A fundamental change in any order of life has an overarching impact on everything around it. Let’s take the example of human encroachment in animal habitats. Development in a forest, by cutting down trees and the construction of a building, affects animal behaviours and patterns.
A permanent change like this forces the animals to adapt. Predators and prey get squeezed closer together, and encounters between them increase. Territorial animals fight for space. Animals lower in the food chain develop additional survival instincts. Some species go extinct, others grow in abundance.
The change embeds itself in the fabric of society, causing behaviour patterns to evolve. The same theory applies to economics, politics, or any other field of life for that matter. It is in this context that we must think of institutional change.
‘Criticise individuals, not institutions’
In his speech at the 2022 Asma Jahangir conference, Justice Qazi Faez Isa urged the public to criticise individuals, not institutions, for the ills facing Pakistan. “Judge us as judges, condemn me as a judge, do not condemn the Supreme Court,” Justice Isa said. He placed blame on Justice Muhammad Munir, Anwarul Haq, and Irshad Hassan Khan for bringing disrepute to the Supreme Court.
Commenting on the army, he targeted Ayub Khan, Ziaul Haq, and Pervez Musharraf for abrogating the Constitution. The army as a whole, according to him, commanded respect. Justice Isa’s remarks indicated that the problems facing institutions in Pakistan can be fixed with a change in leadership or personnel and are therefore, temporary. However, individuals are only the tip of the iceberg, and blaming them for issues that are institutional in nature is a very myopic approach.
After all, what are people, if not a product of the institutions they belong to. A rotten apple may spoil the barrel, but can we legitimately expect to pluck a ripe fresh apple from a tree that is rotten from its roots to the leaf. Contrarily, like the chicken and egg conundrum, one may also argue that it takes a person to corrupt an institution, and not the other way around.
But think of it this way. Is Pakistan the only country in the world whose institutions have been led by corrupt individuals?
Strong institutions develop mechanisms to self-correct and weed out corruption while weak institutions struggle to find equilibrium once veered off course. Ask yourself whether you expect institutions such as the army, police, judiciary or the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) to start acting with impartiality and objectivity simply by replacing their leadership. The obvious answer to the question is no, and any expectations to the contrary, while optimistic, have not stood the test of time.
For example, there was wide ranging scepticism over Gen Qamar Jawed Bajwa’s remark during his farewell speech that the army had decided to stop interfering in politics. Now, there is pressure on Gen Asim Munir’s new leadership to restore faith and confidence in the army after the excesses of the Bajwa doctrine. But few expect the army to stay within its constitutionally defined limits.
Such is the nature of deep-rooted institutional corruption. It takes more than just a change in leadership to fix the rot.
A failed approach
This point can be more perfectly illustrated with the 2016 capture of Joaquin Guzman Loera, a high-profile Mexican drug kingpin, popularly known around the world as El Chapo. Guzman was extradited to the US where he was eventually convicted.
However, his arrest did not lead to a drop in drugs or violence. In fact, it demonstrated how disposable any single person is to the larger machinations of the narco-state. The kingpin strategy employed by the US and Mexican authorities to target cartels via their leaders failed miserably. As cartels evolved from mini-monopolies to institutional organisations, a top-down approach did not work.
While the authorities were busy removing kingpins, groups fractured and new ones emerged. Smaller gangs and local militias began to gain more power. Older cartels expanded internationally and decentralised. Sinaloa, El Chapo’s cartel, now has a presence in 54 countries. Its money laundering network spans industries ranging from dairy to banking to manufacturing and distribution.
Corruption in Mexico happens at a lower level amongst police and politicians who give safe passage to cartels in return for hefty pay-outs. Guzman is only just the face of the operations.
Similarly, the election of a tough-on-crime president in Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who took office in December 2018, had close to no effect on drug violence and crime. Corruption is institutional in nature, and the cartels have learnt to use that to their advantage.
