Reform or Perish

By Raza Rumi

On the face of it, the Pakistani state with the clear endorsement of political parties and the majority of its citizenry is fighting a battle against militant Islamism. However, it is not as simple a formulation as it appears to be. The state is also cracking under extreme pressure for having lost its capacities and effectiveness a long time ago. The central tenet of state policy and implementation is adhocism that keeps a mammoth, oversized, under-paid and snail-paced elephant going. With Mughal and pre-industrial social structures reflecting in a colonial organisation, the Pakistani state is an unattended patient lying on an Elliotesque table, waiting for a surgery.

The fact that ragtag groups have the audacity to challenge the state and its mighty armed forces speaks a lot for where we stand today. That a relatively small number of bandits can wreak havoc and make us look like pariah country with nervous neighbours is by itself a parable of our times. Add to this the dysfunctional police that simply cannot discharge their functions let alone tackle the suicide missions launched by jihad laboratories. Services – health, education, water and justice – are abysmally delivered to the lucky ones who have access to them. Otherwise, it is pretty much a jungle out there. In a context where insecurity and lack of faith in the state pervades the body politique, the current war can accentuate the pressures on the state, leading to a near-collapse situation: assuming, rather charitably, that it still functions as an arbiter between citizen interest and the legitimate use of violence.

If the military is busy in undertaking a tricky, delicate operation, the political elites and citizen groups must now focus single-mindedly on the long due reforms that have not been initiated, or implemented even when introduced. The reform recipes in the past have emanated from the donors now rechristened as development partners. But their assistance must only be sought when it is absolutely necessary. After all, who does not know, from a lowly minion to the top-dogs of government, what ails the system: it is hardly rocket science. What is lacking is a commitment from state actors. This is where the citizenry must exert pressure for reform. And, one edifying example of reformism can be seen as the judicial policy that has been chalked out after a long struggle by the lawyers, the middle classes in tandem with the political actors.

However, the core of governance reforms for effective service delivery and accountability lies within the domain of the executive. The postcolonial executive has barely attempted to be citizen-responsive and has maintained the ruler-ruled relationship intact. If anything, efforts at social change, be it land reform or the civil service reform of the 1970s, have been undermined, and thwarted by the all-powerful executive. In the process, it has lost the public confidence with a sharp erosion of state’s writ across the country. The Musharraf era, as it naively aimed to impose a set of reforms in the form of devolution of powers, led to further dilution of local state’s capacity to administer and deliver. Currently, we find ourselves in the midst of a film noire – thousands of local governments and their cells, committees incapacitated by lack of resources and required staff, functioning for over a year without clarity. This is also a time-horizon when parts of NWFP, Balochistan and mega city such as Karachi are declared ‘ungovernable’. Perhaps the greatest damage from the Musharraf years was the diminution of the district management cadre that surprisingly works in the neighbouring India among several other Asian countries. The replacement of the old order was partial, and resented by the provinces.

Pakistan was a compact between several diverse units and no centralised system can work. Perhaps that is the first area of reform which was neglected and is now haunting us. By the 1990s, the capture of the state by non-elected sections of the executive was complete, thereby rendering the elected governments weak and incapable of entering the policy domain and providing much-needed public goods. The national security paradigm was so entrenched that one civilian government touted the rise of Taliban as Pakistan’s glorious victory while the other carried out atomic explosions adding to an erroneous sense of security.

In this backdrop, Musharraf’s ascension of power and his reaching out to the west was business as usual. If there is a key lesson from that era then it can be summed up as follows: the civilians and the khakis are equally inept at governance. The reason is that whatever the ‘type’ of government might be, the institutions are weak. They are open to abuse, patrimonies and operate in an unaccountable environment. Secondly, the participation of people in any policy is negligible thus causing little or no ownership of any national initiative. Thirdly, the excessive reliance on foreign expertise, ranging from donors writing policies to actually importing bankers and international civil servants as high office holders, means that home-grown solutions are limited or voiceless.

The recent years of internal challenges have exposed the weaknesses of law enforcement, state-writ, and the inadequacy of the legal and judicial system, and most importantly, the skewed access to opportunities and denial of a large portion of the population of their rightful share in the economic and political process.

Therefore, a consensus around reform is absolutely essential. This is the least a bourgeois democracy can do: undertake incremental reform. In today’s Pakistan, the process of reinventing government and governmentality needs to be accelerated. First, the 1973 compact between the provinces and the centre is outdated. A new dialogue especially with the smaller provinces is necessary. A start could be made by what a recent report by Selig Harrison suggests with respect to the implementation of the 1973 constitution, negotiations with the Baloch, and alleviation of the economic hegemony of the centre. The federation must not appear to be what its detractors call it: a Punjabi state with ethnic minorities.

The second imperative relates to provision of financial resources for the implementation of the national judicial policy complemented by strengthened administrative justice that makes public institutions accountable. Otherwise we will have thugs posing as messiahs and propagate a jaundiced version of Islam as an alternative to rule-based governance. Third, civil service reform at all levels should be carried out. The system should offer better incentives and also put into place internal accountability measures that are driven by the political executive. The national commission on governance reforms has made plenty of recommendations in the past, only if they were to be read. The layers of duplicative functions, structures and institutions within government(s) need to be simplified.

Fourth, the local government question ought to be settled as soon as possible. The pendulum need not swing to pre-2001 situation. But a system that is owned by the provinces is the only way out. To encourage the provinces to share powers with the local governments, centre-to-province devolution is necessary. The state is too remote, and now literally cordoned off for the citizen. It has to reach out. The concurrent list should be abolished as promised by main political parties in their manifestos.

Finally, reforms around distribution of resources – land, water and other entitlements – are as vital as other court-centric notions of justice. It has been too long that powerful lobbies have blocked all attempts for social change. Citizen pressure on political parties will be essential since the current electoral systems are built around patronage and reproduction of power at the local and national levels.

Without these vital reforms, public trust in state cannot be restored. And, citizen-confidence will erode further if the state fails to deliver. Protecting the Pakistani state some argue is a pointless agenda. But in the given domestic climate, this should be a key priority for Pakistanis not to mention for the region around us. If the state fails, we all know who will benefit and fill in the power-vacuum. Given our previous record, reform may be a distant dream. We are faced with stark choices in these desperate times. Survival, as the laws of evolution tells us, is the preserve of the fittest.

The writer is a development professional and a writer based in Lahore. He blogs at and edits Pak Tea House and Lahorenama e-zines.


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