A Radical Road to Better Governance

By Anjum Altaf
Consider the state of Pakistan today. There is a crisis when it doesn’t rain. There is a crisis when it does rain. If it is not the season of drought it is the season of flood. In each, foreigners are beseeched to dole us out.

In seventy years citizens have not been provided with clean water, with decent education, with basic health, with adequate transport. Half the population is illiterate. Half the children are stunted. Half the young are jobless.

Five thousand years ago, Mohenjodaro functioned better than our cities. The sight of Karachi drowning was a disgrace. Parts of Lahore were no better. Is building new cities an acceptable response? If the old ones cannot be held together why would new ones be run better? Especially when every new cohort of managers, on average, is worse trained than the one before.

People might invent excuses but this state of affairs is the cumulative result of atrocious governance. The Supreme Court of the country has labeled one of its governments a mafia and this charge has been bruited all over the world to leave no doubt of the intentions and actions of many of the country’s previous governments. It would be hard to find a project, big or small, untainted by a scam. Even Zakat and BISP funds have been fiddled with which should leave no doubt of the depths that have been reached.

In situations like this international organizations recommend a regimen of Good Governance. They pretend, for reasons that suit their business, that a leopard will change its spots while they continue to lend it food to eat. This is no different from believing that if the aristocrats of France had been pampered and advised on good governance they would have given the peasants bread instead of cake. The peasants knew better.

Given that the leopards will not change their spots, what are the options for better governance? We live in the age of representative governance and there is no way we can go back to monarchy even if we can dig up a successor to Akbar the Great from under some rock. Dictatorship is not an alternative either given the immense damage that has been inflicted on Pakistan, including its breakup, under its dictators. In any case, there is no reason for citizens to yield their sovereign rights and become subjects again.

So, what do citizens need to fight for to get better governance within the framework of representative rule? The choice now is as stark as it can get. They can, as Arundhati Roy put it for India, “keep voting for the people who are leading us into penury and war, tearing us apart limb from limb,” before adding sarcastically “At least they are building us a grand temple. And that’s not nothing.” Ours will give us a new city, a flaming BRT, and the highest, longest cable car in the world that will attract millions of tourists.

They could continue to vote for the spotted leopards or they could consider fighting for something that would really deliver the promise of representative rule — transferring power into their own hands from those of predatory elites who rotate it among themselves while promising change. Once again, one has to turn to the French to see through that facade: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose — the more things change, the more they stay the same.

It is time for citizens to make their voices heard, to articulate how they wish to be governed, to demand what they want from their governments, to take government into their own hands. The time for lying back, allowing any misfit to take over, and hoping for the best should be over.

I am an advocate of sortition — the choosing of governors for fixed terms by random ballot — a practice with a heritage going back to Rome. It is an extreme measure but it is time for extreme measures. Nothing can be worse than what we have and the hope for a miracle has been dashed too often to remain credible. God will not help those who do not help themselves.

We need to put the responsibility for governance into the hands of a set of ordinary citizens who are representative of the population. Who know what it means to drink polluted water, to be miseducated, to be denied health care, to be unable to cross a signal-free corridor without walking a mile, to be offered a job as a janitor after graduating from a diploma mill. Let them define the priorities and engage experts if they feel the need for them.

And they might be able to get there without a French Revolution if they can force the aristocrats to accept an amnesty, something the latter are very fond of when they give it to each other. Let the aristocrats take whatever they want and leave for their homes abroad. This country is rich enough to rebuild itself from scratch. Its real capital are the people whose output has been appropriated all these years. Let them work for themselves for a change.

Once we truly have a government of the people, for the people, by the people, we can evaluate different choices to move forward. For example, given the disastrous condition of our cities, we could lease a few of them for twenty-five years to those who have shown how to manage big cities well. The Japanese run Tokyo, a metropolis of 26 million people, like clockwork; let us request them to take charge of Karachi. The South Koreans manage Seoul equally well; Lahore could go to them. The French have done fine with Paris; they could do the same for Faisalabad. An so on. As it is, we cannot even collect urban waste without the assistance of foreign firms. Why not let them deal with the entire mess.

This is not as outlandish as it might seem. The economist Paul Romer, a Nobel Laureate, has proposed the concept of a charter city managed by a guarantor administering it under mutually agreed terms and compensated from the revenues generated by the city. There is thus an in-built incentive to increase city revenues by making it more peaceful, livable, efficient, and productive.

There is also a real-life example of using competition among different guarantors to ensure high levels of performance. It was Jawaharlal Nehru’s strokes of genius, very soon after 1947, to set up a string of IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology) each run by a different technologically advanced country. The success was beyond expectations. The IITs ranked with the best in the world and their graduates put India on the technology map both in industry and in academia.

This path to the future is bold, daring, and perhaps outlandish. But with our cities sinking and our lives crumbling, we have touched rock bottom. The choice now is very stark. It is between going under or having any kind of future at all. It is hardly a choice.

This opinion appeared in The News on Sunday on October 11, 2020 and is cross-posted here with the author’s permission. The writer is a former dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS.

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