Public service bias

Published July 18, 2021
The writer has a doctorate from the University of Oxford and is graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government
The writer has a doctorate from the University of Oxford and is graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government

INEQUALITY is one of the most significant challenges of modern times. Painstaking efforts by academics have documented the glaring income and wealth gap within and across countries.

It is however important to remind ourselves that inequality is a larger societal challenge that we experience in our daily lives and is not just restricted to income and wealth.

An important extension of the inequality problem is within the realm of the provision of public goods by the state. Power crises offer the perfect example to illustrate this: whenever there has been a shortage of power supply in Pakistan, we often anecdotally hear of poorer neighbourhoods facing longer hours of cuts compared to richer ones. While there might be several complex reasons for this, one viable explanation is that there is an explicit or implicit bias in the distribution of electricity, implying that higher-income individuals have the first right to public resources.

Such implicit and explicit biases in public service provision are present in several forms of public service provision around us. Think of the preferential provision of public services to certain segments of the population across the country. Or the presence of better public infrastructure in neighbourhoods with a higher per capita income or greater wealth. Or the existence of implicit and explicit biases in state policy that do not reflect the policy preferences of the average citizen citizens. The list goes on. To a keen observer, these biases are widespread across our society.

We have a very long way to go in tackling wider inequalities.

It is heartening to see that concerns over such disparities have increased over time in Pakistan. This is in large part due to the proliferation of social media and an increase in awareness among citizens. However, we have a very long way to go in tackling wider inequalities related to public goods’ provision in Pakistan.

What can we do to move the conversation around such disparities forward and push for change?

First, we need to be able to document our daily anecdotes into a systematic body of evidence. Such research would be an important consensus-building tool and would make it harder for anyone to deny the existence of biases in public service provision. The development of global consensus on problems such as climate change and wealth inequality offer important lessons for us. The production of a systematic body of evidence that documented the causes and consequences of such global challenges formed the basis for consensus building and made it hard for anyone to deny the existence of the problem. Think of all those David Attenborough documentaries that have championed the cause of environmental protection and have raised awareness throughout the world.

Second, it is crucial to integrate different parts of the inequality challenge into a coherent social justice narrative. Disparities in wealth, income, opportunities, and public goods provision are closely connected with each other, making them part of the same wider social justice challenge. For instance, income and wealth disparities could result in the policy preferences of the average citizen to be discounted. Similarly, income disparities both cause and are caused by inequality of opportunity among citizens. By taking a siloed approach to each of these challenges individually, we run the risk of fixing only small parts of the problem without keeping the big picture in mind.

Finally, the hardest part is to use the systematic body of evidence to generate consensus and push for change. This is where the work of social justice activists, NGOs, journalists and the citizens at large is crucial. While it is often easy to assume that it is the NGOs, journalists and activists who are responsible for this task alone, the opposite in fact is true. Lasting change never comes without citizens believing in it. This is where we can all play our part in pushing for a fairer societal structure for our future generations. However powerless we may feel while thinking of the larger structural challenges in our society, we still have the power to take a step back, evaluate our own actions and attempt to be fairer to the people around us.

I am the first one to admit that the pathway to a fairer society isn’t an easy one. It requires a willingness by citizens to break from the past. It requires painstaking work by researchers, activists, NGOs, journalists, and citizens at large. It requires a strong collective belief that a better future is indeed possible.

But this hard path is our only hope for a better future.

The writer has a doctorate from the University of Oxford and is graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government

Twitter: @KhudadadChattha

Published in Dawn, July 18th, 2021

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