The hazards of governance

Published January 21, 2021
I.A. Rehman
I.A. Rehman

PAKISTAN received adverse references in dispatches last week. Of all the planes at their disposal PIA’s smart bosses chose to send to Malaysia the plane that could be impounded there and the Malaysians didn’t fail to oblige. Apart from losing face, the airline had to dish out over Rs10 million to bring the passengers to Pakistan. Donald Trump’s shenanigans prevented Pakistan from providing the most sensational banner headline to the global media but most Pakistanis weren’t amused. Clearly, the government had tripped or there was something wrong with the way the country was being governed.

Anyone who monitors the state’s functioning will confirm that everything depends on the prime minister’s initiative. Things start moving when the prime minister gives his nod and they come to a standstill the moment he starts looking the other way. The risks inherent in this kind of arrangement are obvious. It seems the prime minister needs to tell his support players — the large brigade of ministers and advisers and special assistants and soothsayers — to pull up their socks and give their jobs all they have without stepping too much on each other’s toes.

The government apparently has great faith in frequent meetings of the cabinet but this exercise will cease to be fruitful if the prime minister is obliged to be the only, or even the main, speaker. It seems the prime minister needs to curb his habit of shouldering more than his share of the workload and instead trust his lieutenants to be able to take over the bulk of government responsibilities.

Although the government has completed about half its first term it is still fond of recalling the hard work it had to do to overcome the baneful legacy of preceding governments. Those governments have been exposed many times over. Ceaseless repetition of the charge sheet against them serves no purpose. It is a sheer waste of public time that can be better utilised by discussing many important matters that rarely find mention in the official discourse.

How much time was spent by Mandela on recalling the atrocities committed by the apartheid regime?

How much time did the first governments of free Pakistan and India spend on castigating their colonial predecessors? How much time was spent by Mandela on recalling the atrocities committed by the apartheid regime? Responsible societies know how to push such memories to the back of their minds so that they can devote time to the task at hand. Societies that never stop bemoaning their troublesome past often betray their lack of will or capacity to manage their present.

However, things will not improve automatically after the government stops raking up the past and its incessant demonisation of the preceding regimes is discontinued. For that, some well-directed initiatives will be required. The government has been working for quite some time on proposals to streamline the administration’s functioning and one hopes the focus is not wholly on the lower tiers of the official machinery and that the cobwebs in the decision-making echelons are also going to be swept away.

The most efficient administrations in the world derive their strength from the quality and regularity of intra-department consultation. This requires the ability of functionaries at all levels to develop a capacity for quick reflection and opinion formation and freedom of expression as well as protection against wrongful punishment. One suspects that our administrators do not like junior officials to speak out before their superiors. Such behaviour leads to blocking the channels of free movement of ideas. Many countries have benefited from schemes that encourage factory workers to suggest improvements in their work methods or better utilisation of their instruments.

This subject is perhaps on the agenda for administrative reform that is being pursued by the government. One hopes that the focus will not be limited to improving the capacity of functionaries and that the need for procedural efficiency will not be ignored.

Where do the people come in while paths to more efficient administration are explored? Are they consulted at all? Is their opinion about the highs and lows of the administration’s working given any weight? It would be a great pity if it is not.

A lot of noise is made these days about fighting corruption but the emphasis almost wholly is on punishing the corrupt while prevention of wrongdoing does not receive due attention. One doubts if our anti-corruption knights have paid any attention to the preventive measures outlined in the second part of the international convention on the suppression of corruption. But while prevention of corruption must receive due attention of the administration much else also needs to be done to achieve the minimum acceptable standards of efficiency.

Recent advances in administrative efficiency have underscored the advantages of community-based, democratic systems of administration. Unfortunately, our political elite has not tried to rid itself of anti-people biases and is much too keen on retaining its stranglehold on the lives of ordinary citizens with a determination worthy of nobler causes, otherwise it would have found in the ordinary folk reserves of honesty and wisdom that could illuminate the paths of both the rulers and the ruled. As long as Pakistan’s rulers do not tap into ordinary citizens’ reservoirs of integrity and efficiency they will go on missing the road to democratically initiated and sustained progress.

The realisation of the best possible management of public affairs demands constant vigil by a dynamic civil society; regimes that try to pull the rug from under civil society’s feet are no friends of the state or its people. Suppression of civil society organisations is considered necessary by despotic regimes that are afraid of a citizenry that is wide awake.

If those who dispense with people’s lives in Pakistan have not learnt to respect the rights of citizens, especially the weak and vulnerable among them, they will never be able to find the way to their salvation, to say nothing about the ideal of public weal.

One of the obstacles to good governance created by the government itself is its theory of exclusive control whereas the path to progress lies in an inclusive approach, that harmonises the interests of the entire population, including the elements that are denounced and demonised day in and day out with religious regularity.

Published in Dawn, January 21st, 2021


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