Reviving the crumbling state

Published: September 9, 2012
The writer is a former vice-president of the World Bank and a former caretaker finance minister of Pakistan

The writer is a former vice-president of the World Bank and a former caretaker finance minister of Pakistan

The Pakistani state is crumbling; it needs to be revived. It is crumbling since it is failing to provide the citizens what they need the most — basic services. The institutions that make up the state are in disarray and we know from the experiences of other countries that once institutions become dysfunctional if it takes a long time to get them to work again. Why is the Pakistani situation so dire? There are several answers and all of them need to be factored into the policies of those who would like to see Pakistan working again. This is the season to reflect on what is happening to the Pakistani state. This is the right time to think about this problem since both the people and those who wish to lead them are preparing for another set of elections. An opportunity will be given to the people to choose their rulers at both the federal and the provincial levels.

For several years now, economists have been saying that it takes more than capital and labour to produce growth. Institutions are one of those things that need to be brought into the development equation. When economists talk about institutions, they don’t necessarily mean organisations with well-defined structures and business plans. They mean rules, both formal and informal that people follow in order to deal with one another. They also mean enforcement mechanisms, when established rules are defied. A legal system that has well-written laws and courts, and a system of regulations that are overseen by their own organisational structures, it ensures compliance. Culture and societal norms ensure compliance of informal rules. One example of the latter is what anthropologists call “vartan bhanji” — the system that enforces giving, in order to celebrate or observe life’s many passages. For instance, people are expected to give on weddings keeping in mind what they have received themselves.

The problem arises when informal rules begin to overwhelm those that are formal; when culture begins to mean more than formal laws and regulations. This is one of the more serious problems Pakistan faces today. It is slipping back from formality to informality. Political scientists have begun to emphasise that political development is not a linear, unidirectional process. Development happens when formal rules become more important for transactions than those that are informal. In that case, political decay rather than political development takes place.

If the preceding sounds too negative, let me bring into this discussion something that is positive. There is no doubt that in spite of the political roller coaster we have been riding since independence was gained 65 years ago, there is now some forward movement. That the military, by repeatedly intervening in the political process, set back political development seems to have withdrawn to the barracks. It is not being asked to come back and save the country and provide the citizens what they want from the state. There is now consensus in the country that the only solution to the many problems that must be dealt with is through the political process.

There is also consensus that the state must function at several different levels — the federal, the provincial and the local. The Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution has provided the framework that brings the state one step closer to the people. Powerful political leaders in the past and the military with a strong preference for centralised command and control had established styles of governance that made the state very distant from the people. However, the full impact of the amendment has as yet to be felt but it will generally be positive. However, the devolution must not stop at the provincial level. It must continue down to the local levels. Many services can only be provided effectively and efficiently when those who are receiving them can literally see who are supplying them. This is one reason why institutional economists have begun to emphasise what they call ‘localisation’ in the process of governance.

The third positive is the increasing power that is being claimed by institutions that can provide, what in the American system are called, ‘checks and balances’. These institutions have to keep in check and in balance the enormous amount of power all political systems give to the government’s executive branch. This usually comes from a combination of the legislative and judicial branches. In Pakistan, however, the legislature remains weak, in part, because political parties remain seriously underdeveloped. Legislative weakness has brought the judiciary forward filling the gap that exits for all to see. But there is another check on all branches of government that has assumed an increasing role. This is the power of the civil society, often expressed by the use of the ‘street’. If there is a lesson to be drawn from the Arab Spring, it is this: the citizenry will push back after a certain point has been reached. There is a reason why all the deprivation that Pakistan’s citizens have experienced for the last several months has not caused an explosion in the street. The reason is that people have developed some confidence in the political process.

The main conclusion that I have to offer is that while the state is becoming increasingly dysfunctional, political evolution since 2008 offers some hope. People must demand solutions for rebuilding the crumbling state from the political parties that will compete in the coming elections.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 10th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (13)

  • Jat
    Sep 9, 2012 - 11:07PM

    Mr Burki, why try to revive a poorly designed and crumbling structure ? Does that ever work as a long term solution ? Isn’t it much wiser to let it come down and build anew ?


