The three major parties — PML-N, PTI and PPP — have issued their manifestos. This, in and of itself, is a good thing. The details are lacking, but historically manifestos in Pakistani politics are not policy documents and provide mainly a higher-level vision.
With regard to health, the PPP has presented a strong message in its manifesto on social justice. The discussion on maternal and child health has some clear and ambitious goals. They also talk about universal healthcare, though their own record in Sindh in healthcare is at best mediocre, bordering on poor. One hopes that the future is different from the past. The PTI on the other hand has had a much stronger and impressive record in K-P. Their discussion of universal healthcare is more compelling, though they provide comparatively less detail than the PPP on specifics. The PML-N’s discussion is more about what they did and less about what they want to achieve and the discussion is cursory. The PTI to its credit also talks about diagnostics and its availability as a cornerstone of universal healthcare. This is again important and impressive.
Despite the positive step of creating manifestos, and bringing up health as an important pillar of national development, there are three major gaps in all of these. First, there is no discussion of non-communicable diseases, which are going to be a major challenge moving forward. Second, the connection of health with research (discovery, development of new tools, improving production of pharmaceuticals, etc) is completely absent and quite concerning. Third, how universal healthcare is going to be paid for is not discussed.
Moving on to research, we can divide the conversation into two parts. First, the discussion on higher education and second, the emphasis on research and development. All parties have mentioned higher education as a major theme in their election promise, which is excellent. The PML-N has talked about how the funding was increased in their tenure, but it is important to note that increasing funding meant little in terms of practice since a lot of those funds were never made available to researchers. The Higher Education Commission (HEC) continues to face challenges, some of them existential, and the PML-N does not talk about restructuring or addressing those challenges. The PTI is actually the weakest on details on higher education. By comparison, their 2013 manifesto had a lot more on this topic. The PTI does discuss creation of new universities and new collaborations, but some of those things have been tried before in the Musharraf era and didn’t quite pan out. So how would it be different this time? The PPP’s contribution to higher education is actually most interesting since they emphasise access and quality as well as creative thinking — something that is a fresh perspective and much needed.
The last part that I want to discuss is that of research. First, somehow the parties have assumed that research only happens in science and engineering, and not in humanities and social sciences. This is most troubling as some of the most stubborn problems facing our society are injustice, inequality and intolerance. A more just society needs scholars in all disciplines, not just in science and technology. None of the parties even use the word humanities when discussing research. Even within science and technology, both the PTI and the PPP talk more about IT and less about basic sciences and even health sciences. PML-N does talk a bit more about sciences and research centers as a whole, but they also treat IT as the king of all research — something that is deeply problematic if we are to create a culture of research and inquiry.
Collectively, there are many gaps and details are lacking. But I hope that this is because of intentional brevity, not because of lack of thinking. It is said that the devil is in the details, let us hope post-election we get only the details and not any new devils.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 17th, 2018.