If Justice Isa was right, the ascendancy of President Lopez, or the removal of El Chapo would have a definitive impact on the operation of drug cartels. The reality is, however, quite different. Experts say that Mexico’s anti-corruption efforts have been unsuccessful, and homicide rates continue to hover around record levels.
The right approach to institutional reforms
The first and most important step in reforming our institutions is to recognise that the issue is in fact institutional in nature.
Multiple narratives have been created over the years to explain Pakistan’s economic and governance woes. In an excellent essay written for the Woodrow Wilson Centre, Dr Ishrat Husain explains how factors such as security and terrorism, inflows of foreign assistance, preferences for military rule, the external economic environment, and the diversion of public expenditure have all been used as scapegoats to explain Pakistan’s economic downturn in recent decades.
While they may have played some role, according to Dr Husain, “they were not the main detriment of this poor performance. The answer to this riddle lies in the institutions of governance.”
Governance is directly linked to institutions. According to a World Bank study, governance is defined as “all aspects of the exercise of authority through formal and informal institutions in the management of the resource endowments of a state”.
Therefore, weak institutions lead to poor governance, which leads to poor economic growth. An IMF study found that governance had a statistically significant impact on GDP and income per capita. Similarly, research reveals that economic and social reforms will not have their intended effect unless they are preceded by institutional reforms.
Unfortunately, Pakistan performs poorly on all indicators of strong institutions and good governance, which include income inequality, GDP, and income per capita, workforce skills, inclusiveness, economic opportunities, and access to institutions that deliver public goods and services.
Dr Husain argues that poor governance manifested in weak institutions is the predominant explanation for the unsatisfactory economic and social performance of Pakistan over the last quarter of the century. He adds that the quality, robustness, and responsiveness of institutions of governance must be improved in order to ensure that economic and social policies can translate into a rise in incomes and equitable distribution of benefits.
Road to recovery
Banking on his years of experience and expertise, Dr Husain proposes a practical long-term reform agenda focused on certain essential ingredients. These include a reform of the electoral process, more intra-party democracy, devolution of power, capacity building of the civil service, overhaul of the whole value chain of the administration of justice, transparency in government affairs, stronger parliamentary committees, and decentralisation of power from the prime minister and provincial chief ministers.
He proposes key institutions that can be restructured and strengthened, as summarised below:
- Institutions associated with market governance — State Bank of Pakistan, Higher Education Commission, Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan, Federal Board of Revenue and the Competition Commission of Pakistan — should have the potential to enable private businesses to operate without hassle or high costs of transactions in a competitive environment.
- Institutions associated with the administration of justice — judiciary, police, Federal Investigation Agency, National Counterterrorism Agency and prosecution departments — should have the ability to provide security of life and property to common citizens to ensure expeditious and financially affordable justice.
- Institutions of transparency, accountability, and oversight — parliamentary committees, National Accountability Bureau, Election Commission of Pakistan and Auditor General of Pakistan — should have the ability to take timely action without fear or favour against those indulging in malfeasance, corruption, or the misuse of public office.
- Institutions promoting equity — State Bank of Pakistan, Benazir Income Support Programme and local government — should have the ability to strengthen the capacity of those who do not have the capacity and skills to fully participate in market-based economic activities.
- Institutions associated with the delivery of services — Irrigation Authorities, Urban Development Authorities, National Vocational Council and Technical Education Commission — should have the potential to provide efficient and non-discriminatory access to basic public goods and services such as education, healthcare, water, and sanitation.
- For far too long, sound economic policies in Pakistan have not been properly implemented due to poor institutions and weak leadership. Gaping holes in governance created by underperforming civilian institutions have been filled by the military, allowing them to become a dominant player in public policy making and implementation.
In order to restore the ideal civil-military balance, civilian institutions will have to restore their governance capacity and the military will have to stay within its constitutionally defined limits.
That, combined with institutional reforms, can set us toward a path to recovery. Unless that happens, we will continue to churn out selective reforms that benefit the influential elites, while the gap between the rich and poor continues to widen.
We have reformist plans and ideas. Missing in action is the willpower by those who stand to benefit from the status quo to implement them.