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Abuse of authority

January 08, 2017

MUMTAZ Mufti, a great Urdu writer, has written in one of his books that being used to something (ie manoosiat) is one of God’s biggest blessings. Things like rainbows and observing the rain and sun together surprise us and we refer to these as miracles. However, the most complex of God’s creations ie men and women, do not surprise us because we see them all the time. Even the uniqueness of one’s voice or fingerprints does not surprise us. Had this not been the case, we would be surprised every minute and would be unable to get through our daily routine.

The other side of this observation pertains to the many ills of society. For example, being used to witnessing corruption, nepotism, favouritism and the abuse of authority at every tier of our class-based society, we accept these as necessary evils. Today, the person pointing a finger at the corrupt is the odd man out. The same is true for the abuse of authority: for instance, ignoring merit as the criterion for hiring, promoting and awarding contracts in the public sector — in order to benefit oneself or someone else.

If, during office or drawing-room discussions, a person complains about acts of favouritism, nepotism or other irregularities evident in a public entity, the usual consensus is, ‘let it be, everyone does it’. This acceptance of abuse of authority as ‘normal’ is at the root of the problem. Prima facie, the abuse of authority in a single public entity and its acceptance may appear to have trivial consequences at the national level. But I argue that even petty abuse of authority has a multiplier effect in various dimensions — and the entire political, policymaking and governance fabric of the country is weakened. How?

As abusers and beneficiaries go unpunished, greater abuse of authority and even more questionable means of obtaining something are resorted to. Systems are manipulated to offer jobs, promotions, prized postings and lucrative contracts. Those behind this expect a pay-off — not necessarily money. Meanwhile, hiring and promotions which are not done on the basis of merit result in beneficiaries ignoring the abuse of authority by the manipulators in other aspects.


Those pointing a finger at irregularities deviate from the norm.


The latter attempt to profit further, often by not giving someone else what is due to them. With the abuse of authority having being accepted as quite normal, those who are actually deserving have no choice but to strike a deal. The result is that corruption, nepotism and favouritism become even more pervasive.

What happens next? As even genuine entitlement comes by way of abuse of authority, people try to vote in those who are in a position to game the system to their advantage. Knowing voters’ expectations, many politicians stand ready to manipulate the system to the advantage of their electorate. Not all politicians are good at doing so, and the better and more willing manipulators stand a greater chance of winning. The system obviously stands compromised as a result.

Next, as the executive authority of the government rests with bureaucrats (here the term includes all public administrators), the politicians select such civil servants as their deputies who can and are willing to manipulate the system. Thus governance also stands compromised. Bureaucrats who are not willing to toe the line but want to save their jobs create red tape. Now efficiency also stands compromised.

As abuse of authority becomes the order of the day, second-rate or faulty systems are introduced to check this trend. For example, ideally those responsible for the achievement of a certain goal should enjoy the powers to hire and fire; however, given the evidence of the abuse of such authority, the public sector still offers job security. This security conspires against efficiency — why should a person do his job, if his pay and pension is guaranteed regardless of his performance? Seniority, rather than performance-based promotion, is introduced to check the abuse of authority.

This is only a macro-level glimpse of what starts with the acceptance of corrupt practices. At the micro level, perhaps it is this attitude that has contributed most to the present state of almost all public entities. Things will change for the better only when the number of those pointing a finger at some irregularity increases. When this happens, people abusing their authority will become rare.

For this to happen, perhaps some men will have to put their careers, time and money at stake. This is a tall order but not an impossible one as we observe a number of societies where the abuse of authority is minimal. Incidentally, these are societies we call developed.

The writer is a researcher at the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics.

idreespide1@gmail.com

Twitter: @khawaja_idrees

Published in Dawn, January 8th, 2017