The anatomy of change

Published: April 30, 2019
The writer is an academic at LUMS. He tweets @HNadim87

The writer is an academic at LUMS. He tweets @HNadim87

That it takes decades to transform a nation is the single most self-serving lie that the ruling elite in Pakistan has propagated over the decades to perpetuate its monopoly on power. In reality, and what is now backed by ample empirical evidence from the South East Asian experience, ‘change’ does not take decades, especially not five decades.

The signs of change appear almost instantly, and results become visible under a decade’s time, especially when the change essentially requires basic reforms of the system. This is relevant in the case of Pakistan where the British left a functioning bureaucracy; state institutions, education and health systems, and even a full-fledged military. All what was required of the ruling elite was to slowly reform the system over time to make it public-friendly.

Instead what we have witnessed in the last 70 years is a deliberate attempt to make the country and its key institutions dysfunctional as a part of the larger project of elite capture. Generation after generation has been fed the notion of the country going through ‘sensitive times’, expecting people to persevere while the government finds a solution.

To give it to the patriotism and affection of the people, they have for decades borne the brunt expecting things to change at least for the future generations. Unfortunately, the generations that succeeded inherited deeper crisis, and also the burden of inaction from the previous generations against the obvious elite capture of the society.

The question is: how did we (the people) fail to see that? For one, it was done systematically and slowly over a span of decades. It started by rigging the system against the majority and closing all avenues of upward social mobility in the country that could possibly challenge the ruling elite. This meant making the public education system dysfunctional that over the decades produced individuals that neither had the capacity nor intellectual freedom to challenge the ruling elite. Force the parents to pay higher fees for quality education at private schools and top it up with dysfunctional healthcare system — you have a classic recipe to trap middle and lower classes in a poverty cycle.

Conspiracy theory it may sound, but dig a little deeper and one finds the crisis in Pakistan to be artificially induced and continued at the expense of the people on ground. The misallocation of funds, backdoor deals with foreign governments, the civil-military bargain to perpetuate status quo are just the tip of the iceberg that reflect how the system has been designed to keep the rich at the top through a continuous crisis-like state of the country.

Furthermore, the negligible spending on human capital has allowed the elite to ensure public dependency on their locals MNAs and MPAs, for basic rights, justice and safety. Essentially, what we have is an elite that has reduced the people down to their basic survival instincts unable and unwilling to break the invisible chains.

What is more disturbing is that even the ability of people to think, call out and take action has also been sabotaged through a systematic project of elite capture by ensuring that all such avenues are either shut down or hijacked. Take for instance, the social media space that once gave power to individuals as broadcasters to hold the government and politicians accountable. Today, the very individuals are targeted and attacked through smear campaigns, not only by the government and institutions but also most often by those intellectuals that serve at the behest of the ruling elite.

In a place where the survival instinct is in play, expect even the noblest and most intellectual of the people to serve the power to make it to the next day.

How else do we explain that decades in public service have enriched the political dynasties and establishment while the country and its poor people have continued to slide deeper into poverty? The mainstream understanding of this situation is to blame it on incompetence. However, ‘incompetence’ is an easy distraction from an otherwise more sophisticated project of tyranny that has been undertaken in the last several decades. In reality, the same incompetent people have continued to grow exponentially in their private businesses and retained the monopoly on power.

In these circumstances that the country finds itself in, change will not come by appeasing the system and expecting it to reform on its own. Change will only come by first understanding the system, dynamics, the levers, and then carefully operating without disturbing the environment and tweaking core knots. Sometimes the biggest changes require the smallest adjustments. Permanent changes, however, require an appetite and a deep insight of the system. Appetite there is, deep insight on how to pull the plug is perhaps missing.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 30th, 2019.

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