The youth should turn to local politics

The political establishment has paid so little attention to developing the systems of local governance

Shahid Javed Burki May 21, 2018
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank

Ideas don’t respect borders. They float across, not caring about check posts and guard rails. This is especially the case when so many people have access to social media. I have been writing about the change the Pakistani youth can bring about in the way they are governed. The youth can learn from their counterparts in the West. With elections coming soon, what should the millions of young people focus on now that they have the right to vote?

In relatively less-developed political systems such as the one in Pakistan, those who want change want to focus on national politics. They might turn to provincial politics if provinces are large or are important in the political system. Local politics remains largely unattended. This is one reason why the political establishment has paid so little attention to developing the systems of local governance. One of the great paradoxes of Pakistan’s history is that the only time development of institutions at the village-and small-town level became the focus of government policy and attention was during the days of Field Marshal Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s first military president. I had some interaction with the military leader while he was living in retirement in a house he had built for himself in a choice location in Islamabad. I had a detailed conversation with him as I was finishing my first book on Pakistan. In it I had called the period during which he ruled the ‘golden age’ of Pakistan. When I told him that, he was very pleased and responded by saying that “Zulfi Bhutto would not agree with you.”

We talked at some length about the form of governance that would be appropriate for a country at Pakistan’s stage of development. His ideas suggested that without knowing it, he was essentially a Whig. Back in the 19th century, Whigs flourished in the Anglo-Saxon world, in both Britain and America. They promoted infrastructure projects, public education, public-private investments and character-building programmes to create dynamic capitalist communities in which poor boys and girls could participate in public life. This is recalled by David Brooks, The New York Times columnist. He was inspired by a book James Fellows and Deborah Fellows, a husband and wife team of essayists, had written. The book Our Towns was written after they had concluded a trip in their small plane that took them to scores of small towns in the United States. I will get to their main message a little later. But first I will remind my readers what Ayub Khan attempted to accomplish while he held the reins of power for more than a decade.

There is no doubt that the general had political motives in creating what he called the system of ‘basic democracies’. While the focus of the cluster of local bodies was economic and social progress, Ayub Khan also believed that by focusing on them he could bypass the political establishment. He would have made a success of his first mission — development at the local level — had he not linked it with the second objective — the creation of a political structure he could dominate. The BD system was a multi-tiered structure with union councils at the bottom. The 10 members of these councils were directly elected by the people. There were 40,000 of these in each wing of the country. In West Pakistan alone — which is today’s Pakistan — the people chose 400,000 representatives who had good working knowledge of what the people wanted. Ayub’s big mistake was to turn these 800,000 councillors into electoral college for presidency and members of the National and provincial assemblies. The union councillors elected him to the presidency in the election held in 1964. He was opposed by Fatima Jinnah, the sister of Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

I got to know the system from within since I was appointed the director of the West Pakistan Rural Works Programme in 1964 and stayed in that position for two years. This initiative was funded by the United States which used ‘PL 40’ money for this purpose. This money was generated from the sale of free food grains to be provided to the government by the United States. At that time, Pakistan had gone from being a food surplus to a food deficit country. My job, as the programme director, was to draw up a list of projects the union councils could spend money on and to watch how they were implemented. The choice from the list was made by the members of the union councils.

It was clear to me that while the union councils in most rural areas worked on the basis of patron-client relationships while those in the nearby towns had younger members. In the villages much of the money went to construct roads linking the farms of the large landowners to markets, those in the towns focused on constructing schools and clinics. There was one interesting example of the choice made by a union council in a town in Gujrat district. It built a small rest house where the migrants to Norway from the area could stay when they visited their home district. I then learnt that a large number of people from Gujrat had settled in Norway. Ten percent of Oslo’s population is originally from Gujrat.

What do we learn from the Fellows’ book that could be applied to youth politics in Pakistan? The Pakistani youth must begin with small towns where positive change could be brought about by small business owners who are both entrepreneurial and civic minded. Under their leadership, towns could develop with small infrastructure projects that could develop the downtown core. Strong vocational schools and community colleges would improve the levels of skills. The towns should develop a lot of social capital with people not only willing but eager to help those who are less advantaged. In sum, the Pakistani youth need to enter the political life of their country by starting with small places where they can make a big difference.


Published in The Express Tribune, May 21st, 2018.

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Huzaifa | 3 years ago | Reply I am a youngster, by reading this article I did not get any clear idea of what I should do for my country and how.
Darjat | 3 years ago | Reply A great read. KP has already fostered local development structure/s . Village Councils might provide opportunity for young people to demonstrate their performance for improving wellbeing of people at the grass-roots level which is most needed !
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