Can Pakistan learn from Obama's "age of responsibility"?

Pamela Kilpadi Syed Mohammad Ali
14 February 2009

As US special envoy Richard C. Holbrooke navigates the diplomatic circles of Islamabad, discussions are unlikely to move much beyond talk of security strategies and terrorism. Other topics that are on the minds of most Pakistanis - namely water, shelter, roads, education, health - will go largely unmentioned. But Pakistan's problems cannot be addressed without seriously considering the state of its public services.

Western-backed development programs have had a dismal track record in Pakistan. By the end of military ruler Ayub Khan's 1960s "decade of development" - overseen by the Harvard Development Advisory Service Mission working within Pakistan's Planning Commission - leading economists conceded that the poor had grown poorer. Worse still, the bulk of the country's wealth had been channeled into the hands of 22 families, who owned 80 percent of the banks and 95 percent of the insurance companies. Ayub Khan's government was toppled by rioting mobs in 1969. The "development" programs of subsequent regimes - including that of General Pervez Musharraf - shared similar dynamics and met similar fates.

Syed Mohammad Ali is a Lahore-based independent research consultant and columnist for the Daily Times of Pakistan.

Pamela Kilpadi, an American postgraduate researcher with the University of Bristol School for Policy Studies in the UK, served for a decade as the founding director of International Policy Fellowships (www.policy.hu)Pakistan's western-backed civil-military-landlord elites, using strong-arm "divide and conquer" tactics not unlike the former British Raj and its five or so thousand civil servants, have thus far succeeded in maintaining monopolistic control over public resources. Over-centralised bureaucracies clinging to concepts of "trickle down" economics have failed to deliver goods.

Efforts to decentralise power, strengthen local governments, and promote community-based development in Pakistan - as in many developing contexts - have not necessarily been accompanied by democratisation or even increased local participation. Pakistan's three attempts to devolve political power - under the military regimes of Ayub Khan, Zia-ul-Haq, and most recently Musharraf - were not motivated by a desire to encourage local political and economic development. On the contrary, devolution served as a useful tool for weakening the power base of political parties and building alternative power structures to further legitimise military regimes.

There is currently widespread consensus about the need to encourage more grassroots involvement in public policymaking and abandon "trickle-down" approaches to development. US President Barack Obama's new age of "responsibility" - fueled by the social movement that brought him to power and spurred on by the global financial crisis - could have far-reaching implications for Pakistan. Local input and an insistence on equity, transparency and accountability across multiple layers of governance is desperately needed to ensure that the development programs of Pakistan's new, democratically elected government - such as its recently unveiled income support program - actually reach the intended beneficiaries.

But institutionalising social justice is not that simple. Analysts warn that naive applications of complex, context-specific concepts such as "participation," "social capital," or "empowerment" often contribute to the poor design and implementation of community-based programs. Without rigorous training and capacity development, regular monitoring, and independent budgetary oversight, such programs can exacerbate rather than promote inefficiencies and inequities.

Furthermore, the elite's hold over public goods and services can become firmer in times of economic hardship and disaster. Recall, for example, the reports of outright graft by senior Pakistani military and civilian personnel in the wake of the devastating 2005 earthquake, including the hoarding of lifesaving tents for purposes of patronage. Other politically motivated actions included decisions to allocate mobile hospitals and other facilities to relatively well-off communities of political constituents and utilise military personnel with inadequate language skills to (mis)record crucial personal data for compensation purposes. Large amounts of donor funds intended to provide earthquake victims with housing were instead spent on the property projects of feudal landlords in North West Frontier Province, further strengthening their grip on beholden tenants and bonded labourers, effectively modern-day slaves.

The image of Obama signing executive orders on his first day in office curtailing the "culture of secrecy in Washington" and the influence of patronage on public policymaking tempts us to hope that a paradigm shift in governance may be dawning. A governance shift, perhaps, characterised by renewed emphasis on equity, transparency and accountability, based on more open, de-institutionalised, ‘bottom up' approaches to problem-solving.

It has yet to be seen whether President Asif Ali Zardari's current civilian government (or Obama's) will chart a new path towards fairer, more efficient and accountable governance. But senior Pakistani civil servants warn that the stranglehold of the ruling "civil-military-landlord triumvirate" over the majority of Pakistan's citizens can only be loosened if the country's newly emerging civil society and local government leaders are given adequate space and assistance to function.

In a rare ruling in favour of a peasant whose land in Punjab had been seized by a military brigadier, Pakistan's Supreme Court summed up the prevailing situation in 2003. The judges quoted the following passage in their verdict, taken from John Steinbeck's 1939 novel about the Great Depression, Grapes of Wrath:

And the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands, it is taken away. And that companion fact: when a majority of people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need. And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed. The great owners ignored the three cries of history. The land fell into fewer hands, the number of the dispossessed increased, and every effort of the great owners was directed at repression. The money was spent for arms, for gas to protect the great holdings, and spies were sent to catch the murmuring of revolt so that it might be stamped out. The changing economy was ignored, plans for the change ignored; and only means to destroy revolt were considered, while the causes of revolt went on."

In an Age of Responsibility, the more states and donors open their policymaking processes to critical voices, the better their chances of ensuring the security and prosperity of their societies.

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