In April 2010, Pakistan’s 18th Constitutional Amendment was signed into law. It marked a bold effort to decentralise political power by transferring resources and responsibilities from the central government to the provinces, and its passage was greeted with great fanfare. PPP Senator Raza Rabbani, the amendment’s chief architect, lauded it as the “most significant restructuring process” since independence.

The potential benefits were considerable. Decentralisation, according to the amendment’s supporters, could bring services closer to the people, and remove concerns about meddling from Islamabad. The amendment’s localising spirit could also promote more equitable governance by better accommodating ethnic minorities and other marginalised residents often overlooked or ignored by the central government.

Expectations continued to rise as the amendment was rapidly implemented — a rapidity that is unusual within Pakistan’s policy realm. By late June 2010, all 17 of the federal ministries targeted for devolution had been abolished, and their functions had been fully transferred to provincial authorities.

Unfortunately, the good news effectively ends there. As I discuss in a new study for the Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Center, the heady expectations surrounding the 18th Amendment have largely gone unfulfilled.

The major problem has been Islamabad’s failure to anticipate the provincial governments’ lack of will and capacity to take on new responsibilities and resources. Provincial capacity constraints are particularly glaring in the social sector ministries — such as health, food and agriculture and youth — bearing the brunt of devolution.

The Planning Commission’s social sector member, Saba Gul Khattak, has written how overburdened provincial authorities inheriting the programs of the former federal ministry for population welfare have actually begged federal officials to keep managing such programs for several more years.

Of course, this quandary is rooted in that long-standing bugbear of Pakistani public policy: Abysmal tax revenue collection. Provincial economies are cash-strapped, and they can’t be expected to improve — and provincial governments can’t be expected to take on new responsibilities — unless they receive more revenue. Despite increased financial transfers from Islamabad, Pakistan’s infamously low tax-to-GDP rate (about nine per cent, one of South Asia’s lowest) offers little hope for the provinces.

It’s not fair just to blame the feds, however. Provincial governments’ own tax collection methods are far from stellar. Given their dependence for decades on transfers from Islamabad, they have had little incentive to increase their tax base and better mobilise tax revenue.

As always, the masses stand to suffer the most. Take the case of youth. We’ve all heard the figures: two-thirds of Pakistan’s population is under 30, and the median age is 21. Forty million of its 70 million school-age kids aren’t in school. Those fortunate enough to earn a degree or vocational accreditation face a labour economy that generates only a million new jobs per year. These young people desperately need support, and yet the Youth Ministry — which has been praised for its encouraging, though fledgling, efforts to better engage Pakistan’s chief demographic — has been devolved. Its promising policies are now in flux.

Sadly, the broad-based political acclaim that accompanied the passage of the 18th Amendment has been eclipsed by politicisation and partisanship. Earlier this year, an opposition parliamentarian blamed the amendment for the lack of drug-monitoring practices that contributed to more than 100 deaths in Punjab from the consumption of contaminated heart medicine.

The implication here is that a drug-monitoring regime weakened by devolution — and specifically the relevant agency, the Drug Regulatory Authority — failed to prevent the tragedy. Yet this conveniently ignores an obvious fact: Drug-monitoring deficiencies may well have increased since the implementation of the 18th Amendment (the death of 16 Pakistanis after consuming toxic cough syrup last month is the latest reminder), yet they certainly were quite acute long before its implementation as well.

Not surprisingly, Rabbani has recently uttered the c-word. Politicians and bureaucrats, he alleges, are hatching a conspiracy to bring about the amendment’s downfall.

Pakistan’s devolution struggles offer numerous opportunities for the international donor community. Donors can institute projects that specifically target devolved sectors — from the construction of sports stadiums and vegetable storage warehouses to the funding of rural health workers’ salaries.

Of course, such solutions are far from sustainable; it’s folly to assume the 18th Amendment — or any other policy initiative — can be financed or managed from abroad. Pakistan must be the catalyst for devolution, yet this can only happen with numerous politically painful steps. Troubled relations between the centre and the provinces will need to be improved. Sorely needed tax reforms will need to be implemented. And, above all, brave political leadership willing to implement such measures will need to take centre stage.

Such steps are essential not just for the sake of the 18th Amendment, but for the sake of better development across the board in Pakistan — which would seem to suggest their added urgency. The question, however, is whether the politicians are listening — or if they care.


The author is the Senior Program Associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. You can reach him at michael.kugelman@wilsoncenter.org


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