Waiting for good governance

Published: August 18, 2011
The writer works as a research associate on political economy issues at the University of California, Berkeley

The writer works as a research associate on political economy issues at the University of California, Berkeley

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.

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Reader Comments (13)

    Aug 18, 2011 - 10:20PM

    The three are common problems but bigest is out side dictation now time has came to
    librate it self from that and make own economic policies instead of IMF or WB.


  • Mohammad naeem
    Aug 18, 2011 - 11:09PM

    After 70s this is the only goverment which misgovernance apart have become successful in making institutions strong on constitutional basis. And so the resulting power strugle and chaos!!


  • rusm
    Aug 18, 2011 - 11:31PM

    The writer does seem to throw out some arguments and draw conclusions without empirical data, but nonetheless a well written article with the right conclusions..


  • Bilal
    Aug 19, 2011 - 1:02AM

    A major hindrance to good governance is the tendancy of Pakistani political parties to be family-run and patronage-based rather than professionally organized entities. What should hold a party together is a commitment to an ideology rather than personality or ethnicity. This ideology must articulate a clear economic, social, and political vision of the country’s future.

    Unfortunately, family connections and patronage are deeply embedded in Pakistani society, which is why such a party will not emerge for a while. But increasing literacy rates and urbanization over the coming years should go some way towards destroying the old ways and creating a culture of merit.

    We could see the emergence of honest, professional and merit-based parties “over the next 20-25 years”.

    The newly independent media has a major role to play in good governance provided it doesn’t fall prey to outside influence and remains as unbiased as possible.

    At the individual level, a civic culture must develop within people where they hold their senators, MNAs, nazims, and councillors accountable for public funds. Once again, increased literacy and urbanization should go some way towards achieving this.


  • malik
    Aug 19, 2011 - 1:16AM

    Congrats !

    You are the first columnist to write about the polity and governance of Pakistan without using the words such as ‘founding father’, ‘jinnah’s vision’, ‘secular vision of jinnah’ etc etc. When I was reading the article, I had this fear that, any moment, these words will crop up and spoil my mood.

    Thankfully, you have kept your focus on the subject, and avoided the temptation to think in cliches.

    May your tribe increase !!


  • Cautious
    Aug 19, 2011 - 2:29AM

    In an Islamic State chronic corruption can only exist with the cooperation/encouragement of the religious leaders —- fix that and you begin to fix the corruption.


  • BruteForce
    Aug 19, 2011 - 8:11AM

    Good governance needs money to do developmental work. With the Army and debt payments hogging up large chunks of the budget, where will you get the money from?


  • gt
    Aug 19, 2011 - 9:20AM

    When Dr.Murtaza makes an important points : “Groups where knowledge levels are inadequate in comparison with the complexities of the environment also struggle with sound collective decision-making.”

    Not just in Pakistan, but throughout the subcontinent, there is a shocking ignorance of the political economy of agriculture and the absence of a core group qualified to think, analyse and advise on such matters, who have a profundity of intellect & sufficient breadth of training to be of service.

    We see instead narrowly trained technical minds, including economists of all stripes, who arrogate to themselves far more wisdom than they actually possess. With a political and military class largely unable to comprehend the clear and present danger to society from many directions that have naught to do with deliberate human agency, there are precious few who have the capacity of even being able to think in such terms.

    In Pakistan, there is one outstanding individual I have come across. If all the various twisted minds nurtured as cat’s paws by the powers-that-be were bid adieu, and more such talent encouraged, the future would be brighter indeed.


  • Irshad Khan
    Aug 19, 2011 - 1:16PM

    The writer has very wisely analysed our problem of governance at length but on theoretical basis. What practically has happened in Pakistan has not been discussed at all.In the beginning all systems of governance were maintained as it existed in British rule. But it worked very well as there was extreme devotion and sincerity at all tiers of governance. New and numerous departments and divisions were established as per requirements of new state and were run with a few experienced and with newly recruited persons but strictly on merit basis. This also went very well. Pakistan was rising very fast, Industry was spreading at a tremendous speed, creating jobs and other services for necessities of life were being established at a very fast speed ie banking, communications, irrigation, water supply, education, ports, shipping, trading, law enforcement etc etc.. A base for speedy development was formed in a few years time which created enormous job opportunities for the citizens. Every thing was going well when army interference started in civil services which was not felt in the beginning as it was with the connivance of politicians and bureaucracy. A few years later Army took over the whole country and speedily they tried to influence the whole system of civil administration, according to their convenience. They met with no resistance. They changed the capital to have a strong and long ending grip on the government as the civil secretariats were constructed near GHQ and retired and in uniform persons were posted nearly in every ministry, division and department. Reorganisation of civil services was done by Army people and thus depressed the civil servants damaging their output. The change of Govenment very frequently and also bringing their own systems damaged the whole structure of civil services. The main factors which damaged the systems and output were mainly 1)Postings on deputations from other departments on few years basis without consideration of expertise and experience. 2) Screenings in the name of better replacements. 3) Lateral entries. 4)Quota systems. 5) over-ruling the merit. 6) Not adopting defined systems of promotions and recruitments. 7) Recommendations, ethnic and nepotist considerations. These are a few reasons which have made the civil administration totally collapsed in Pakistan resulting into bad management and now it needs very very devoted efforts.


  • Ali
    Aug 19, 2011 - 2:50PM

    Very happy to read the positive and educated replies of people here!


  • Irshad Khan
    Aug 19, 2011 - 3:36PM

    I wish to add following:
    All systems of governance become successful if those are manned by properly educated,
    trained, honest, devoted, sincere, hard working, sympathetic to public and patriotic persons; whose fate and fortune rest with this country, I repeat again, only & only with this country.


  • Meekal Ahmed
    Aug 19, 2011 - 6:07PM


    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.


  • Bilal
    Aug 19, 2011 - 7:10PM

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

    And no, jalee degrees don’t count.


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