Change or better governance?
By Ahmad Hayat
OF late, there has been much speculation about change at the national level. Some have talked of boots marching in, others of the judicial gavel being the agent of change.
Nobody is sure how the change will come about nor what effects it will have, but the passion for it is extraordinary. Added to this volatile mix is the conspiracy theory that the recent attacks on Nato convoys were encouraged to put further pressure on what many see as a beleaguered government.
The reality is that as a nation we are staggering from one crisis to another, many of them self-created. This perception is not just localised, for given the country’s strategic role, it is routinely referred to internationally with concern and dismay.
We associate change with the assumption that it will be for the better. Yet for the last 63 years Pakistan has experimented with various changes that have produced only modest success. Instead, it would be more prudent to demand from our leaders good governance and ethical practices.
Good governance mandates working through participation and consensus within the parameters of accountability and transparency, and following the rule of law with no exceptions. Like all other attributes, good governance starts from the top.
Symbols and perceptions go a long way in sending the right signals. If the masses feel that not paying taxes is acceptable because a very large percentage of the legislators do not even file tax returns, then irrespective of all official pleadings and threats the results will be dismal. According to a US study, “Pakistan’s revenues from taxes are among the lowest in the world: only two million Pakistanis of a population of 170 million pay income tax”. For a long time we have, as a nation, become used to living on easy money doled out as aid by foreign countries.
Such funds not only benumb our resolve to excel but also come at a substantial cost to national sovereignty and dignity. They do nothing to enhance our productivity or investment in human capital – two areas that are crucial nation-builders.
Instead, the ‘aid’ gives rise to wasteful expenditure, corruption and nepotism. Governments become so involved in gathering up the windfall that any nation-building policy becomes secondary to their obsession of ensuring that the aid money keeps pouring in. A balance between aid and good governance is imperative. No wonder donor countries are now increasingly demanding more transparency and better governance from recipients.
Empirical evidence demonstrates that apart from their impact on a country’s economic growth, the level of education and the presence of democracy are highly correlated. In their paper Why does democracy need education?, Edward Glaeser and Andrei Shleifer investigate why stable democracies are rare outside countries that have high levels of education.
As education levels increase we get a larger group of people capable of taking an active role in politics for better sustaining democratic supremacy. Schooling teaches people to interact with others and raises the benefits of civic participation. American philosopher John Dewey validates this when he asserts that “real democracy is obtained not just by extending voting rights but by ensuring that there exists a fully formed public opinion”.
A transparent network can only be accomplished through effective communication among citizens, experts, and politicians, with the latter being accountable for the policies they adopt. Democracy is a participatory way of governance but the ignorant cannot rationally contribute at the same level as the informed. It is, therefore, inexplicable that while our leaders extol the supremacy of democracy, they totally ignore the major contributory role played by education.
Despite the fact that the constitution makes it the state’s obligation to provide free and compulsory secondary universal education, Pakistan continues to be one of 12 countries that spend less than two per cent of GNP on education. A UNDP report assigns Pakistan the lowest education index of any country outside Africa, stating “that the average Pakistani boy receives only five years of schooling, while the average girl just 2.5 years”.
Pakistan’s governance is in a unique predicament. Once in power, those that had been advocating the cause of democracy, equality of law and freedom of speech turn averse to the principles they had asserted earlier. The democrat of yesterday becomes the autocrat of today, unable to brook differences of opinion put forth by an educated citizenry – thus his lack of interest in universal education.
It is no coincidence that the cabinets of the two most powerful world economies, the US and China comprise technocrats who make knowledge-based policy decisions. Good governance requires astute and educated assessment. Given that our elected representatives are short on literacy and experience, it may be appropriate to experiment with a technocrat-based cabinet. Our Westminster parliamentary system does not permit this, so a viable medium has to be found.
Democracy, good governance and modernity cannot be imported. Our electorate, media and opinion-makers should debate and demand the individual ingredients of good governance, rather than ask for amorphous change.
For instance, offering jobs may make a great election slogan but is not the government’s job. Its responsibility lies in creating an enabling environment where the private sector can thrive and create the required jobs. This requires the provision of reliable and inexpensive utilities, a fair and balanced tax structure and a system free of corruption and cronyism that offers justice and security to all.
A well-balanced, inclusive approach that adheres to strict standards, where education is the premise of progress in every family, is essential for proper governance. It is imperative for any government to infuse in its populace a general sense of well-being. Leaders achieve this through perseverance. An apt illustration is the trapped minersÂ’ crisis, where the Chilean leadership had the nation on board and could say: “Today Chile is a country much more unified, stronger, respected and loved in the world.”
This is a far cry from the repute we earned in the recent floods.
The writer is a former chairman of the Karachi Port Trust.