A worthwhile state?

Published October 20, 2014
The writer is a political and development economist.
The writer is a political and development economist.

HAS Pakistan been worth it? In other words, has it yielded the benefits that Pakistan movement leaders expected from their long struggle? This inquiry could be interpreted as questioning the validity of Pakistani ideology, which incidentally is discouraged in Pakistan.

I have no such intentions, especially since questioning it is a theoretical exercise today. Further, many Pakistanis still lack the confidence to deliberate that question dispassionately, even theoretically. So, I take the pursuit of independence as a given and analyse whether its success has satisfied initial expectations and if not, how future prospects are.

Globally, one sees two conflicting trends. Some countries pursue politico-economic union to enhance their development status while some sub-national regions pursue separation to enhance it. Where developmentally similar countries unite, they could benefit from the larger market and economies of scale created. Conversely, backward and neglected but potentially viable economically sub-regions could develop faster given the proximate government control over policy and resources that independence provides.

Poor governance has limited the potential we inherited.

Contemporary Pakistan was arguably among India’s most backward regions in terms of education and industry. But it possessed potential industrial viability given its sea access, large population, fertile agriculture and a small but well-educated class.

So, rather than basing my inquiry on the claim that Indian Hindus and Muslims constituted distinct civilisations, I base it on the ‘backward sub-region’ thesis to analyse whether separation has helped Pakistan develop faster economically and politically.

Economically, Pakistan’s higher (than India’s) economic growth rates and per capita income for around 50 years and its lower poverty rates even today suggest that it did derive an ‘independence dividend’ initially.

One can question however, whether economic progress was equitable. Clearly, elite landlords, generals, businesspersons, bureaucrats and mullahs have prospered from independence. What about the masses? While the lower poverty rates show the masses have also benefited to some extent income-wise, Pakistan’s poorer health and education indicators mean that such benefits have not been broad-based.

The second caveat has to do with the quality of economic progress, for Pakistan has been less successful in establishing high-tech industries than India. Pakistan’s higher growth has often been fuelled by undependable US aid and Gulf remittances. While independence enhanced such external flows, they were not utilised to foster sustainable development. Essentially, while independence provided some economic dividends, poor governance reduced their extent and spread.

Now to the question of whether Pakistan has done better politically. Unlike India’s consistent commitment to democracy, Pakistan has vacillated between democracy and dictatorship. Leaders, elected or non-elected, have been far less responsive to people. Ethnic tensions have been higher. In recent decades, the scourge of extremism has furthered political instability. This poorer political performance has undermined economic progress too, and Pakistan’s growth rates and per capita incomes have now fallen behind India’s.

Why has Pakistan’s political progress been poorer? It is often attributed to bad luck or the machinations of a tiny elite class, whose removal by hook or by crook or coup is expected to yield immediate, large improvements in governance. The reality is more complex. The quality of governance is as fundamentally linked to structural societal characteristics, as economic progress is to availability of natural, technological and human resources. Thus, improving governance is not about disqualifying certain individuals or families but about overcoming these structural barriers, which takes time.

Other breakaway countries (eg Bangla­desh, Eritrea, South Sudan) too have failed to obtain the immediate, large or consistent economic dividends expected from independence due to similar political constraints. These experiences suggest the need for modifying the “backward sub-region thesis”. Both economic and political viability must be analysed to better predict the post-independence prospects of breakaway sub-regions.

Such analysis may not deter determined secessionists. Their goals derive less from cold economic calculations and more from ideological or identity factors (Pakistan) or extended maltreatment which makes cohabitation unimaginable (Bangladesh).

However, such analysis may help in providing more realistic post-independence expectations. Thus, where economic viability but also political constraints are high, the expected economic dividends may only materialise once the political constraints are overcome. In Pakistan’s case, these political constraints are reducing gradually and there is some likelihood that more equitable and durable economic progress may result as governance improves.

The writer is a political and development economist.


Published in Dawn, October 20th, 2014


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