Folly of narratives

Published April 7, 2021
The writer is a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and host of the podcast Pakistonomy.
The writer is a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and host of the podcast Pakistonomy.

“NARRATIVES are worthless in a world of misinformation,” tweeted Anthony Pompliano, founder and partner at Morgan Creek Digital, a hedge fund which specialises in blockchain technology and digital assets. This is an extremely valid point that should be considered by Pakistan’s narrative-obsessed national security policymakers.

To understand why, imagine a world made up of two types of actors: Actor A and Actor Z. Actor A is a low-information, low-impact consumer of information, who you may call the Average Joe/ Jane, and collectively refer to as ‘the masses’. This category of people is most important for domestic politics, since you need their votes to maintain power.

The high-information, high-impact Actor Z can have meaningful impact on its own. The category includes domestic and international CEOs, fund managers, public influencers, diplomats, and senior government officials; they are collectively referred to as the global elite.

Imagine you are Actor A operating in a world full of misinformation: you do not know who to trust and what to believe. The daily dose of social media messages, WhatsApp forwards, and news clippings from hyper-charged media debates routinely give you a headache. A narrative trying to influence Actor A in a world full of misinformation is like selling a real healing elixir in a market dominated by snake oil salesmen. No matter what you do, the message you’re trying to push will get drowned out and equated with the lies and deceit flooding the waves.

Pakistan’s policymakers must focus on delivery.

Actors A do fall for your narrative strategy on social and mainstream media time and time again. This is why political organisations and states have built an army of social media activists, paid surrogates who go on television, and information ecosystems that further a particular point of view. At the end of the day, however, this actor looks at hard data related to their own financial and economic security.

Now imagine you are Actor Z running a multinational with investments all over the world. You may pay attention to signals emanating from a state like Pakistan, but it is not going to change your business and investment strategy. In fact, given Pakistan’s history, which has often talked up a big game but struggled at execution, you are going to look at hard data, much of which is provided by other Actors Z.

You will pay attention to what the Economist or the Wall Street Journal is saying, check ranking like the Corruption Perception Index, and call global risk analysts to understand the market. While narrative changes may catch your attention, the lack of credible data and evidence will turn you off in a hot second.

Today, Pakistan is pushing a narrative of geoeconomics, which is primarily driven by a need to attract international investments to build its economic capacity. Doing so, the argument goes, will generate sustainable economic growth, bringing to an end the recurring need for successive IMF programmes. This will deliver economic security to the Actors A of the country, which is only possible by instilling confidence among the Actors Z of the world, since they’re the ones who will make the investments necessary to grow the economy.

Since Actors Z will not be swayed by narratives, what is the solution?

As the saying goes, the proof is in the pudding. Rather than spending a high amount of people and financial resources to craft narratives, Pakistan’s policymakers must focus on delivery. A starting point would be pushing through amendments to the State Bank Act that bolster the central bank’s autonomy. This is important to convey to global investors that im­­prudent finance ministers will face significant constr­aints in the future when it comes to using the central bank to achieve short-term objectives by risking long-term economic stability.

Secondly, the government should push through reforms in the energy sector and unbundle distribution companies to improve efficiencies and reduce losses. This would signal to manufacturing focused entities that the country is willing to do the hard work to reduce input costs and will no longer settle for the easy solution of raising tariffs.

Finally, the government should get its decision-making processes and priorities in order. The fact that a nuclear-armed country changed course on its trade relationship with its geopolitical rival, only to reverse course within hours, is concerning. It is exactly these types of actions that confuse Actors A and turn off Actors Z.

A circus has better decision-making processes and Pakistan’s government can and must do better. The most important fact is that credible action, not narratives, win in today’s misinformation-fuelled world. Pakistani policymakers would be well-advised to pay heed to Pompliano’s advice.

The writer is a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and host of the podcast Pakistonomy.

Published in Dawn, April 7th, 2021

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