M Bilal Lakhani recently wrote a poignant and painful piece on these pages (“We have failed our forefathers” on December 19). His questioning has been visited by abuse and derision. He has been accused of being unpatriotic, pessimistic and even worse, ‘un-Pakistani’. I share the pain of the youth that is crying out for answers.
Pakistani youth, like youth everywhere, want to achieve, compete and prove themselves worthy of being global citizens. Unfortunately, they find that channels, forums and institutions to foster their ambitions are missing.
Bilal is correct: raising questions or asking for a debate is not condemning Pakistan. The strength of advanced societies lies in their ability to foster debate on uncomfortable issues. The long and emotional debate on civil rights did much to mend the race problem in the US. Critics from within, like Noam Chomsky, Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre have evolved society and given it a direction. Such thinking should be fostered and debated.
Pakistan reacts emotionally to the word ‘failure’. So let us stay away from it. But no one can say that we have no problems related to terrorism, poor governance, corruption, crony capitalism, violence, sectarianism, poverty and many other social and economic challenges. Anyone growing up in this environment is likely to feel sad and lose hope.
What do we offer to our youth? Ill-conceived packages where they have to show guarantors and invest money in a highly risky environment, with a high cost of doing business. Surely, that is window dressing. What does the youth need? The Greeks had it figured out. Why can’t we? Our youth is full of vitality. They need to compete. They need challenges. They do not want handouts. The youth is offered challenges in not just sports, but in academics, entrepreneurship, trading etc. Examples of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are well known. These young adventurers gave us so much. How did that happen? It was a combination of first-rate universities, generously endowed by both state and business, an open society which cherished eccentricity, a vibrant, agile market and dense, diverse cities.
Gone are the days of rigid, hierarchical societies where age and rank were respected. In all countries, the average age of leaders in all fields is dropping. Barack Obama became president when he was 47. The key word here is ‘merit’. Whether you compete in a tournament or in the marketplace or even in a corporation — age and family do not matter. Ability and merit is all that counts.
What frustrates youth here is the lack of opportunities, merit and competition. The government dominates market and society, stifling merit and competition. It is organised for power and privilege and not for merit and service delivery. It is hierarchical, and lacks achievement and direction. All it can do is offer youth these ill-conceived incentive schemes. The poor quality of governance has also created a rent-seeking private sector that is opposed to merit and competition. Here, monopolies hide behind government-enforced cartels and entrepreneurship is made well-nigh impossible.
We need a large and long reform effort to restructure and reform government, the private sector and society. The Framework for Economic Growth at the Planning Commission developed the beginnings of such a reform effort in 2011. It envisaged reforms for quality governance, vibrant markets, creative cities and youthful communities. We should start taking such reforms seriously so that merit and competition can be brought into the system.
Reform efforts in most countries follow ideas that thought leaders have developed and debated upon. Most societies have forums, such as think tanks, research universities and professional associations that facilitate discussion and debate on the future. These are generously funded by the government and the private sector. Unfortunately, our leadership, the government and the private sector would rather spend all their time winning the GSP Plus status rather than engaging in domestic reforms. Their priority is to preserve the current stifling system. Perhaps, Bilal, you can help galvanise a debate on reform. It is long overdue!
Published in The Express Tribune, December 24th, 2013.