The problem with reform agendas

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In consequence of our current socio-economic predicament, theres been a renewed interest in bringing policy debate back to the forefront of public discourse. Calls are made to bring clarity and vision in our reform agenda. To take steps to tighten our belts and our purse strings. To cut excess fat, rationalise the state, and sacrifice short-term gain for long-term growth. Theres a somewhat growing cacophony of dissent in the capital city, highlighting alarm and concern, whilst simultaneously urging the powers that be to start taking the country seriously for a change.

Except theres just one not-so-small problem: The distance between policy design and the implementation of its wisdom involves traversing through the incredibly thick forest of Pakistani politics – and that ladies and gentlemen, is a task of gargantuan proportions. All things considered, its largely symptomatic of the sterility of development discourse in this country that political realities are often ignored in the process of policy formulation, especially at the highest level. From one angle, it almost seems as if a neat divide has been purposefully created between politics and policy-making, and the artificiality of this divide becomes starkly evident when you realise that at the end of the day, there is only one economy and only one polity. A political system cannot function in abstraction from its economic basis, and similarly economic or social policy cannot be willed into existence without establishing its cognisance with political reality.

A good example of this fracture can be found in a recent article posted on the popular blog All Things Pakistan by the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, which covered the premise for the New Growth Strategy and some of its salient features. One of the major points stated was that harnessing entrepreneurial potential, enhancing urban business creativity, and targeting the youth demographic will be a major step away from the current project based paradigm that Pakistan has been following for at least the last 25 years.

In his article, Dr. Nadeem states that This current strategy has led to PSDP being skewed towards brick and mortar projects, where the government is involved in building assets that could have been furnished by the private sector, more efficientlythe high share of civil works in PSDP (almost 50 percent) leaves little space for training and retaining human capital in productive and social sector.

There is no doubt that over time, land and natural resource wastage, public enterprise failure, and skewed budget priorities have all contributed to our gradual push towards economic oblivion. But the important thing is that to prevent Pakistans descent into economic chaos, we need to understand the rationalisation process of our political economy, and recognise how policy and reform efforts continue to miss out on that part of the picture.

After multiple readings of the paragraph quoted above, one thing in particular is worth pondering over: high share of civil works in PSDP. Most development sector professionals see this as a decision-making error by our bureaucrats/technocrats. The way forward, in their mind, would be to shift focus from one-time projects to more long-lasting endeavors, almost like flicking a switch.

But we all know that things are never this simple. There is a very good reason why civil works dot our development paradigm, and that reason is largely political in nature. The dominant actors of our urban politics, such as contractors and real estate magnates, push government planners for fat civil works projects, (roads, bridges, buildings), that help them make money, which they can later use to curry favor with government officials, finance and empower political parties, and maintain their extensive patronage systems within the state and in society.

Patronage drives our political economy, and in a country where the state remains a major economic actor, both in terms of handing out economic opportunities and controlling productive capital, the space for maintaining political power AND shifting priorities/initiating reform is considerably small. In a stop-start democratic setup, political parties are often busy ensuring their own survival, and as a consequence of frequent military interludes, politicians dont know how to think in terms of long run benefits. Civil works are just one example of how the state-government nexus caters to its self-defined formula for survival, and that seems to fit in a vacuum of ideology and ideals about a greater good, allowing materiality, individual pursuit and patronage to dictate the boundaries of our political economy.

The challenge for reformers, thinkers, and political activists is to create necessary political and public ownership for any meaningful long-run agenda. Developing policy behind closed doors and hoping that it will revolutionise our state of existence is nothing more than wishful thinking. For the last 3 decades, the concept of a larger ideal has almost completely disappeared from our political culture, and unless or until we re-introduce that in the polity, our political economy will remain stuck in myopic, rent-seeking misadventures.

The writer is a development sector professional and blogs at http://

recycled-thought.blogspot.com. Write to him at [email protected]