Complex states

Updated 12 Mar 2019


PAKISTAN now lags behind all Saarc states except Afghanistan on the Human Development Index (HDI). Saarc is the poorest region globally after Africa. So we are the second last state within the second last region.

This is due to misrule. There is consensus that good governance comes from strong national institutions, but there is less research on what the latter depends on. I believe it depends on certain state traits, eg diversity and history, which together constitute state complexity. The less complex a state, the stronger are its institutions. To see how it affects progress, I take a quick dash through Saarc, starting with the ones higher on the HDI.

Sri Lanka ranks 76th globally on the HDI and has a per capita income (PCI) of $3,850 (2016 World Bank data) and the Maldives 101st with a PCI of $9,760. Both are small island states along key global routes, with populations of 22.5 million. Their tropical island locations provide ample tourism and rural income avenues for their small numbers.

Ethnic, religious and class/caste divisions are low by Saarc standards with one ethnic/religious constituting 75 per cent-plus of the total in both. Both have long histories as separate, largely unified states. Sri Lanka was ruled directly by the UK, but the Maldives was a protectorate. Sri Lanka has been a democracy since 1948 while the Maldives has struggled till recently. Both have low state complexity by Saarc levels.

Democracy helps in overcoming the drag of complexity.

India ranks 130th and has a PCI of $1,800. It is not easy praising India in the Balakot era, but I believe there is no wrong time to speak the truth. I abhor India’s Kashmir policy, but think well of its national prowess, despite its huge complexities. It has a population of over a billion, with 100-plus ethnicities and deep class/caste divisions, the largest ethnicity being less than 50pc of the total.

It is a rising global power with a history of secularism which is now threatened. So India is hugely complex, but still doing well. Its case doesn’t disprove complexity’s drag but shows how to overcome it via democracy. China is equally large, but much less complex ethnically and class-wise. It has grown faster under dictatorship. Autocracy in the more complex India would not produce higher growth but higher conflict.

Bhutan ranks 134th and has a PCI of $2,660. It numbers less than a million. It is hilly and landlocked and ethnically complex but less so class-wise. Bhutan has no colonial history and only recently embraced democracy. But its natural assets provide sufficient income avenues to its small numbers. The top four Saarc states by HDI include three small and less complex states and one large and complex one which overcame the drag of its complexity via continuous democracy to convert its size into an asset.

Bangladesh has a HDI rank of 136 and PCI of $1,480. It numbers around 160m with low ethnic/religious and class/caste divisions, with Bengali Muslims being 90pc of the total population. It is the most homogenous Saarc state after the Maldives. But it has the highest population density, which is a big drag for a largely rural state. It is a new national construct and has had a mixed tryst with democracy.

Nepal’s HDI rank is 149th and PCI is $800. It is hilly and landlocked and its populace of 30m is ethnically and class-wise complex. It has no colonial history and is only now embracing democracy.

Pakistan ranks 150th with a PCI of around $1,570, which by more recent counts is now lower than of its breakaway half. Its population of 220m is ethnically and class-wise deeply divided with Punjabi (excluding Seraiki) being less than 50pc of the total. It is a new national construct and has struggled to remain democratic due to one unelected institution constantly hounding its political institutions for their poor rule, but doing worse when it is in the saddle.

Finally, Afghanistan ranks 168th and has a PCI of $560. It is hilly and landlocked and its populace of 30m is ethnically and class-wise complex. It has existed for long as a separate state, with no colonial history and tenuous recent democratic rule.

There is clearly a link between state complexity and quality of governance. Small size, internal homogeneity, natural assets and long history as a state help. Democracy helps in overcoming the drag of complexity.

Democracy has spread most easily in states with both long histories and British colonialism (India and Sri Lanka); least well in states with no British colonialism, despite their long separate histories (the Maldives, Bhutan, Afghanistan and Nepal); while states with British colonialism but no long histories fall somewhere in between (Pakistan and Bangladesh). Thus, state complexity is a key construct that must be studied more closely to gain insights into the quality of governance.

The writer is a Senior Fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan think tank.

Twitter: @NiazMurtaza2

Published in Dawn, March 12th, 2019