  • Mahtab Rasheed
    Sep 9, 2012 - 11:34PM

    Yes , in your point of view good is happening there. We confidence in political system only to the extent that we know that our political leaders will be surely corrupt, illiterate, dishonest and lacking the ability to solve our problems from the root.


  • Max
    Sep 9, 2012 - 11:43PM

    Well said and glad that you recognized that the Pakistani sate is under enormous pressure and that there is a need to restructure our political socioeconomic arrangements. The state has to develop the capacity to coerce and penetrate. Rule of law need to restored and legitimacy of the state need to be enforced and recognized.
    Also what is needed the common law and not some antiquated system of social norms and values from a distant and remotely connected desert in the Arabian peninsula.


  • Falcon
    Sep 10, 2012 - 12:34AM

    Very informative article. I think the essence of all the developments you have cited whether it be continuation of civilian democracy / localization / emergence of new power players; all point to the idea that when there is more sharing of power, resources, and responsibilities, true progress occurs (albeit with some lag).


  • Sheikh Sarmad
    Sep 10, 2012 - 12:49AM

    excellent analysis….Shahid Javed Burki is class apart.


  • sabi
    Sep 10, 2012 - 1:32AM

    Let people build Pakistan.That can be achieved by human resource development.In the absence of a solid program for human development Pakistan has suffered a lot both in term of a better employement and quality services.Hand workers in pakistan are to a great extant incompetent,unprofessional and hardly find a mechanic tailor.barber ,electrician ac mechanic etc which qualifies as a true handworker.Dealing with such worker often end up with dissatisfaction from both sides.Since vast majority of handworker is illitrate and doesn’t know the science of the work ,time and cost factor,the result is high cost of the services which benefits neither handworker nor customer.Poor status of handworker keeps millions of youth awy from these very usefull professions.Instead of pouring money on laptop,or Benazir income supoort fund let this money be spent on educating youth who can not qualify for higher education.Pakistan fate is bound with skilled worker.without that no real economy.
    Regards Good artice Thanks


  • naeem khan Manhattan,Ks
    Sep 10, 2012 - 2:12AM

    How could the political parties ever reform and become democratic, they are all dynastic except the JI, the rest of them bring in the people with mega wealth and those who are educated and capable people are sidelined, more over they owe their allegiance to the party chief rather than the people they represent. I think you are giving us more optimistic scenario than what is on the ground and the future. Decades of mismanagement and corruption is finally catching up with the nation and those who could not hack it would fly the coop to greener pastures with their ill gotten money. It is so simple that when a sitting government violates and ignore the laws of the land , there will be chaos and people will take the law in their own hands as you see daily in Pakistan. Beside the government’s heavy handedness, the GHQ always thought that they are above the law and they will deal with their own even when some of them are retired and implicated in corruption. The new generation is going to pay the price for the sins their leaders has committed for decades to come. Good Luck.


  • Falcon
    Sep 10, 2012 - 7:38AM

    @naeem khan Manhattan,Ks:
    While I agree with the rest of what you have said. I think some positive developments might be getting ignored. PTI has put out 3 major policies (with few more in the pipeline) and are proceeding with the largest internal party elections of Pakistan’s history. This will push other political parties to follow the lead. So, there are signs of hope on the horizon. We just need work harder and faster.


  • Raw is War
    Sep 10, 2012 - 7:52AM

    Dear Sir

    the situation in Reality is much worse.


  • Raza Khan
    Sep 10, 2012 - 10:15AM

    Nothing to save! Let is crumble, we will build from scratch.


  • Sajida
    Sep 10, 2012 - 11:44AM

    I think you and your readers should watch this documentary. It is about rotting cities were improved:
    http://topdocumentaryfilms. com/filthy-cities/
    Filthy Cities


  • Prabhjyot Singh Madan
    Sep 10, 2012 - 7:26PM

    I am sincerely against imran Khans policy of appeasement towards Taliban. He reminds me of Chamberlain at least and a magalomaniac at most like hitler. People, your soldiers have been killed by the taliban, extremists, why do you wish to talk to your enemies. SWAT declaration with the extremist yield no result, army came in to tackle them. If people ask why i am concerned, I don’t want a talibanized pakistan in my borders. My state of Punjab and Rajasthan and Gujarat will be affected. Cheerio


  • akash
    Sep 10, 2012 - 8:44PM

    That was a good site..Thanks..


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