Achieving a Critical Mass
By Shahid Javed Burki (former vice-president of the World Bank and a former caretaker finance minister of Pakistan).
Social scientists have begun to note that in the first decade of the 21st century, globalization and a revolution in information technology have achieved a critical mass. According to one analyst, “this has resulted in the democratization — all at once — of so many things that neither weak states nor weak companies can stand up against popular expression”. We have seen the democratization of information, of war fighting, of innovation and of expectations. The last is particularly important for reshaping political institutions. The year 2011 started with tens of thousands of Arab youth demanding an end to authoritarian rule. It is ending with the young in Russia asking for the same. As Aleksei Navalny, an imprisoned blogger in Russia, wrote recently: “We are not cattle or slaves. We have voices and votes and the power to uphold them.”
The street first rose in the Arab world but its rise gave encouragement to the forces of dissent in such different cultures as in Britain, France, Spain, Russia and the United States. A clear lesson has to be learnt by political systems in the making, such as the one in Pakistan. The lesson is that the people’s voice must be factored in both the design and working of political systems and their capacity to deliver results for the masses.
Given that, is it too optimistic to hope, as I did in last week’s article, that the next elections may serve to cleanse the political system in Pakistan? On the other hand, is Pakistan’s political system utterly and comprehensively broken? Or is the country simply dealing with the birth pangs of a new system that has been through a long and painful period of delivery over which the military presided off and on for many decades? Can a political system in such a perilous state manage an economy that is in tatters, fixing it in a way to ensure a high rate of GDP growth sustainable over time?
These are hard questions to answer. Neither economic theory nor political science is of much help. That said, it would be hard to argue that the progress the country has made in moving towards a system in which the people have some voice should be interrupted and replaced once again with strongman rule. Governments under strong leaders have done well in East Asia and China. Similar arrangements in Pakistan did not produce the same kind of results. The failure of strongmen in Pakistan was because they had short-term and narrow interests. With the possible exception of General Ayub Khan, none of the other military leaders came with visions to set the economy right in a way that benefits flowed to a majority of the population.
Some could argue that the economy is too sick to be left to the care of political doctors who have displayed little talent in handling it. To be tempted to move in that direction would be to repeat the so many mistakes of history. As I suggested last week, it is worth paying the economic price to develop a system of governance that would last for good and which would provide for all citizens in an equitable and caring way.
Today’s system is far from doing that and what is being promised by those present on the political stage at this moment does not get us there. According to the American political scientist and Senior Fellow at the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford University, Francis Fukuyama, “the passion of protesters and democracy advocates around the world, from South Africa to Romania to Ukraine, might be sufficient to bring about ‘regime change’ from authoritarian to democratic government, but the latter might not succeed without a long, costly, laborious, difficult process of institution building”. This was written before the Arab Spring added more examples to those the author had used for how the pressure of the street could start the process of political change. But, continues Fukuyama: “Human institutions are subject to deliberate design and choice, unlike genes, they are transmitted across time culturally rather than genetically; and they are invested with intrinsic value through a variety of psychological and social mechanisms, which makes them hard to change. The inherent conservatism of human institutions then explains why political development is frequently reversed by political decay, since there is often a substantial lag between changes in the external environment that should trigger institutional change, and the actual willingness of the societies to make those changes.”
On their way to political development, history tells us that societies have followed cycles of development and decay. Those who seek to guard against decay must ensure that political systems have several institutional layers which would protect against slippages occurring. If this reading of the process of political development is correct, there is real danger of political decay in Pakistan. Descent into it should be prevented and this will require hard work and understanding. Pakistan will have to have patience before a set of institutions will get settled and will begin to work together and reinforce one another to provide for the common good.
Looking back at the political mess Pakistan finds itself in today, one cannot but wonder about what the country’s leaders were thinking when they embarked on a series of outdated approaches. The approaches they tried might have worked — in Pakistan’s case they did succeed to some degree — but they had no chance of lasting success being perpetuated way into the future. Among the more serious mistakes were those that invested more confidence in the style of political management that put premium on leading from the top. In addition there was confidence that America could protect the leadership groups while they attempted to manipulate the populace from great heights. That way of political management could not have worked and is not working. A profound change is needed in which we manage political development in the country.