Culture of ‘sifarish’

Published November 17, 2011

WHY does Pakistan suffer from a culture of sifarish ? There might be group-based sociological or cultural explanations of why and how we have ended up with a societal fabric based on personal relations.

However, the first cause of an entire society investing heavily in relation building might be traced to a rational, self-interested agent. If we focus our attention on sifarish in public-sector services alone, we can see that the majority of Pakistanis need contacts to acquire proof to show that they own property, to start a business, to get the water supply fixed, even to register a humanitarian organisation.

Let us shift from sifarish linked to administrative discretion and focus on that which seeks to access what a citizen rightfully deserves. A potential explanation for the sifarish - or network-oriented society can be poor information access and flow.

For instance, an individual needs to get his NGO registered. He does not know the steps and is not informed of the offices involved and the number of documents required.

Deciphering whether it is the work of the provincial or the local governments can be another question that he has to struggle with. It is not just a waste of time and money, it can be psychologically taxing as well.

However, if in such a state, he knows or has personal links with an officer or the official staff responsible for this public service, he can have access to otherwise costly and inaccessible information. It will save time, make the process less painful and if the official is in a mood to oblige it might result in the person seeking the service being offered additional information which might make the case easier.

Informational vacuum results in the failure of both market and state service provision. Interestingly, it automatically gives rise to other institutional mechanisms that aim to overcome such failures. In that sense, a culture of sifarish can be seen as an institutional corrective mechanism, albeit one with significant social costs.

When it comes to government services not subjected to competition, information concerns become more complex. As Nobel Laureate Kenneth Arrow points out, “When there is uncertainty, information or knowledge becomes a commodity ... but the demand for information is difficult to discuss in the rational terms usually employed.”

The exclusivity of a network means the creation of entry barriers for individuals who might be more talented and projects that have a higher marginal return. This in turn may prevent competition from flourishing thereby leading to an expected reduction in overall output and welfare.

Within the government there are many layers that themselves are prey to information and other problems. At the office level, there is the direct citizen-officer layer, the indirect citizen-official staff (clerk, peons etc.) — the officer layer and intra-department officer-official staff as well as the officer-officer layer.

Information inaccessibility regarding a public service results in the need to establish a personal citizen-officer, citizen-official staff relation. Through the use of the network, an individual can gain access to both the officer and the official staff and acquire information which otherwise would have been nearly impossible.

The 'open kutcheri' policy of the current government, superficial and cosmetic as it might seem, helps in providing access to those that matter in decision-making without the use of networks. Intra-departmental information concerns that have a bearing on the citizen are harder to tackle and networks here are potentially less useful.

However, it would be oversimplifying matters if we assume that having access to information mean the lawful implementation of the same. There are many intervening variables that determine whether a person will get the public service he has sought.

Implementation will depend on official competency, the needed information, the 'equilibrium' of the sifarish system, the officer's own decision etc.

The reason that the sifarish culture is a societal equilibrium is not due to the certainty of gaining access to a public service with its help, but the belief that without it there is no chance of ever benefiting from it. The belief thus generated continues to be self-sustaining — until there is a solid policy-level commitment otherwise.

In short, what a Pakistani sees as the eternal sifarish culture is the result of rational individuals making decisions in an information-starved environment.

The grappling for connections and power becomes the norm in a society suffering from huge informational and, resultantly, institutional failure. It becomes more pronounced in societies where rules are fluid and administrative discretion the foundation of service delivery.

The costs of an uninformed citizenry are huge, and prescriptive steps can in themselves be the subject of another piece. The first big question can be: why would the people concerned be interested in any informational reform? After all, the ability to oblige enhances one's perceived power and standing in society.

What might be a desirable first step can be to create an incentive for such reform through public pressure generated by the interaction of different institutions like the media, judiciary and civil society. Pakistan's intelligentsia might also bring it to the attention of the public.

Instead of protesting against the lack of service delivery in general, maybe we can all focus on the causes of this inertia — taking one issue at a time. Protesting for a particular agenda instead of a general one might prove more effective.

One thing is for sure — Pakistan's Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002 needs an enforcer. Making information freely available not only breaks the need for sifarish or network-building but also has other potential positive externalities.

The writer is a PhD economics candidate at the University of Cambridge.



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