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Democracy/Governance / 14.02.2019

By Anjum Altaf The lessons from Brexit for democracy and the democratic process are significant and general enough to repay attention even for those whose interest in British politics might be quite limited. First, it should be quite clear that meta-issues involving complex economic and political dimensions with uncertain outcomes are not suitable for referenda offering binary YES or NO choices. Representative democracy exists for the sensible exercise of judgement on such issues by those elected by the voters to act in their interest. If the latter conclude that their interests are being ignored for any reason, they can change their representatives rather than take decisionmaking into their own hands. Consider also how unstable the outcome of such a referendum can be with just a slight alteration. Suppose the choices to be voted on in the case of the UK had been, instead of a straightforward YES or...

Democracy/Governance / 03.09.2018

By Anjum Altaf Some lessons are very hard-earned and stand out for their stark truth and searing honesty. Ivan Klima, a well-known Czech novelist, was transported to a concentration camp at the age of ten and was there for four years till the end of WWII in 1945. Many who accompanied him did not survive their internment. In a deeply-felt memoir of that experience (“A Childhood in Terezin”), Klima recalls two lessons that stayed with him. First, that “Every society that is founded on dishonesty and tolerates crime as an aspect of normal behaviour, be it only among a handful of the elect, while depriving another group, no matter how small, of its honour and even its right to life, condemns itself to moral degeneration and, ultimately, to collapse.” And, second, “that often it is not the forces of good and evil that do battle with each other, but...

Democracy/Governance / 18.07.2018

By Anjum Altaf It was back in the time of one of the dictators who was giving the Pakistani political system one of its fresh starts. He had given a message to the people to take advantage of new elections and replace dishonest incumbents by voting for “good” people. At the time I was doing fieldwork in rural Sindh in a constituency where the incumbent was a known criminal and I put the proposition to a peasant asking him if he would vote for a “good” candidate. The illiterate peasant took all of three seconds, looked me in the eye, and replied: “Saeen, will the good man get my son out of prison?” Therein lies the insight that goes to the heart of the Pakistani political system. It is obvious to illiterate voters but escapes many a sophisticated analyst. In our deeply hierarchical society, most people are...

Democracy/Governance / 21.01.2018

By Anjum Altaf It should be obvious that alternative ways of drawing constituency boundaries can significantly influence electoral outcomes. An historical example can make the point: the 2003 redistricting (the term used in the U.S.) in Texas, spanning the 2002 and 2004 elections, changed the composition of its delegation to the U.S. Congress from 15 Republicans and 17 Democrats to 21 Republicans and 11 Democrats (1). It is no wonder that redistricting is a hot issue in the U.S. whose fairness has been the subject of repeated Supreme Court reviews. There the deliberate manipulation of boundaries to influence electoral outcomes, termed gerrymandering, is along two lines - favouring one party over another, as in the case mentioned above, or attempting to reduce the representation of racial minorities (2). In this context it is surprising to find no analysis of past practise in Pakistan nor much interest now that...

Democracy/Governance / 10.06.2017

By Anjum Altaf In connection with the much discussed concerns with the performance of the civil service in Pakistan, I have suggested that in addition to obvious factors like the quality of education in the country and the terms and conditions of employment during service, it might be useful to look at the particulars of the selection test itself. The objective would be to assess how the test impacts the behavior of candidates and whether it encourages self-selection of particular types of candidates. The argument can be motivated with one illustrative question from the compulsory Islamiat paper downloaded from the version of the 2015 CSS examination available on the website of the Federal Public Service Commission. The question is as follows: “Highlight the importance of Zakat and prove that economic stability of a society can be ensured through its effective implementation.” Now consider the implications of the question....

Democracy/Governance / 02.06.2017

By Anjum Altaf A diagnosis of the alleged ailments of the Central Superior Services (CSS) requires an evaluation of three independent but interrelated aspects: the quality of the pool of candidates interested in the service; the test that identifies the qualifiers for the service; and the working conditions of the selectees once they join the service. The average ability of the intake pool is obviously a function of the general quality of education in the country which is considered to be declining. However, given Pakistan’s large population, there is little doubt that more than a few thousand outstanding students graduate each year from the leading educational institutions. This number greatly exceeds the three hundred or so places to be filled in the CSS per annum. The real issue is that these outstanding graduates are no longer attracted to the CSS. There used to be a time, till...

Democracy/Governance / 12.04.2017

By Anjum Altaf It stands to reason that a poor selection test would be unable to identify the best candidates in any given applicant pool. Given the importance of the civil service I reviewed recent CSS written examinations and discovered serious issues of intellectual ineptitude and quality control. Questions from the 2015 and 2016 examination papers whose scans are posted on the official FPSC website were reviewed. Those mentioned below are faithfully reproduced without  correcting for errors of spelling, capitalization, punctuation or grammar which the alert reader would spot easily. Commentary is avoided for lack of space leaving the reader to identify problems which range from the amusing to the highly problematic. Some would merely confuse applicants while others might force them to dissemble or risk being failed. Starting with the less serious, a question from the compulsory English Precis and Composition paper asks applicants to...

Democracy/Governance / 15.02.2017

By Anjum Altaf Is there any other country that rewards government employees with grants of land? The issue is not whether the grants comply with existing rules or follow precedent but whether the practice makes sense in the modern age. We are no longer living in the age of monarchy or colonial rule when land was gifted at will by the rulers to whomsoever pleased them - just think of the landed gentry we inherited as a result. We are now in the era of democracy in which public resources belong to citizens and are to be used in accordance with their sanction. In our system these decisions are made by their representatives in appropriate legislative forums. If citizens are not satisfied with the decisions of their representatives they have the well-known triad of ‘Exit, Voice, and Loyalty’ to fall back on which itself is a democratic...

Democracy/Governance / 06.01.2017

By Anjum Altaf The most recent written examination for the Central Superior Services (CSS) has been characterized by two stark statistics: a dismal overall success rate of about 2% and a steep failure rate of 92% in English, a compulsory subject. The first statistic has attracted much attention with commentators attributing the abysmally low pass percentage to the poor standard of education in the country. The second has been cited in passing only as reportage without generating any serious analysis. I believe there is much to be gained by exploring what it reveals. On face value the CSS results do suggest a declining quality of education in the country, something educationists have been been highlighting for a while. Irrespective of other causes, this is an inevitable consequence of the supply of competent teachers lagging the demand in the absence of any serious investment in teacher training. More...

Democracy/Governance / 21.12.2016

By Anjum Altaf The result of the most recent examination for the Central Superior Services (CSS) - in which around 10,000 candidates appeared and 200 passed - has elicited much commentary. Most of it, a lament on the falling standard of education, has been predictable. A different perspective is more intriguing: It lauds the examination for being meritocratic and so rigorous that it selects the very best for the civil service, which, it argues, is all to the good. Does this claim hold water? I argue otherwise based on evidence, observation, and investigation. First, the evidence: If the claim is correct, the quality of the civil service should have been improving over time. Even insiders accept that is far from the case. Second, the observation: As one involved with mentoring undergraduates, I have seen the most creative and perceptive students fail the test and the relatively mediocre succeed....