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Politics / 21.11.2018

By Anjum Altaf Daniel Kahneman (2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics) has a lovely book called Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011) in which he distinguishes between the two modes of thought. Fast thinking is instinctive and emotional and subject to many cognitive biases; slow thinking is deliberative and logical and much to be recommended when stakes are high and situations are unfamiliar. In Pakistan, we have succumbed over time to fast thinking and the graver the situation the more instinctive and emotional the thought process tends to become. It’s time to take a deep breath. Look at the current situation which offers a surreal scenario of a major country reduced to a farcical contest between Ali Baba and his forty thieves on one side and Robin Hood and his merry men on the other. Ali Baba’s gang purportedly looted the people and got phenomenally rich under the protection...

Politics / 29.09.2018

By Anjum Altaf It is a fact that no one outside Pakistan considers the most recent electoral exercise to have been even-handed -- some analysts have gone so far as calling it a ‘soft coup.’ This is no surprise. Most outsiders also insist that Pakistan sponsors terrorism. But while there are many Pakistanis who contest the latter, it is striking that the number believing in the fairness of the recent electoral exercise is relatively small. Even partisans benefiting from the outcome, while offering various justifications, do not really dispute the charge. It seems that in nudging the choice, the power elite (the segment of the elite that has the ability to affect other people’s lives) may have overplayed its hand. Does this, and the intervention itself, come at a price? Recall that negating the electoral mandate of 1971 resulted in dismemberment of the country. What kind...

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...

Cities/Urban / 08.08.2018

By Anjum Altaf What is to be done when we believe strongly that the present in which we live falls very much short of what it ought to be? Clearly, we don’t need to prove that that is indeed the case --  widespread poverty, hunger, marginalization, discrimination, and exploitation stare us in the face every day. While almost everyone, especially in countries like ours, agrees on the discontents of the present, there is a very clear split when it comes to thinking of what is to be done. There is a segment of the population that believes the solution lies in going back to a past in which all these problems did not exist. And there is a segment that believes that such a return is not possible simply because one cannot step into the same river twice -- too many things have changed to allow a...

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...

Cities/Urban / 08.07.2018

By Anjum Altaf Urban productivity is determined by a number of variables, including population size and urban sprawl. With effective infrastructure investment, cities can enable more workers to access available jobs, creating integrated labour markets and increasing urban productivity.   From an economic perspective, the concept of a metropolitan area is related to the existence of an integrated labour market. If the labour market extends beyond the municipal boundaries of a city, it becomes part of a metropolitan labour market. Metropolitan labour markets are important because output per worker increases with the size of the labour market; increased population density leads to a higher number of economic interactions per unit of area. However, the population size of a city is only one determinant of its productivity. The other critical determinant is urban sprawl, which takes into account how far jobs and residences are located, and the speed of transport, which influences...

South Asia / 15.06.2018

Lord Krishna sighting the Eid moon and pointing it out to a group of Muslim men and women. Reproduction of an 18th century Rajasthan miniature. More at: https://swarajyamag.com/culture/krishna-through-the-hands-of-muslim-artists Back to Main Page...

Development / 30.03.2018

By Anjum Altaf There was a time not too long ago when the burden of disease seemed disproportionately biased against the poor. That someone was always dying among ‘these’ people was the irritated refrain of many an exasperated ‘Begum.’ ‘Fauteedgi’ (an event of death) was a dreaded word that came to be interpreted as a ready excuse to buy a few days off for the staff. Times have changed. It is hard now to find an affluent family without its own share of prolonged and painful illnesses and ‘fauteedgis,’ often premature. The speed at which graveyards are filling up in rich communities tells a story if anyone is willing to listen. What happened? Simply, money reached its limit in the ability to buy health. It could protect against many of the factors that caused the most mortality amongst the poor but lost its edge once the factors proliferated. Take...

Development / 20.03.2018

By Samia Altaf Two recent reports about Pakistan’s health system tell of deficiencies of far reaching significance. The first, from UNICEF, confers on Pakistan the dubious distinction of registering the highest number of deaths in newborns (neonatal mortality) in the past decade. It is now number one in the world, climbing from number three, and ahead of Afghanistan and the Central African Republic. The second, a National Nutrition Survey, informs that 45% of Pakistan’s children are stunted, suffering from chronic, extreme, and irreversible malnourishment that causes permanent physical and cognitive deficiencies. What would this half of future generations be capable of with its severely limited capacity to learn even if the opportunity for education is available? It would fall sick much quicker and get better a lot slower creating a permanent burden on the already constrained health service delivery system. The situation in other areas of...