A regional laggard

January 29, 2019


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

ONE often has the frustrating experience of being stuck in a slow lane and watching other cars overtaking one in other lanes. Unluckily, for Pakistanis this is becoming a collective experience as state after state in South Asia overtakes us economically, socially and politically.

First it was Sri Lanka and India. Now even Bangladesh is overtaking us. Even the Saarc micro-states, the Maldives and Bhutan, are far ahead in terms of per capita income. This leaves only Nepal and Afghanistan clearly behind us. In fact, Pakistan came ahead of only Afghanistan in a comparison of Saarc states I did a few years back on 25 key socioeconomic indicators. (‘How we compare’, Dec 6, 2015).

This is puzzling for a state which in the 1960s was applauded globally as a rising economic star, one most likely to achieve developed status among developing states. We often delude ourselves that South Korea progressed by stealing our development plans. In fact, many may even find a comparison with Saarc states odd as they are constantly comparing Pakistan with Korea and Malaysia and plotting shortcuts to catch up with them. But South Asia is the right comparison base since we share culture, geography and history with other states here.

Lazy analysis may blame corruption as the main reason for our falling behind, ignoring the fact that some of the most successful developing states have been led by corrupt leaders. But the real reason is that, unlike the more successful Saarc states, our policies have privileged economic progress over political and social progress. This is based on the erroneous thinking that political and social concerns are distractions that may hamper economic progress and thus should be ignored until economic progress is achieved. The result is that we are falling behind in all three areas.

Can we learn a few lessons from our neighbours?

Let us begin with the Ayub era which is often nostalgically held up as Pakistan’s golden era when economic progress was supposedly high and the bureaucracy worked efficiently. The era shows the bias towards economic progress at the expense of social and political concerns. A military regime was in place; One Unit had been imposed earlier, and social equality concerns were ignored. In reality, the Ayub regime only served the top 25 per cent to 30pc of society with the bottom strata left to fend for themselves. With such a narrow focus, the bureaucracy looked efficient. But the weaknesses of this model were soon exposed as massive social and political grievances ended both the economic progress and the Ayub regime.

Subsequent regimes, particularly elected ones, gave more attention to providing services to all sections of society. But this led to a major fall in the efficiency of state services provided by the bureaucracy revealing the stark reality that the Pakistani state can provide efficient services to only the rich or provide poor quality services to all.

In contrast, India, Sri Lanka and Bangla­desh gave much more attention to social and political issues. The former two have stuck to democracy from day one while Bangladesh also seems to have firmly put an end to army hard and soft coups. Thus, the three states first overtook Pakistan on social and political progress and are now reaping the benefits of this sensible strategy by bypassing Pakistan even on economic progress.

Where even these states have ignored social realities, they too have suffered in the shape of the Tamil rebellion in Sri Lanka and Marxist one in India. But the pecking order in South Asia is stark. India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh are the most democratic and consequently also the economically most successful states in South Asia. Nepal, Afghan­­istan and Pakistan are the least democratic and hence also the least economically successful Saarc states.

But the question is whether we can put ego aside and learn a few lessons from our neighbours. So in his visits to China and Malaysia, Imran Khan expressed a desire to learn from their development experiences despite the differences in our context. Would we be humble enough to recognise that we probably have much more to learn from our more successful neighbors because of our similar context? South Asian states are much more ethnically heterogeneous than East Asian ones and the highly centralised models that succeed there only produce massive violence and little progress in South Asia.

Unluckily, we are again seeing a pendulum swing towards centralisation in Pakistan, with a resurgence of establishment meddling in polls, and talks about roll-back of the 18th Amendment and the benefits of the presidential system. Media and civil society are under attack too. This makes Pakistan perhaps the only Saarc state where there is still serious discussion on the correct political model for the country even though the other Saarc states portray the message of the superiority of decentralised democracy.

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



Published in Dawn, January 29th, 2019