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Solutions please

Published Jun 20, 2017 05:19am

READERS often complain that writers focus on problems and not solutions. This may be true to some extent but it is also true that some readers look for easy solutions to complex social problems, eg, how Pakistan can achieve good governance and rapid progress. Unfortunately, such issues are not amenable to the blueprint, closed-ended solutions that many desire.

In closed-ended solutions, cause and effect relationships between the problem and solution are clear. The time duration between the solution being applied and the problem being solved is short. The chance of the solution ending the problem is high. The solution lies in the hands of a small number of clearly identifiable entities known for their skills in solving the problem.

So, the problem of a broken water pump is clearly amenable to a closed-ended solution. Usually, people know a good electrician in their locality who can resolve the issue in a couple of hours through well-tried techniques. Similarly, if traffic congestion at an intersection is a problem, then in well-governed states at least, the relevant government department can widen the intersection within a few months. So, closed-ended solutions usually work well for technical issues.

They may even work for simple social problems. But as one enters the domain of complex problems, eg how Pakistan can achieve good governance, they become less relevant than open-ended solutions. Unlike closed-ended solutions, the relationship between cause and effect in open-ended solutions is not clear-cut. The probability of the solution eradicating the problem is not high. The time duration is long and the solution involves many unknown entities.

Closed-ended solutions may not work for complex social problems.

So, in my analysis the problem of bad governance in Pakistan stems from its patronage-driven, low-end economy. In such an economy, the vast percentage of producers, urban or rural, do not need ‘good governance’ but governance which serves their immediate, narrow economic interests. Thus, low-end economics produces low-end politics. For this problem of bad governance, I can only propose an open-ended ‘solution’ which includes two strands.

Firstly, the economy has to upgrade despite poor governance so that stronger demand for good governance comes from the core of our economy. This upgrading in a stagnant economy must necessarily involve a large component of eternal opportunities, either remittance- or investment-related. The government obviously has a key role in creating and utilising such opportunities. But since we are starting from a situation of bad governance, the government may be as much part of the problem as the solution. Even otherwise, the role of private-sector players will be crucial. The second strand consists of people participating in and supporting civil society efforts for good governance. With both strands, the results will take years and decades to emerge.

Both strands represent open-ended solutions. The probability of success is unclear. The time horizons are long and both involve a large number of unknown entities, which are individually weak and collectively not very well organised. But such open-ended solutions leave some readers dissatisfied and feeling cheated given their penchant for closed-ended solutions. Surely, there must be other solutions with greater certitude and shorter time horizons, they think. Thus, they invariably turn to charlatans peddling fake closed-ended solutions for bad governance.

They say the introduction of three to five years of technocratic or military government which undertakes ruthless accountability of corrupt politicians and then holds credible elections can quickly make Pakistan an Asian Tiger. This solution has the appearance of a closed-ended solution. The time horizons are short. The solutions will lie in the hands of a small group of technocrats or military people and the probability of success is presented as very high.

But in reality, the claims about short time durations, competence and high probability of success are spurious. No country like Pakistan has progressed rapidly through such an approach, though the craving for closed-ended solutions blinds many people to this reality.

This craving emerges from the education and indoctrination system which teaches simplification of complexity, insufficient belief in rationality, technicalisation of political issues and subservience to authority. This system helps elites control the masses. It thrives on outdated modes of teaching physical sciences and religion with little focus on the social sciences which can introduce young minds to notions of uncertainty, complexity and diversity.

For this problem, I can suggest a robust solution: more emphasis on quality teaching of humanities and social sciences at all levels. But doing so would undermine the key interests of power elites. So there is little chance of this happening soon.

The writer is a Senior Fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.

Published in Dawn, June 20th, 2017