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FICTION: Wishful thinking

Updated April 23, 2017

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Looking Back: How Pakistan Became an Asian Tiger by 2050 is Dr Nadeem ul Haque’s latest book. While dismissing the notion of ‘development first,’ the writer argues for reforming the system first, to make the ground conducive to sustainable development.

Written as semi-fiction, the book imagines Pakistan as a developed country by the year 2050. The United Nations, which sets up a commission in 2051 to understand Pakistan’s development model, narrates the story.

The UN’s commission tells us that until 2020, Pakistan was a centralised elitist state marked by high inequality and low social mobility. Grave problems, such as the loss of the country’s eastern wing in 1971 and the Balochistan issue that haunts Pakistan to date are attributed to the elitist state. Businessmen and public servants accumulated rents in this society by way of tax and tariff exemptions, subsidies, perks, plots, privileges and bank loans that need not be repaid. Prevalence of merit was unthinkable.


An economist imagines what Pakistan’s future could be if a revolution of thought began now


Finally the elitist hold broke down and the country stood reformed. In the reformed country, the federal cabinet comprises only 15 persons, the finance ministry only manages the budget, government expenditures remain within the budget and are used only for purposes approved by parliament in advance. The ministry of economy reviews the state of markets, but does not intervene in them. The ministry of strategy and reforms develops the country’s long-term strategy, while the ministry of institutional development frames regulations.

Key decisions, including electricity production and supply contracts, require a parliamentary nod. Judges retire at the age of 75 with no chance of re-employment anywhere. The civil and military bureaucracies are paid handsomely, but only in cash — perks, plots and privileges such as government housing are history.

Pre-empting questions such as who will do it and how this will happen, the book answers that no recognisable agent is behind the change. The people at the helm who facilitated the change had, in fact, bowed to the wishes of the electorate, implying that the electorate had turned pro-reform before the reform happened.

How did the people become pro-reform? The narrative on this aspect is the book’s key message: the role of (research) networks in laying the foundation of reforms. The book explains that a quiet revolution of thought began before the reform happened. Somehow, the government funded independent research, the then-limping think-tanks woke up, and academics formed partnerships and networks. These locally-funded networks, relying on the bottom-upwards approach, flourished or died depending on their ability to generate ideas. These networks, that were not centrally controlled, recommended solutions that suited local culture and ground realties. After a decade or two, parliament began taking these networks seriously — policy guidelines coming from parliament are now rooted in what the networks recommend.

Using this narrative, perhaps the book seeks to say that reforms, and hence development, will come about only if the fermentation outlined above happens. References to the emergence of human philosophy and political democracy in Greece and the ferment contained in the Renaissance and European enlightenment, believed to be at the root of the West’s development, make the author’s case convincing. The book’s bottom line seems to be that for reform, and consequently development, to come about in Pakistan, a Pakistani renaissance is called for and world history tells us that this is not impossible.

The author blames the bureaucracy for much of what ails governance and the economy in Pakistan. While this might be true for part of Pakistan’s history, since the last 30 years or so politicians or generals pretending to be politicians have been in the driving seat; the bureaucracy has been co-opted or tamed using the carrot of prized postings, and the stick of transfers.

The book emphasises research as the starting point of reform. While this is generally true, in many cases flawed systems are too evident for research to tell us anything further. For example, transgender persons only recently began to be issued national identity cards in Pakistan. They are being counted in the national census for the first time. This reform is owed to advocacy rather than research. Similarly, even without research we know that reserving sanitation tasks for non-Muslims is bad. We know that corruption, plea bargaining, using taxpayers’ money to advertise the achievements of the government is bad. Here, advocacy or public pressure may help reform.

The book pins hopes on the academia to play a large role in reformation. To me, it seems that academia can, at best, point a finger at what is wrong. To make reforms possible, the opposition of the would-be losers will need to be overcome. For this I will bet on social media which is again bottom-upwards, not centrally controlled and not opinionated — characteristics that the author yearns for in order to make reforms possible.

The book is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the process of reform, the subsequent process of development, and especially how to kick-start the two.

The reviewer is associated with Air University and the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics, Islamabad

Looking Back: How Pakistan Became an Asian Tiger by 2050
By Nadeem ul Haque
Kitab, Kindle
ISBN: 978-0995903005
193pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 23rd, 2017