A gradual bloom

March 28, 2017


ONE often reads articles lamenting the neglect of what each writer thinks is the biggest threat to Pakistan. The agitated (usually non-specialist) writers often hype the impact of their pet issue to be convincing — making no comparisons with other threats lest theirs receives less attention — and end with a dire but unproven warning of imminent national collapse if the threat remains ignored.

In this tussle for the top spot, some recently crowned perils include overpopulation, feudalism, terrorism and corruption. So what is our biggest threat? Can they even be ranked? Threats include proximate and deeper ones. In ranking proximate ones, one must look at the numbers they harm and its level, but also their intractability and ability to spread rapidly if ignored.

Terrorism receives some focus now, since it kills approximately 2,000-3,000 people annually. But poverty kills many more (via illiteracy, disease etc), as does violence against women, smoking and traffic accidents — without any stern-sounding operations targeting them. This is partly because poverty only kills the weak while terrorism also kills elites. Poverty kills silently, individually, in remote places; terrorism kills groups, loudly, in busy places from where TV instantly transmits gory footage, intensifying fear.

Although poverty is decreasing despite state neglect, ignoring terrorism can sow chaos — but so can climate change. The latter is also more intractable since its main roots lie beyond our borders. We can only mitigate its impact. So, terrorism, climate change, violence against women, poverty and disasters are all key proximate threats that must receive far more focus. But I can’t crown any as the ‘biggest’.

Things will keep improving if democracy survives.

As a thoughtful nation, we should focus on deeper causes. Their rank depends on the number of major proximate and other deep causes that a deeper threat affects — the biggest or ‘mother cause’ being the one with most strong causal links with other threats. Among them, the ‘overpopulation’ doom prognosis is a favourite for top contender. Large families seriously harm mother-child health, and so I strongly support population work. But I oppose hyped-up doom prognoses.

The 18th century scholar Malthus first claimed that population increase would cause catastrophic shortages. Science has so far proven him wrong by increasing supply at a faster pace than demand. But science is unable to tackle today’s opulent consumption demand. The much critiqued ‘population explosion’ of the poor will not herald doom, but climate change caused by the little critiqued consumption explosion of the rich might. A small, rich family consumes much more than a big, poor one. Our numbers have tripled, but absolute poverty has fallen to one-third since 1970 despite state neglect of poverty and average GDP growth. Sound policy can address the threat of the population doubling by 2050 with improved technology, and can transform this burden into an asset, that of a large market of literate, healthy, responsible workers and consumers. Population work is critical, but still not our biggest threat.

Corruption infuriates pious analysts. There are two views. The populist view thunders that nations cannot progress at all without ending graft (reality: China is) and we can end it quickly via unelected rule (reality: China isn’t). The evidential view I support says graft slows progress but doesn’t choke it; there are no short-cut remedies and it must be tackled democratically. So graft too is a major, but not the main, threat.

Clerics say it is non-Islamisation. But the recent Punjab hijab event shows there is no appetite for their retrograde brand of faith. The majority prefers largely secular modern laws for itself, but tamps its guilt by having a few retrograde laws that conveniently do more harm to the weak (poor women and minorities).

‘Feudalism’ stirs strong passions too. Rural elites hogged state power before, but not now. Much state power resides with the largely urban army and bureaucracy. Only one (PPP) of the five main parties in the National Assembly today is landlord-led. Urban elites dominate power now. But rural people still suffer rural elites’ abuse. Ending it is critical, but not the main threat.

These threats lack numerous strong links with others to be the mother cause. But discussing ‘feudalism’ brings me closer to it: elite politics. Power may pass from rural to urban elites and between civilians and army, but the state remains under elites pursuing individual or institutional aims, not the welfare of the masses. Almost all proximate and other deeper causes stem from elite politics, which only a strengthened democracy can overcome.

Despite all its problems, Pakistan is not collapsing. Things will keep improving if democracy survives, but only slowly, despite current talk of imminent take-off. So our future likely contains neither boom nor doom, but gradual bloom.

The writer heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit, and is a senior fellow at UC Berkeley.



Published in Dawn, March 28th, 2017