Flight of fantasy

Published March 10, 2015
The writer is a former civil servant.
The writer is a former civil servant.

WHEN the seed of the Chinese bamboo tree is planted, nurtured and watered, it does not sprout even an inch for four years. Then in the fifth year, the seed planted four years ago grows into a tree as high as 24 metres in just one year. This is an amazing parable emphasising the virtues of patience.

However, in Pakistan, the Chinese bamboo tree might have a different story to tell. The gardener would only pretend that he has planted the tree, and would keep on watering the land. By the fifth year, the man’s tenure as gardener would be over — and there would be no sign of the tree. This cycle would be repeated with no bamboo ever growing.

Our government functionaries love to look busy and do nothing. Recently, the appearance of half-page advertisements in some leading newspapers, calling for proposals and recommendations from think tanks, individuals and organisations to uplift the civil service’s performance, reinforced this view.

Project Uraan is the new packaging of this age-old gimmick. One wonders what the National Commission for Government Reforms, established way back in 2007, has done so far? Also, what progress has been made in implementing Dr Ishrat Husain’s report which was painstakingly prepared by the said commission in consultation with all stakeholders? Such is the audacity of those at the helm of affairs that not only are they adamant on reinventing the wheel they are wasting public money on advertising bizarre ideas.

Another relevant development that seems encouraging on paper but will likely not amount to much is the news that the Ministry of Planning, Development and Reforms on Wednesday signed a $11.6 million agreement with UNDP to support implementation of key governance reforms at the federal and provincial levels.

There has been little action on reforming the civil service.

The joint project aims at developing and expanding the capability and accountability of the public sector over a four-year period. This arrangement seems no different from many such projects carried out by donor agencies in developing countries in the past as well and is likely to be another failure in a long list. Before labelling the writer a cynic, go through the reasons of this pessimism elaborated in the following paragraphs.

Prof Peter K. Spink, a Wilson Centre expert in urban studies and public management in his paper titled Possibilities and political imperatives: 70 years of administrative reform in Latin America, describes the reasons behind the failure of donor-funded attempts at reforming civil services in Latin America in the following words:

“Since the 1980s, donors, abetted by governments, have promoted ever-more complex technical solutions to the problems of public-sector reform in Latin America. They have not, in the process, asked much about past failures in reform strategy, and this has to throw their current reform ideas into doubt. Has self-censorship unwittingly limited the range of discussion? Bilateral and multilateral agencies, through courtesy or ignorance, avoid politics in advice they give, the histories and documents they write, and the meetings they address. The pressure is to reach conclusions acceptable to all. Latin American governments, for their part, seek resources and thus respond to areas where aid is being made available. In the end, careers and interests have become built on ‘reform’: there is plenty to be done and room for all.”

The relevance of these observations to Pakistan is hard to miss. Geoffrey Shepherd on the basis of his experience, as a World Bank employee and consultant, in his paper titled Civil service reform in developing countries: why is it going badly? delineates the fact that experts of donor agencies tend to have a narrow technical view of the world and reform is wrongly considered to be something falling in an absolutely technical domain that has nothing to do with the political facet of the process.

Another reason for this aloofness when it comes to political aspects is the desire of the donor agencies to stay apolitical. The fact that any effort contrary to this idea would be considered an intervention in domestic affairs by the recipient government cements this approach.

Therefore, the latest agreement between the UNDP and the Pakistan government is nothing to write home about. To be harsh but honest, all it would do is help the mandarins at either end draw exorbitant salaries in the name of improving governance, enjoy foreign trips in the garb of conferences on capacity-building and attend pointless workshops arranged at five-star hotels to boast about in their résumés before moving on to more such exploits.

Lastly, it is imperative to change the approach towards implementation and also assessment of the success or failure of projects focused on reforming the civil service. Otherwise, projects like Project Uraan would be nothing more than a flight of fantasy or in other words a case of watering the tree that has not even been planted.

The writer is a former civil servant.


Published in Dawn March 10th , 2015

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