Urban welfare in Pakistan

29 Jun 2020

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The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

CONVERSATIONS around the coronavirus response have talked about the need for localised interventions, especially given the constraints and socioeconomic trade-offs faced by urban areas in developing countries. One of the things that has emerged from this analysis, particularly for Pakistan, is how the absence of strong, representative local government platforms may have hindered more effective containment and more efficient and wide-ranging distribution of welfare.

The importance of urban local governments in strengthening service delivery, developmental outcomes, and democracy has been talked and written about repeatedly. All mainstream political parties have, to varying extent, shied away from substantive devolution, even when appropriate legislation has been developed. Unfortunately, the pandemic has exposed this weakness and placed it in full view.

The prolonged centralisation and bureaucratisation of governance around municipal management, in particular, manifests in a variety of ways. One often ignored consequence is the related fragmentation and erosion of civic action and the broader space of localised civil society. The more decisions are taken opaquely, by political fiat from the provincial or federal tier, and by committees that are closed off to a variety of groups (due to structural and institutional inequities), the less likely they are going to have ownership or accountability. This subsequently sterilises the broader space for citizen participation.

The history of municipal politics in Pakistan actually shows a regression from strong local institutions of philanthropy and social service. Lahore, for example, had a variety of foundations and philanthropic ventures during the colonial and early post-colonial era (such as the Ganga Ram Trust); much of which was gradually eroded by the bureaucratisation and expansion of the state apparatus. Karachi too had a long-standing history of social ventures in health, education, and local infrastructure financed and run by members of various communities. Many of these ventures continue to exist while the space for new initiatives has reduced.

Many cities across the world owe their developmental legacies to the role their residents played, and were allowed to play.

Attempts at urban development and welfare through centralised state control is a characteristic feature of cities across the Global South. The development of big infrastructure, such as housing schemes, roads and highways, bridges and flyovers, has been presented as testaments to state capacity, serving as a source of legitimacy for political and bureaucratic elites. While this has allowed some modicum of growth and development to take place, it has often come at the cost of welfare considerations and long-term sustainability.

Research from Latin America, for example, has shown that welfare outcomes have been strongest in polities that allowed devolution in decision-making, and where local governments were able to create substantive ties with civil society, such as local community-based organisations and housing and mobility rights movements. Cities in Brazil have shown remarkable welfare gains since the 1990s, precisely because of the changes in their governing architecture, the entrenchment of democratic politics, and the proliferation of civil society initiatives. If the 1980s were marked by futile top-down state attempts to improve welfare and development outcomes, the subsequent decades have marked a very clear departure from that legacy.

Historically, these trends can also be observed in states that had devolved structures of municipal management prior to the creation of large and expansive central state structures. The history of urban life and politics in the US is very instructive in this regard. In the US, cities were governed through charters and incorporation, and were responsible for raising their own revenues and managing their own developmental affairs. Many local elites saw the benefit of incorporation, yet also struggled with the real welfare responsibilities that came with the influx of large migrant populations.

In an interesting account of urban development in the 19th-century, sociologist Elisabeth Clemens points to the role of civil society organisations, such as ‘community chests’ (funding arms for welfare initiatives financed by local businessmen and philanthropists) in picking up the slack as far as development-related spending was concerned. What they received in return was political and social acclaim and the opportunity to occupy key decision-making offices.

As a result, this model of community-led development led to considerable expansion in health, education, and infrastructure-related outcomes for American cities throughout this period. Even today, not too different from what we’ve seen in Lahore and Karachi, many cities across the world owe their developmental legacies to the role their residents played, and were allowed to play by the state.

Much of this becomes relevant in Pakistan’s case given its trajectory of urbanisation, the increased expectations of higher quality of life from urban residents, and the stagnation of opportunities in agriculture and rural areas as a whole. The state is already struggling as far as its financial health is concerned. There are also related questions of state capacity, with bureaucrats — even if well-intentioned — unable to intervene as effectively, given the scale and complexity of many of these issues.

So what are some of the key steps that can be taken to create the kind of state-society synergy needed to address the developmental questions currently facing Pakistan’s urban areas? The devolution of political, fiscal and administrative capacity is obviously the first step, and one that has been reiterated multiple times over. We need to shift the locus of politics from the centre and the province to the municipality. The second step needed is to improve and simplify the legal regime around civil society initiatives. The securitisation of the NGO/Trust/CBO space has contributed to it being mired in red tape, and as a result, experiencing greater fragmentation and informalisation of philanthropy.

These two steps are important ones to take for a number of reasons, no less because the Pakistani state’s fiscal and capacity woes continue to hamper large and effective outlays on development. If Pakistani cities are going to evolve and develop, they need representative government, strong civil society organisations, and socialised solutions to developmental challenges.

The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, June 29th, 2020