Waiting for good governance

Countries manage to develop despite dubious morals as the forces of development override imperfections.

Dr Niaz Murtaza August 18, 2011

If a genie had granted the Pakistani nation three wishes on its recent birthday, at least one of the collective wishes would have surely related to good governance. Bedevilled constantly by corrupt and inept leadership, Pakistan’s unfortunate populace looks wistfully at well-governed countries like Singapore, Malaysia and Turkey.

Why are some countries blessed with good governance while others suffer prolonged bouts of malgovernance? Governance can be defined as the formal structures and processes developed by a group for undertaking collective decision-making and action. This definition is applicable to groups of all sizes, formality and complexity: small-scale ancient foraging tribes, women’s informal thrift groups, large countries and huge corporations. By extension, good governance means a situation where a group’s governance structures and processes normally result in collective decisions and actions which maximise the long-term welfare of the whole group.

In common wisdom, Pakistan’s long tryst with bad governance is seen as being either pure misfortune — something that has descended on us from the heavens by sheer bad luck — or a punishment for the widespread sins of the common person. Unfortunately, both factors lack conceptual rigour and a strong empirical evidence base. If a nation suffers one or two inept leaders, bad luck could hold water as an explanatory factor. However, bad luck cannot be the cause of a long series of inept leaders. Similarly, morality in Pakistan started deteriorating rapidly only in the 1980s, while bad governance has plagued Pakistan almost from the beginning. Thus, immorality is likely the effect rather than the cause of bad governance. Additionally, there is no strong evidence of a country trailblazing the path of national development based primarily on mass-scale, miraculously simultaneous, individual guilt trips and redemption efforts. Countries manage to develop despite dubious morals as the forces of development (e.g. technology, investments and knowledge) override the undoubted drag that moral imperfections create in the path of national development. Societal morals ultimately improve as state capacity increases sufficiently to ensure the rule of law.

The collective wisdom of the social sciences suggests that the quality of governance in a group depends on certain structural group characteristics. Groups where power is well distributed are better governed while in inequitable groups the powerful use governance for their own rather than the collective good. Groups where knowledge levels are inadequate in comparison with the complexities of the environment also struggle with sound collective decision-making. Groups where internal identity fissures are high often waste much of the group energy on internal conflicts. In the case of countries, an absence of a long history as an independent state, the predominance of a patronage-based economy, unfavourable pre-independence colonial experiences and territorial disputes with neighbours are found by sociological analysis to inhibit good governance.

Unfortunately, all these factors constituted Pakistan’s birth conditions. Thus, heretical though it may seem to suggest so for a supposedly divinely mandated country, these conditions meant that Pakistan had a high chance of suffering bad governance right from its birth. Nor is Pakistan unique in this regard even though Pakistanis often perceive it to be so, for dozens of post-colonial developing countries suffering from similar birth conditions continue to experience bad governance even today. The World Bank’s Governance Index ranks between three to six dozen countries as worse governed than Pakistan on most of the index’s sub-dimensions.

Instead of venting our spleen on our current generation of leaders, blaming misfortune or imagining Indian, Israeli and American conspiracies against the ‘Islamic fortress’, it is much better to analyse the quality of governance that a certain society is capable of producing at a given point in time, based on its progress on the critical governance-related group characteristics mentioned earlier. Such an analysis can also help in understanding the real causes of bad governance and in analysing the likely future trajectory.

How much longer actually is the seemingly eternal wait for good governance for Pakistanis based on an analysis of these factors? The good news is that things are improving on all these dimensions, while the bad news is that the pace of improvement is slow. Thus, bad governance slows but does not completely throttle improvements. Educational levels have increased since 1947, but most people can only read and write rudimentarily. Ethnic identities remain strong but an additional layer of Pakistani identity has taken root in most ethnic communities. Colonialism is too distant an event in the past to directly affect things any more. Most people remain dependent on a patronage-based economy where who you know is more important than what you know. Thus, their focus is not on the improvement of overall governance but on developing closer connections with traditional power brokers. However, a dynamic and merit-oriented economic sector is gradually being established and employing a growing number of people, thus increasing the size of the group interested in good governance rather than more patronage. The territorial dispute with India on Kashmir continues to divert enormous sums of money from development to defence. Finally, newer forces are emerging from within the middle class to challenge the traditional power brokers, i.e. the generals, landlords and bureaucrats. Some of these forces are largely positive, such as the civil society and the judiciary, while others are wholly regressive such as militant groups. In fact, much of the violence and chaos within Pakistan today emerges from this struggle, giving the overt impression of a steady descent into the abyss and masking some of the less easily discernable positive improvements.

Social science analysis is imperfect and as such there is no guarantee that Pakistan will ultimately make it, though serious, in-depth analysis does provide some basis for optimism. However, improvements will certainly not come overnight but only gradually. My own back-of-the-envelope calculations reveal that the goddess of good governance will widen its smile on Pakistan gradually over the next 20-25 years.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 19th, 2011.


Bilal | 12 years ago | Reply

How about ensuring that elected representatives at least have a college degree?

And no, jalee degrees don't count.

Meekal Ahmed | 12 years ago | Reply


I disagree that bad governance has been the norm all along. You seem to be too young to remember the 60's when Pakistan had an economy that was the envy of the developing world. It also had some of the best institutions (including the best airline in Asia).

Pakistan was admired and emulated. We should not forget that glorious part of our history.

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