The 100-day song and dance

Updated November 29, 2018

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The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

THERE is nothing sacrosanct about the 100-day timeline, and no government should be expected to deliver policy outcomes in that time period, unless the policy outcomes are of a terribly minor nature. It is unclear what exactly the 100-day promise was now; the PTI government disavowed its own plan for its first 100 days almost immediately upon coming into power, after having basked in the kudos for having had a 100-day plan in the first place.

Did Imran Khan actually say ‘give me 100 days to deliver’ or did he say ‘wait 100 days before opening the floodgates of critical commentary on the policy choices made by my government’? It is not clear, and given how things are shaping up, it clearly does not matter because increasingly it looks like these guys are going to be making this up as they go.

Here is a relevant rule of thumb: don’t try and ride government by the seat of your pants. Don’t make the game plan up as you go, making commitments first and looking for ways to deliver upon them after. That’s one important difference between public policy and corporate life. In public policy, decisions can have an impact on the lives of millions of people, and collectively they have a voice. In corporate life, you can raise the price of packaged milk by a certain amount, for example, and there will be no uproar from your consumers. In public life, if the price of milk or a bag of flour should rise by a certain amount, there will be an outcry, and regardless of fairness, people are likely to blame those in power.

The first 100 days are indeed too soon to look for policy outcomes, but they are not too soon to look for policy direction or to evaluate the quality of the decision-making that is feeding policymaking. This point has been emphasised before and bears repeating because governments and those in power do not get endless honeymoon periods. The first 100 days are enough in which to put in place the right decision-making structure and get the ball rolling.

The first 100 days are indeed too soon to look for policy outcomes, but they are not too soon to look for policy direction.

So let’s see how well the government has fared on that front. Remember that first televised address to the nation by the newly minted Prime Minister Imran Khan that had people swooning? He clearly said then that the biggest issue facing the country was child stunting due to malnutrition, and showed two photographs of the brain imaging of two children. One set of brains was that of a stunted child, and the other was normal. Then he put the photographs down, without explaining what exactly they showed.

Never mind. The fact that a sitting prime minister pointed out that the health of the country’s children was his top priority felt like a breath of fresh air. Those who know even a little about stunting in children will tell you that it has complicated pathways, beyond simple calorific intake.

Much of the capacity to address the problem lies with the provincial governments. Should we now expect to see a massive attempt by the new government to build bridges with provincial governments? Tap the reservoirs of expertise in the country about the problem of stunting? Create programmes that coordinate with provincial and local authorities to transform the environments in which children grow up? Raise awareness about prenatal health, women’s education, hygiene and clear water, nutritional balance in children’s diet as well as find innovative ways to make a better diet available to the poorest segments of society? Because nothing less than a wide, deep and broad-based engagement of this sort could make a dent in the problem.

Instead, we had nothing. We heard that a taskforce on stunting had been formed, but how many of us know who the members are? How many meetings have they held? What headway have they made towards developing some sort of an action plan to address the problem? How many of the experts who have done research on child stunting in Pakistan have even been contacted by this taskforce or anyone from Prime Minister House?

A hundred days is not too soon to expect answers to these questions. And the same is true of all the other promises we have been hearing, of hundreds of billions of dollars that are stashed abroad that will be brought back to plug the country’s many deficits, of a clean and transparent taxation system, and judicial reforms and local bodies. These are not my own bullet points, these are things the prime minister himself has talked about. How much work is being carried out on these fronts?

Instead, what we had was another speech only a few weeks later in which another top priority suddenly emerged: the growing water shortages. How will these be addressed? By the prime minister throwing his own weight behind the dam fund being run by the chief justice. He called on all overseas Pakistanis to donate generously and said this was the single-most important issue facing the country. He added that he would personally supervise the funds to ensure their proper utilisation.

But shortly after that, the Supreme Court issued its detailed judgement that had created the dam fund in the first place, and in it laid out the mechanism that will be used to oversee the utilisation of the money collected in the fund. The mechanism gives no role to the prime minister, only to judges. And there ended all talk of the dam fund from the prime minister.

All I can say is ‘you had me at child stunting, you lost me at dam fund’. There is no need to delve into the numbers, to dissect the talks with the IMF or anything more fancy. With this quality of decision-making, there will be little difference between the first 100 days and the last.

The writer is a member of staff.

khurram.husain@gmail.com

Twitter: @khurramhusain

Published in Dawn, November 29th, 2018