Importance of being earnest

Published November 23, 2014
The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.
The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.

The title of Oscar Wilde’s novel about late 19th-century British society also aptly sums up the most essential requirement for the effective governance of nations and states. History testifies that peoples, nations and empires rose to greatness when they were well governed and decayed and declined when they were not.

By this yardstick, Pakistan is in dire straits. The evidence of its serial mis-governance almost since its birth are palpable.

Today, Pakistan’s democracy is dysfunctional, its economy stagnant, its society divided between the few rich and the mass poor. Justice, jobs and security are unavailable for a growing population of uneducated and alienated youth.

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s leaders, caught in petty power plays, have no vision or plan for national development. Pakistan — the world’s sixth most populous country — was not invited to any of the three summits held in Asia earlier this month, illustrating its decline and marginalisation.

The demands for reform made in the recent protest movement led by Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri have been lost in the political melee.

The commission of inquiry into electoral fraud will only scratch the surface. It is unfortunate that the opportunity was not seized to promote wider and more essential governance reform to ensure that Pakistan can survive and prosper as a modern state.

There are at least 10 areas that need to be addressed urgently.

One, politics. The feudal and unequal structure of Pakistan’s society is a major obstacle to representative democracy and economic development.

Repeatedly, elections have thrown up political leaders who are mostly ignorant, arrogant and corrupt.

Rules and mechanisms can be created to set high standards for political office and ensure that decent and qualified people of modest means can be elected to political office.

Pakistan’s leaders have no vision or plan for national development.

Two, law and order. Pakistan has become a violent place, afflicted by terrorism, criminal gangs and political thuggery. The state must re-establish its monopoly of coercive power.

The armed forces have a self-evident but not solitary role. Given honest purpose and adequate resources, the country’s security apparatus can be cleansed and modernised to reassert state authority.

Three, the judicial system. The concept of an independent judiciary acting as a check on executive power has either failed at critical moments in Pakistan’s history or been perverted to individual or political purpose.

Without hope of securing fair or timely justice, ordinary people have had increasing recourse to illegal and extra-legal, often violent, means for the settlement of disputes. A simpler system for the dispensation of justice and a modality for oversight of the judiciary would help in restoring the rule of law.

Four, local government. The daily lives of most people are deeply affected by the quality and responsiveness of local governments.

The present system is custom-made for corruption. Emulating successful examples, such as the Swiss communes and the panchayats of yore, and adhering to the rule of ‘subsidiarity’ — allowing as many decisions as possible to be taken at the lowest possible level — can simplify the administration of the entire country.

Five, the bureaucracy. Pakistan inherited a fairly good bureaucratic system from the British but has proceeded to politicise, corrupt and destroy it. It should be discarded and a new one created.

A modern state needs a functionally qualified, impartial and decisive bureaucracy, free of avarice and political fear or favour, to ensure its efficient administration and development. There is no dearth of Pakistanis within and outside the country who can form the core of such a new bureaucracy.

Six, government finances. The government is broke because only a small fraction of income earners — mostly the salaried class — pay their taxes. Successive governments have shied away from broadening the tax base and utilising coercive measures of tax collection because the delinquents either belong to the political class or have political connections.

A fair and effective system must be quickly implemented. Likewise, huge savings can be made by restructuring or privatising the 20-plus loss-making state corporations that are bleeding amounts equal to the country’s entire budget deficit each year.

Seven, human development. Pakistan’s growing population of the young, uneducated and unskilled is an economic and social liability, feeding radicalism and crime. A skilled population would be its greatest asset, generating income and consumption and accelerating economic growth. Education and skill creation should be Pakistan’s highest priority and deserve vastly expanded budget support.

Eight, infrastructure. Most of Pakistan’s physical infrastructure — transport, energy, irrigation — is over 50 years old. Economic growth and investment will continue to be constrained without modern infrastructure.

The greatest impediment to infrastructure development, apart from the paucity of resources and long-range planning, is the system of kickbacks and corruption surrounding public projects. An investment authority, free of political affiliation, should be constituted to oversee the effective and planned execution of infrastructure projects.

Nine, agriculture. Pakistan’s vast potential in food and agricultural production has been neglected. With its large population, agricultural production in Pakistan can be enlarged significantly by small farmers, not large conglomerates. This would also ease the unemployment and urbanisation challenges. What is required? Land reform, to entitle small farmers, and technological and financial support to enable them to succeed.

Ten, industrialisation. Local manufacturing industries are essential to create jobs, substitute imports, enlarge exports and propel growth and general prosperity. For once, we should follow Mr Modi by proclaiming a ‘make in Pakistan’ slogan. To succeed, it will be necessary to review Pakistan’s trade and investment regime which does not offer sufficient incentives and protections to domestic producers.

The ten tasks outlined here may appear too daunting at first sight. Yet, with serious and bold leadership, a planned and sequenced endeavour can be launched to implement the governance reforms that are vitally needed to save Pakistan from further decline and eventual political and social collapse.

To start, agreement should be reached to establish a high-level commission to identify the reform agenda. It could set up committees composed of reputable experts in each area to propose the reforms and the modalities for their implementation.

Unfortunately, it is not evident who can convince Pakistan’s political establishment of the importance of being earnest.

The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.

Published in Dawn, November 23th , 2014



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