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The seeds of rot

In ‘Political Economy of Bad Governance’, Jamil Nasir touches upon issues of power grabbing, corruption and education

By Afreen Mirza |
PUBLISHED June 05, 2021

Political economy coupled with governance is a very byzantine subject. The interplay of elite structures and multidimensional behaviour of certain factors make it complex.

Political economy in Pakistan revolves around the goal of power grabbing, at any cost. Power is a desired tool to achieve two specific objectives – how to extract benefits and how to distribute benefits among affiliates and cronies.

Keeping in view the intricacy of this phenomenon, it was a thrill to read Jamil Nasir’s latest book, ‘Political Economy of Bad Governance,’ which reflects his experiences of an insider from civil service through the pages of his book.

Revolving around the theme that without a reliable and dependable governance structure no society can survive, much less become economically prosperous, these articles previously published in various local publication throughout these years shed light on the importance of capacity of institutions.

One cannot deny the power of a recurring theme known as elitism in underdeveloped and developing economies. Pakistan, like many other countries, has faced this problem and is one of those nations that has often been described as an elitist state.

Discussing about this concept developed in late 19th century, in his very first chapter titled, ‘Some Puzzles of Democracy’ Nasir says, “In order to make democracy work for the people in general, and the poor and disadvantaged sections of the society in particular, social and economic dominance of the privileged need to be broken.”

Now one wonders, being a democratic state why does democracy, one of the finest system of governance, not promote good governance and rule of law in developing countries? An explanation lies in elite capture of institutions. A common man on the street does not have enough power to change the structures built on rent-seeking, patronage and corruption.

He writes, “Democracy in Pakistan is in transition since democratic norms and institutions do not evolve in few years. The political regimes in Pakistan are close to what have been referred to a competitive authoritarian regimes.”

For ages, a sense of dynastic entitlement has dominated the country’s political culture, which has then in turn impeded the development of institutional democracy. With few exceptions, political parties are an extension of powerful families with hereditary leaders. There is no concept of intra-party democracy. The only change is the leadership from one generation to the next.

This dynastic control has reduced legitimacy of a government, impacted the quality of government policies and promoted patronage and corruption. The control of an oligarchic elite and the patriarchal political system, has impeded critical structural reforms that are needed for sustainable economic development and to strengthen economic institutions.

Nasir, in his chapter title, ‘Do Leaders Matter for Growth?’ says, “Leaders matter for economic growth especially in countries with week democratic and accountability institutions. Change from George Bush Jr to Barack Obama may not be much relevant for change in US growth but in a developing country where institutions are weak, role of leadership is crucial.”

However, this is not a one man show, as high-level of political engagement and commitment would be needed from all the political parties of the countries to reinvent governance structures and to make institutions work for the majority.

Undoubtedly, there is a need to change the existing political culture in Pakistan that impeded inclusive democracy. The development of a democratic culture, however, is not straightforward. It means providing and nurturing conditions that allow plurality and diversity in society. Sustainable development is closely linked to the development of a democratic cultures.

The extractive nature of the state of institutions has stunted the growth of an inclusive democratic process.

While so far the issues discussed were majorly focused on the urban side of the country, Nasir dedicated a complete portion for the political economy of the village. The rural landscape in Pakistan has witnessed profound economic changes since Green Revolution of 1960s. And in order to understand the economy of Pakistan, we have to see what is happening on the ground, which mean the rural area of our country.

He, through the pages, has strived to address questions like why is the non-farm rural economy neglected at policy level, what are the socio-economic changes taking place in rural life and why such issues are not grabbing attention of the policymakers? Nasir in the third part of his book focuses on the message that due to powerlessness of the majority of rural populace and collective action problem, village is not the focus of public policies despite significant benefits which may acute to the economy in terms of economic growth and food security from policy focus on rural areas.

In the chapter titled, ‘Dynamics of Village Institutions, Nasir adds, “The road to the country’s growth, stability and strength passes through villages given their centrality to overall socio-economic landscape of the country. There is an immense scope of affirmative public policy interventions in education, healthcare and community development. The local governments can play a vital role in resolving people’s issues at their doorsteps and can empower them to take charge of their lives.”

Shedding light on the grave issues of Thar where lack of policy cohesion and focus on basic issues has further obstructed the growth, Nasir in the specific chapter titled, ‘Thar: Crime of Geography and Bad Governance; writes, “The political landscape of Pakistan is dominated by a small number of Syeds, feudal lords, Pirs and business tycoons. Their stranglehold on politics, resources and the local institutions is such that poor masses have no voice to change the deep-rooted power arrangements.”

He adds, “There is a need for redefining the social and political arrangements in the society. Sloganeering of democracy will not work for long unless it is made to function in it true spirit. Political system also needs to be reformed to make the democracy work for the poor and the disadvantaged. Democracy in its present form can hardly be called a democracy.”

It is indeed an undeniable fact that instead of a steady transition towards an improvement in the quality of democracy, Pakistan has been sliding in the opposite direction more rapidly.

Moving toward the fourth part of his book, which is the most eye-opening section titled ‘Governance, Nasir points towards the important ingredients of good governance which include transparency, accountability, rule of law and informed state policies embodying the basic principles of efficiency and equity. However, good governance is also about the execution of policies i.e. bureaucratic machinery and efficiency of processes through which such policies are policies are translated by the bureaucracy into action.

In another chapter titled, ‘Invigorating the Civil Service’ he writes, “Good governance depends on the capacity of the bureaucracy to deliver.”

In the rest of the four out of the eight parts present in the book, Nasir contracted his unit of analysis by focusing on issues like corruption, education, trade and taxation. Nexus of corruption with poverty, human rights and development is explored through the pages along with discussion on prominent dive in education system and the pathetic situation of public schools. Not only that trade with neighbouring countries and factors responsible for weak tax culture in Pakistan was also discussed.

Providing his views in the tour of political economy and governance of Pakistan, Nasir asserted, “The seed of destruction are basically rooted in the political and economic structures of the country. If we keep on nurturing and watering these seeds through our inaction, God forbid, time may not far away when we will also be counted amongst the failed nations. What we need is to set our institutions right. We need to metamorphose these extractive political and economic institutions into inclusive institutions.”