Dawn Editorial 16 November 2019

Technical experts

THERE is little doubt that the government is in dire need of technical expertise to help navigate decision-making in an increasingly complex world. The case of LNG imports, to take one example, clearly demonstrates that there is a great deficit within the bureaucracy of the kind of technical knowledge required to effectively enter and operate within global LNG markets. The examples are, in fact, innumerable. From effective design of a policy framework to attract investment in petroleum exploration to management of public health hazards, the list of areas where the government requires specialised technical skills is very long indeed. That is why a new plan to induct technical experts into government service effectively as a layer above the Grade-22 federal secretaries has garnered much attention. There can be no doubt that the plan aims to plug a real deficit, but the question is, whether this is the right way to go about it.
Some questions immediately arise after even a cursory look at the proposal. How will these ‘technical experts’ interact with the federal secretaries and the larger bureaucracy that is already gearing up to resist the move? It is one thing if their input is given directly to the minister concerned. But if they are expected to have command over the bureaucracy below them, then the plan will clearly struggle to find traction. That is how it is in the US from where this particular idea draws its inspiration. In the US, the undersecretaries of state are brought in by the presidential administration as technical experts who work directly in policy implementation. Transplanting that model over here, though, has its own problems — as the government will soon learn if it works to advance the proposal.
The biggest weakness of the plan, however, is in how it seeks to create a shortcut for what is a deeper problem. We have an outmoded bureaucracy whose very training runs against the grain of specialised, technical knowledge. This was alright in the colonial era, when the chief task of the district collector was to keep the peace and ensure the collection of revenue. It does not work in the 21st century where the government has to increasingly operate in specialised fields. Creating an additional layer, Grade-23, above everybody else will not address the fact that below the technical experts will be the same people. In many cases, above the technical expert will be ministers who are also clearly unfit for their post. One wonders what sort of contribution a technical expert will make in the railways, to take one example, without any change at the top. In essence, the plan tries to address a real problem, but does so in a purely cosmetic way. Perhaps a little technical expertise could be helpful when drawing up such proposals in the first place.


Tests at home

IT finally seems to be happening. Pakistan’s cricket trajectory is set to experience one of its most emotional and truly historic moments, with the ending of a decade-long drought in Test cricket. If all goes according to plan, cricket fans in the country will be part of the two-Test home series against Sri Lanka to be played next month. A Pakistan Cricket Board press release on Thursday confirmed that the Rawalpindi Cricket Stadium and Karachi’s National Stadium will host the two Test matches against the visiting team on Dec 11 and Dec 19 respectively. Needless to say, the news has taken the cricket-starved nation by storm. The agonising lull had seemed like an eternity — not just to the players and fans but also to those who realise that cricket as a sport is a key catalyst in aiding social cohesion in a nation that has forever grappled with multiple ethnic, cultural and ideological divisions.
Pakistan, since it was granted Test status in 1952, has been a front-ranking cricketing nation with an impressive record in both home and away matches. Leading cricket teams visited Pakistan regularly until a decade ago, and the country has also had the honour of being a joint host for the two ICC Cricket World Cups that were held in 1987 and 1996. However, all that changed one unfortunate morning in March 2009 when a Sri Lankan team bus was attacked by gunmen in Lahore. Six visiting players and two staff members were injured. Eight other people were killed. No foreign team has toured Pakistan for a Test since then, though efforts to reintegrate the country into mainstream international cricket did result in ODI and T20 tours by Zimbabwe, the West Indies and, more recently, Sri Lanka itself. The PCB’s hectic diplomatic efforts to reassure other cricket boards about the improved security situation in the country and safe playing conditions, in addition to the government’s pledges of presidential-level security for the touring sides, had been in vain and a full-fledged Test series by a foreign team continued to elude Pakistan. But now, matters seem to be improving for Pakistan cricket. It is ironic, though, that it will be Sri Lanka that will help in reviving full-scale foreign tours to this country after the attack on its team a decade ago. A debt of gratitude is owed to the Islanders.


Online censorship

GIVEN the growing number of ‘unspoken’ and confusing restrictions on the country’s media, it is no surprise that online policing of content, especially on the social media, has also increased. A Facebook transparency report has revealed that in the first half of 2019, the social media giant restricted around 5,700 posts in Pakistan on the government’s request.
According to the report, the number of complaints filed by the PTA made up 31pc of the total content restriction requests, more than any other country. Facebook maintained that it restricted access to content that, according to the telecom authority, allegedly violated local laws pertaining to blasphemy, defamation and criticism of the country’s independence and judiciary.
Though Facebook is not bound to follow the local laws of any country, the company often complies with requests from governments, security agencies and large corporations. This ‘pragmatism’ has given rise to a lot of questions over the role of Facebook in compromising consumer data, and facilitating the spread of false information and political manipulation. The result of such a controversial role, however, is that the truth is compromised, which in turn amplifies a one-sided narrative.
In the absence of clear policies to curb the spread of false news, by both the PTA and Facebook, the restriction of content that is critical of the state’s policies is tantamount to censorship. The PTA has already blocked access to around 900,000 websites, some of which include internet editions of Indian newspapers that in the past year or so have also felt the wrath of the Modi government over criticism of its policies.
On the other hand, a report by the EU DisinfoLab says that an Indian network was found to be operating 265 propaganda websites to influence global opinions against Pakistan.
Ironically, while there is a clampdown on media and active suppression of citizens’ voices, there seems to be no attempt to deal with anti-Pakistan propaganda stemming from abroad. Perhaps the PTA should focus its energies on targeting actual propaganda, rather than muting the voices of citizens and journalists.


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