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Feasible change

February 13, 2018


THE desire for change is widespread, not only in developing countries where the majority is poor but also in many developed states where the majority is doing relatively well. Thus, slogans of political and economic change raised by political candidates find ready reception among millions hungry for it. But invariably those promising change disappoint once they come to power.

Obama and Trump in the US, Bhutto and several military ‘saviours’ in Pakistan and numerous leaders globally often left things in a worse shape. Much of this disappointment stems from a failure of leaders and followers alike to have an in-depth understanding of the nature and process of change. It is almost as if people want the final outcome of change without understanding its process or having the patience to go through it.

It is interesting to review some of the major law and policies that Pakistan has adopted in recent years and to compare the pace of the change they are producing with the expectations for rapid change that Pakistanis hold.

The 18th Amendment devolving power to provinces was the most significant piece of legislation in decades. Almost eight years later, some power has devolved to the provinces. But there is still wrangling going on among the federal and provincial governments on so many powers. And it is difficult to find signs of visible improvement in the lives of the common people due to the increased powers provinces now enjoy.

Intermediate goalposts must be our focus.

Similarly, the promise created by the devolution of power to local bodies under Article 140A of the Constitution remains largely unfulfilled as local bodies nationally still lack the authority, resources and capacities to deliver effective local services.

The electoral reforms legislation recently passed by parliament is also a significant one. But to begin with, there are still many gaps and anomalies in it. The ECP certainly has more powers now, but as India’s example shows, it takes several election cycles for the election body to use that power to ensure fair and credible polls. Even once credible elections become routine, there is no guarantee that they will soon produce more effective governments.

Similarly, despite the many laws and bodies passed to enhance political accountability in Pakistan over the last two decades, we are still far from having meaningful political accountability in the country.

CPEC is the most significant economic opp­­ortunity the state has created in decades whi­­ch could usher in sustained economic pro­gr­e­ss if utilised properly. Before it, our eco­nomic strategy under all dictators was depre­ssingly monotonous: strike an alliance with the US and enjoy growth till US aid continues.

Many have certainly progressed enormo­usly based on their US links, eg South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. But the problem is that the US had long-term economic and political interests in them, whereas in Pakistan its interests have always been short-term political ones. Once those interests ended, its aid and our growth always petered out.

In contrast, with CPEC we are becoming part of China’s long-term economic and political interests. So, CPEC is certainly a significant opportunity if utilised properly. The state must ensure that CPEC produces adequate growth, helps us resolve our perennial fiscal and external deficits, reduces public debt, helps the economy graduate to higher-end goods and services production, and ensures economic equity and environmental sustainability. Across this long list, we have only increased the growth rates modestly so far and it is not clear whether the rest will materialise.

In contrast to the glacial change that state policies create, there are expectations for massive, instant change among people and the false promises by tacky politicians to deliver on them. Corruption will end within 90 days; Pakistan will become an Asian Tiger within 10 years and so on. Given these grandiose promises, people have little interest in incremental, evolutionary and slow change and its associated processes, even though it is clear that it is more likely.

If we want to be realistic, we must adjust our expectations away from massive end results and focus them on intermediate goalposts. So if we accept that a realistic goal for corruption is that it may reduce to manageable levels within two to three decades rather than it ending instantly, then the steady progress that annual Transparency reports reflect for Pakistan should cheer us.

For elections, we must cheer Fafen reports showing gradual falls in deviations from electoral law over several polls. The same is true for other major economic and political issues. In essence, we must move from macro to micro analysis and from final results to intermediate goal posts. Unfortunately, there are few signs that many even among our educated lot are willing to make such adjustments in their expectations.

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

Published in Dawn, February 13th, 2018