Millennium Development Follies

By Anjum Altaf

There are two ways to make the point that the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) will not be met in Pakistan. One can offer analytical reasons in support or place a large bet on the outcome. Given that Pakistanis are presently swayed more by spot bets than appeals to reason, I am willing to wager Rupees 10 lakhs on the MDGs remaining unmet by their designated end date of 2015.

I hope there are some who will wonder why I am willing to risk my money on this bet. To them I will present some very obvious and some not so obvious reasons for my pessimism as a Pakistani and optimism as a bettor.

The very obvious reason is easy to get out of the way. I doubt if there is anyone who believes that our governors are serious about MDGs or have time to spare for them.

As usual, they have signed on to international commitments and welcome the accompanying perks knowing full well that there is to be no accountability at the end of the day. A miracle may yet transpire but I am not betting on it.

The slightly less obvious reason is that the international community is not too serious either. Those paying attention might remember that the 1980s were designated the International Decade for Water and Sanitation with similar targets and the 1990s were to culminate in Health for All by the Year 2000. Whatever happened to those goals? Instead of a post-mortem to fathom the reasons for failure, the international community simply reset the clock to 2015, conjured up another fancy title, and continued the merry globetrotting. Why would it be any different in 2015?

Then there is the fact that governments unable to solve small problems cannot be expected to solve big ones. Many years ago I heard my 10-year old son chuckling while reading the newspaper headline “Benazir vows to make Karachi weapon-free.” Being an activist, he wrote the Prime Minister a polite letter requesting she make Karachi garbage-free first. Needless to stay, Karachi was freed of neither.

It doesn’t take much to figure all this out but I wish to focus on another, less obvious and more important dimension. Take a taxi from the Secretariat complex in Islamabad and ask the driver if he knows what MDGs are about. Elaborate that you mean the Millennium Development Goals and see if anything registers.

I assure you nothing will unless you happen to run into the one taxi driver whose cousin works in the Planning Commission. He might pass on the information that something containing MDGs regularly receives extensive polishing in the office before being dispatched to New York and therefore must contain something of great importance.

This is the state of affairs right outside the halls of the Secretariat. Travel a few kilometers out of town and the incomprehension deepens into bewilderment. By the time one gets to Lehtrar, people declare you a deluded pir to be returned promptly to the confines of the Secretariat.

I know we are not an English-speaking nation so I offer the official translation to my interlocutors – Hazarsala Tarraqiati Ahdaf. The perplexed get even more perplexed. Who in the world speaks like this? Why Hazarsala? What’s Tarraqiati about these things? Who has ever heard of the term Ahdaf?

The point is this: How can a country achieve national goals when the nation doesn’t have a clue what the goals are about? Can our English-oriented elite find no way to communicate intelligently with its own citizenry? Why is it so much more attuned to the international community than to its own people? There is virtually no development dialogue in the country with mass participation – just a succession of Five Year Plans, Country Assistance Strategies, Poverty Alleviation Papers, and Millennium Development Goals, in which the well-off talk to the well-off while jointly lamenting the fate of the poor. The only nod to the latter is gibberish like Hazarsala Tarraqiati Ahdaf.

I would argue that an inclusive dialogue is not an unrealistic expectation and there is an example from Pakistan itself that can be cited as evidence. The social program centered round Roti, Kapra aur Makan elicited mass mobilization and participation like nothing before or since. The fact that the program did not deliver on its promise does not negate the argument that popular participation is possible and necessary for social transformation.

China, ironically, is one country where communicating national goals to citizens as a means to achieving them is a norm shown to be possible and effective. Almost every policy objective or target is captured in a slogan that is easily comprehensible to the population. ‘Away with All Pests’ as part of a health campaign comes readily to mind.

Other, more complex policy objectives have been similarly communicated. In the 1970s, China’s urban policy favored small towns and discouraged migration to large cities. This was communicated via the slogan: ‘Grow small towns aggressively, promote medium cities selectively, and stop the growth of big cities.’ In the 1980s, the industrialization policy focused on fostering non-farm employment in Town and Village Enterprises. This was communicated as follows: ‘Leave the farm but not the village; enter the factory but not the city.’

One might agree or not with the policies; that is not the issue. The argument is that it is possible to communicate complex national objectives to citizens in order to include them in the policy dialogue, to orient their expectations for the future, and to secure their participation in the efforts. Without such participation even a benevolent elite cannot hope to achieve meaningful results.

We lack an inclusive development dialogue in Pakistan. Perhaps this is exacerbated by the fact that we are a divided nation in which the governors and the governed do not share a unifying worldview. Our ruling elites are oriented outwards and lack the vocabulary to communicate with their fellow citizens. The best they can do is to borrow Millennium Development Goals or render them into Hazarsala Tarraqiati Ahdaf. Sadly, I remain confident I will win my bet.

This Op-Ed appeared in Dawn, Karachi, on December 24, 2010 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission to facilitate a discussion.


  • Vinod
    Posted at 17:21h, 29 December Reply

    Good point there in the article on communicating policy objectives through slogans.

  • Zofeen Khan
    Posted at 01:17h, 03 January Reply

    LOVE how you get your point of view down on paper.

  • Gohar Azhar
    Posted at 07:07h, 03 January Reply

    “MDG” — yet another attempt at using “captivating catchwords” by the government!

  • Rita
    Posted at 17:22h, 03 January Reply

    A useful point which could be applied elsewhere too.

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