split between the president and the prime minister. No one knows it better than Mr Gilani, a veteran of the National Assembly since the 1980s, that a government in Islamabad at the best of times consists of a group of Mohajirs. Their well-being depends largely on the kind of relationship they have with the Ansars, the more permanent residents of the capital. The president and the prime minister will have to act in unison on some crucial issues to frustrate this wish of a rift that has found expression of late.

Does Mr Gilani know that Air Marshal Asghar Khan, who addressed the Lahore bar last week, has already issued his customary martial law warning? This should worry Mr Gilani unless he chooses to receive the doom-saying as the rest of us Punjabis have received it. We are in no danger of sullying our name, assured as we have been by the chief of our clan of our total incapability to act as a cruel dictator.

Speaking to a group of journalists from the Frontier in Lahore, Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif observed that most military dictators in Pakistan have been Pathans. He said one of them — Pervez Musharraf — came from Karachi while a Punjabi in the pack — Gen Ziaul Haq — had the good sense of domiciling himself in Peshawar just in case his Jallandhari antecedents came in the way of his march to the presidency.

It’s about time that the people from the Frontier were invited over to the Punjab capital and given a lesson about the true history of the country. Concealment serves no one especially when the objective is to bridge the gap between the provinces big and small. In fact, Mr Sharif’s remarks would be welcomed generally. They rule out a takeover during the reign of the current army chief. n