Governance or pretense?


The government seems to have found a formula to silence criticism



Ministry of Planning, Development and Reforms is organising the second edition of Pakistan Governance Forum which will be held on 22nd of December. A similar forum was organised last year as well and the most ironic thing about the inaugural session of governance forum was the lack of governance in organising it. There was a delay in kicking off the event as the turnout was not as expected by the organisers, hence they waited for the people to show up. The chief guest of the event Mr Sartaj Aziz didn’t show up. Quantity and quality of stakeholders and experts in parallel sessions was asymmetric. The administrative workforce of the ministry (falling under the bureaucratic stream of the ministry) had no interest in this political stunt, hence they were laid back and the whole exercise was a complete mess.

Now, one may assume that the reason why the second edition is being held is due to the overwhelming success of the first edition that was able to provide major policy insights despite the administrative flaws which have become more of a hallmark of government institutions, partly due to incompetence and partly due to the tussle between the political and bureaucratic streams in them. But such an assumption would be completely invalid. The inaugural edition of Pakistan Governance Forum, organised in collaboration with United Nations Development Programme, focused on 12 major governance issues: Education, Health, Police and Criminal Justice, Accountability and Transparency, E-Governance, Civil Services, Regulatory Bodies, Decentralisation post 18th Amendment, Local Government, State-owned Enterprises, Business Procedures and Performance Management in Public Sector.

The difference between these 12 issues being genuine governance concerns and a bunch of fancy words extracted from a public policy textbook, is the level of seriousness that is dedicated to them. The major problem of the inaugural session was (and in all probability will be in the second edition as well) the inability of the organisers to attract leading experts and members of academia in this policy formulation exercise. The forum lacked intellectual girth; for instance, in Civil Services session there was only Dr Ishrat Hussain and no one else to challenge him in order to bring about something meaningful and innovative. Likewise, in Education and Health sessions there was only Mr Musharaf Zaidi and Dr Javed Akram respectively and no one else to bring about an alternative to the discussion. Hence these sessions went on to be more like lectures from a single expert rather than a consultative session to devise reforms. These sessions were still the popular ones, the fashionable ones, because Education, Health and Civil Services reform is trendy, cool and sexy, the situation in sessions like State-owned Enterprises was even worse; a handful of people talking about random things having neither an idea nor the expertise to talk about them inadvertently belittled the topic of discussion.

Another interesting aspect of the forum was that the federal cabinet, the government itself and the provincial governments completely abandoned the forum. Subjects such as health and education that have been devolved were being discussed and no one from any of the provincial governments was there. Inclusion of prime minister of the country might be too much to ask but at least one other minister from the federal cabinet should have showed up to at least listen to what was being proposed about their ministry. The legitimacy of the event can be gauged by one simple fact: an event organised by one of the major ministries of the cabinet of the ruling government about the most important issue of the country wasn’t attended by any of the ministers of the ruling government, let alone anyone from the opposition to reach a consensus on an issue of such importance. One would assume that at least the messiah, the reformer, the Khadim-e-Aala, Mr Shehbaz Sharif would definitely show up for an event that was to discuss issues of health, education, reforms, criminal justice and governance, but no, he was nowhere to be found as well.

One would also assume that the forum was organised in collaboration with UNDP, but why an international development organisation like UNDP would associate themselves with something like this if it was not well planned and organised. The answer is simple: just like any organisation in the world, UNDP has to justify their existence as well and their association was merely limited to compilation of the report (which by the way came out after months and was ordinary in nature). They had no role in defining the parameters, guests and experts of the forum. They came like guests, did an ordinary job and left. The basis of UNDP’s involvement in the forum can be summarised in the words of one of their high end officers: “How is it possible that something related to governance takes place in Pakistan and we are not a part of it? Contact the ministry, we should be the partner organisation of this forum.” He said this when he came to know that a governance forum was being organised without the involvement of UNDP.

One year has gone by and there is no sign of progress on any one of the issues whatsoever. No matter what the quality of the recommendations was, there should have been some development in the implementation if the ministry believed that the event was a success and the recommendations were outstanding. Why has the government failed to implement any of the recommendations gathered in last year’s forum? And if no progress in implementation has been made, then what is the need of an exact same exercise? On what basis is the government again willing to spend tonnes of money on yet another futile exercise?

The answers of these questions can only be found with a little perspective. The newly found love between the government and governance was discovered in the times of dharna. With Imran Khan atop his Insaf container criticising the lack of governance in government, demanding resignations, bred the fear of umpire’s index finger in the corridors of power and amidst this fear, rage and uncertainty was born an idea to shut them up for a while: the idea of Pakistan Governance Forum. The roots of the entire exercise were purely political in nature; there never was a genuine concern for governance, hence there never was any implementation on any of the issues in the last one year. There is no legitimate reason why the government is organising the second edition, but there naturally are political ones, as this exercise will, for sure, silence some criticism directed towards them related to their inactivity in the realm of governance.