Our Davids and Goliaths

13 Jul

David and Goliath

There is a great amount of hoo-ha, and rightfully so, across Pakistan over the Punjab government’s recent move to gag the media by passing a unanimous resolution against the freedom of the press. Oh what a swift U-turn this is from the days when the media was hailed by the brothers Sharif as the golden child and saviour of the country, second only to the independent judiciary. And while this act of the Punjab Assembly is reprehensible and deserves our criticism on its own accord, it’s telling of a much deeper and more disturbing trend within Pakistani politics.

It seems as if the Punjab government in particular likes to roll out policies on whims, the bright ideas of some bright bureaucrat who Khadim-e-Aala thinks is the next best thing since sliced bread or maybe the feelings of certain members of the August Punjab Assembly. And while I have great respect for the bright ideas of bright bureaucrats handpicked by the greatest talent-identifier in Pakistan and the “feelings” of the elected representatives of the people of Punjab; I think that these are not very solid foundations for making important public-policy decisions.

This week alone, we saw the Punjab Assembly first roll out a resolution against the freedom of the media and then we saw the leaders of the ruling party in Punjab backtrack and profess their undying love and support for the media. If these gentlemen and their band of merry lawmakers had paused to think or had debated the repercussions of a potential move to gag the media, they might have realised there and then that there would have been strong backlash from various segments of society. A little debate about possible repercussions could have prevented the current fiasco taking up the airwaves and print space.

Similarly, the idea of making changes to the Nikah Nama was rolled out one day and then rolled back the next. For a minute, let’s forget about the objectionable content of the bill and focus on how the government thinks it’s entirely appropriate to roll out very big changes that will affect millions of people without any prior notice, or awareness campaigns on television or national consultations on the challenges of implementation. The changes suggested to the Nikah Nama would have required the cooperation of various state and private-sector institutions and increased their daily workload. But were contingencies put in place to equip institutions with resources required to take on the added responsibilities? So if the new Nikah Nama rules were in place we could only have experienced increased institutional chaos and inconvenience to common citizens. But who cares about that?

But maybe the government should care about the image it portrays to its constituents when it does about-turns on important policy issues with such great speed. So in order to prevent future embarrassment and precious public resources, I would humbly request the government in general and the Punjab Assembly in particular to start looking at the policy-making practices of more successful and effective governments such as those in East Asia.

Public-policy decisions are usually steeped in empirical economic and political facts. And in order to understand the effects of the imposition of a certain policy, the social and political impacts are measured through available public-opinion data or socio-economic data. There are policy analysts that sit in front of endless panels of data and analyse numbers. There are media strategy gurus who plan how decisions shall be announced and how crises will be handled. Teams of professionals are employed to delve into legal repercussions. Sometimes focus groups are held and pilot programmes launched to study the rollout of a national-level policy in order to understand how it will function and the challenges that it will face and how they can be overcome before investing millions of public resources into them. This eventually leads to the formation of better policies and stronger polities.

But in Pakistan, where politics is hereditary and dynastic and steeped in sycophancy, rulers seem to have deliberately perpetuated the myth that they have some divine right to the throne by virtue of their great connection with the people and because of their unlimited wisdom which is always at work for the good of the people. They lead others to believe and somewhere in the process begin to believe themselves that they are the David that can conquer any Goliath. But the Goliath isn’t what threatens the nation, it’s just what irks the leadership.

So it doesn’t matter if it’s the spread of infectious disease, setting of wheat prices or policing the media, one “great leader” seems to have all the fixes and deems it unnecessary to consult with lesser mortals who might disagree or, God forbid, take a rational approach to policy-making which would diminish our politicians’ perceived divine right to rule. The height of consultation involves a phone call between big bro and little bro or maybe there’s consultation with the wife over dinner to get a feminine perspective and maybe the children are called to give the youth perspective and ammi jee or abba jee, whoever the head of the household is, lends religious wisdom. Policy-making in Pakistan is a cottage industry. And as a result we get bungled up fiascos like the media resolution and the Nikah Naama changes which clearly reflect the utter lack of systematic policy-making in the country.

And while I have no doubt about the “good intentions” of our political elite, as a tax-paying citizen, I would humbly like to suggest that instead of spending so much on their cars and public entourages they should hire a couple of people who actually have expertise in the field of statistics, economics and public-polling to actually aid them in their decision-making. Informed decisions are better decisions. They aid national development and decrease citizen frustration and as a result increase political popularity. Deferring to experts or to hard-cold numbers interpreted by knowledgeable people are powerful tools. They do not take away from the strength of a leader. A leader who relies on experts is not less of a man or woman but more of a great public leader. He or she is able to deliver results to constituents. Therefore, informed policy-making seems to be a win-win for everyone. Now only if we could convince the powers that be to see it this way too.

Published in The News, Wednesday, July 14, 2010

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3 Responses to “Our Davids and Goliaths”

  1. JK July 14, 2010 at 12:05 pm #

    All these measures required to get in place a good public policy sound quite long-winded and expensive. Certainly more expensive than a plate of Nihari and Siri Paye!

  2. Umair July 14, 2010 at 1:11 pm #

    You need to do more research on the public-policy making process in Punjab.

  3. Taban Khamosh July 19, 2010 at 9:53 pm #

    Punjab government’s recent move to gag the media by passing a unanimous resolution against the freedom of the press.

    Have you actually read the resolution in question? It is available via the inter-tubes.

    Not that I agree with the way it was presented, the ensuing acrimony, or the mindset it actually betrays.

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