PRIME MINISTER Imran Khan on Friday, July 10, visited the National Locust Control Centre where he was briefed on steps being taken to combat the threat of locusts swarming in from the Horn of Africa. Six days earlier on Saturday, July 4, the prime minister visited the National Command and Operations Centre where he was briefed on the latest situation on Covid-19. According to the press release issued after both these visits, the prime minister praised the efforts of those working in NLCC and NCOC to counter the threat from locusts and Covid-19.
These twin threats pose huge challenges for the government at a time when governance is perceived as the weakest weapon in the PTI government’s armoury. However something interesting has happened in the last four months and it holds crucial lessons from the past, to the present and for the future.
The NCOC and NLCC are valuable examples of what, in our context, is called ‘hybrid governance’. In popular lexicon, this term may carry a pejorative connotation, but these two examples may well need to be examined in a value-neutral way, especially since the crises are still unfolding around us. NCOC and NLCC are experiments that are products of the prevailing conventional wisdom of the current leadership and are being tested in live situations with very high stakes.
The NCOC and NLCC are valuable examples of what, in our context, is called ‘hybrid governance’.
How these two were constituted is also revealing. The first practical steps to prepare for the locust threats were taken in January 2020; the first real action on Covid-19 started in February. Since the virus situation escalated swiftly in March, NCOC was established the same month to leverage the combined resources of the civil and military apparatus. While the locust threat remained on the radar, the Covid-19 threat acquired urgency and therefore priority due to its spread.
By May, both the civil and military leaderships had recognised the NCOC had played a critical role in managing the virus, and therefore they decided to replicate the model of NCOC for the locust threat. Thus was constituted the NLCC.
Here’s how these two platforms mirror each other:
NCOC is led by Federal Planning Minister Asad Umar while NLCC is led by Federal Food Minister Fakhar Imam. The chief coordinator for NCOC is Lt Gen Hamood uz Zaman Khan and he is assisted by Maj Gen Asif Mehmood Goraya. Both belong to the Pakistan Army’s Air Defence Corps. The chief coordinator for NLCC is Lt Gen Moazzam Ejaz and he is assisted by Maj Gen Saeed Akhtar. Both belong to the Army Engineers Corps. More than 70 army officers of the Air Defence are working in NCOC while a large number of officers of Engineers are working in NLCC.
The strategic decision-making hierarchy for this governance model in terms of NCOC and NLCC looks like this:
At the top is Prime Minister Imran Khan who makes the final call on decisions related to these platforms. Then comes Chief of Army Staff Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa who is fairly hands-on when it comes to NCOC and NLCC. Below him is the Chief of General Staff Lt Gen Sahir Shamshad Mirza who supervises the functioning of all policy related to these twin centres. Under him is the key role of Director General Military Operations Maj Gen Nauman Zakria who, among other things, authorises all troop deployments in aid of civil administration and law enforcement in the context of Covid-19 and locust field management. DGMO coordinates with the political and military leaders of NCOC and NLCC.
The National Disaster Management Authority is a common presence in both platforms. Then there are specific roles for relevant organisations. In NCOC important players include the health ministry, interior ministry and the ISI which leads the TTQ process; in NLCC the organisations that are participating include the food ministry, plant protection department, agricultural department as well as the Provincial Disaster Management Authority.
As this hybrid workflow travels downwards organisationally, it reveals the strengths and weaknesses of our system of governance. Covid-19 exposed the terrible state of the health sector but NCOC managed to prop up systems on a war-footing to cope with the emergency. The hybrid governance model percolated down into the field where local army corps joined with provincial administrations to implement policies as well as enforce lockdowns, etc. Thousands of army troops were deployed across the country to check on medical facilities and other arrangements and compensated for the manpower shortages among the civil administration wherever needed.
The locust threat has exposed the terrible state of our preparedness to manage threats to food security. The Plant Protection Department till the 1990s used to have 20-22 aircraft available for spraying fields. Today, they have three. This is where the army aviation stepped in with one plane and four helicopters that are being used for spraying against locusts. In continuation of this hybrid governance, nearly 10,000 army troops are deployed in the field to conduct surveys and execute sprayings on the ground through tractor and car-mounted machines.
In short, NCOC and NLCC are forging ahead with the hybrid governance model at a time when the political government and civil administration were ill-prepared for two simultaneous crises of such proportions. However, this model of governance raises some critical questions that must be answered once the situation settles down:
1) What key weaknesses have been identified in the political leadership’s decision-making and how should they be fixed? 2) What critical weaknesses have emerged within ministries in terms of capacity, resources and planning, and how should they be rectified? 3) Which aspects of this hybrid governance model can be integrated into regular workflows without disturbing the civil-military balance within a democratic framework? 4) Who will ensure, and how, that right and wrong lessons learnt from NCOC and NLCC are translated into actionable decisions that are in turn transformed into systemic upgrades to improve our system of governance.
Running a country needs more than well-intentioned rhetoric.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, July 11th, 2020