Blind to basic needs Huma Yusuf

GOVERNANCE. Is there a more boring word? Mention it and you seem didactic, academic, prosaic — a victim of development-speak. And yet, good governance is what we need. It is the key to a government’s credibility, and to a stable society.
What do we mean by governance? A state is well governed if it is able to provide essential services (ranging from security and rule of law to utilities and infrastructure) without discrimination, and if it is able to effectively dispense resources (this requires the state to have institutions with the capacity to manage resources, and ensure those institutions are held accountable). It is a familiar trope that Pakistan is poorly governed. But this language obscures the dire reality that our state is eroding, failing at most of its functions.
Think of all the issues that have caused alarm over recent days, and then consider that they are avoidable, a product of poor governance and inadequate service delivery. Water scarcity is a resource-management problem. The deadly typhoid outbreak can be traced back to leaky sewerage lines in Hyderabad, and major gaps in literacy and healthcare provision. The prevalence of sexual harassment is exacerbated by the state’s laissez-faire attitude towards the issue: only one of our four provinces, Sindh, has an ombudsperson to review complaints.
The growing audacity of media censorship is spurred by Pemra’s toothlessness. Political corruption is rife in the absence of genuine accountability. Even growing judicial activism is, in part, justified by gaps in governance, as the chief justice himself said this weekend.
Poor governance creates vacuums that others will fill.
Our state’s approach to governance is negligent, lacking priorities or vision. Budgets are populist not pragmatic, development is cynical with an eye to elections or kickbacks rather than sustainability, and there’s little appetite for civil service reform or increased transparency.
If we concede that good governance is a way to ensure that basic human needs in a society are met, then Pakistan’s poor governance is a tinderbox, waiting to ignite. Governance-related grievances bring people on to the streets, not their lack of patriotism, or their co-option by foreign powers. The Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement was triggered by extrajudicial killings by law enforcers and is sustained by demands for justice and safety. It is a movement asking for a better-governed state.
Poor governance creates vacuums; where the state won’t deliver or mediate, someone else will. Our deep state thinks that poor governance can be papered over with patriotism and paranoia about hostile external powers. But in Pakistan the gaps have been filled by militants, mullahs, gangsters, frauds, ideologues, charlatans. Legitimate public grievances are not being addressed; they are being channelled into ethnic, communal, class and sectarian hatred. Poor governance is, indirectly, pitting us against each other.
Without good governance, we are defying our own ambitions (whether those are in our best interests is a separate issue). Pakistan has decided it will forge strong economic — and so security — links with China to fend off other regional challenges. But you cannot build where you cannot govern well. Academic research in Asia and Latin America has shown that good governance — as indicated by the rule of law, checks on corruption, regulation and political stability — positively correlates with foreign investment flows. The Chinese do not like messy democracies. But they also cannot expect strong returns from a state on the decline.
The problem with poor governance is that it is the job of a government to do it better. But what do you do in a country like Pakistan where the government is to some extent helpless? It is faced by an existential crisis, and all resources are expen­ded on survival rather than effectiveness.
Of course, there are many issues, particularly around service delivery, that are in the government’s control. But hold the government to account, and our representatives throw up their hands and claim impotence, beholden as they are to ‘hidden hands’. Hands that for more than half our country’s history have sought power and resources, but shown little interest in the drudgery of governance.
There are no mechanisms by which to hold shadows to account. But at some point, someone will have to answer for the weakening of Pakistan’s state and society. Until then, the continuing, and exacerbating, failures in governance — the lack of justice, opportunity, safety, equality, and the inability to speak out against these mounting challenges — will breed frustration, resentment, protest. Pakistan is not on the brink of a revolution. But the status quo is also not sustainable forever. So what’s the plan? How do we convince our power brokers that boring ol’ governance, delivered by a stable government, in an environment in which it can be held accountable, is the key to our resilience and strength?
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