Happy Birthday, Pakistan
How should one celebrate the birthday of a 64-year old, which suffers from multiple serious failures of vital organs and is on its death bed according to some western doctors? A well-wisher would still throw a party to cheer up the patient, for this may actually help improve its condition. A sensible well-wisher would probably also request a doctor to review the patient’s ailment history/causes, present condition and future prognosis. As a well-wisher, the LUBP has requested me to undertake this diagnosis, while it arranges the party to celebrate Pakistan’s 64th birthday.
How did Pakistan get to its present sorry state? Two popular schools of thought exist to explain this phenomenon. The first links the current mess to bad leadership. If only we had better leaders we would be another South Korea, this school laments. “It’s the leadership, stupid,” its sages pontificate. And their diagnosis is actually quite accurate at a certain level, for poor leadership over the decades, under both dictatorship and democracy, has inarguably been Pakistan’s constant, incurable headache.
My main quarrel with this diagnosis is that it correctly identifies the symptoms and not the deeper root causes. Merely lamenting about bad leadership is not helpful—one must understand and explain its occurrence and treatment. People complain as if the consistently bad leadership is just pure misfortunate—something that has descended from the skies by bad luck on an otherwise sterling society. However, leadership emerges from within society. If a country experiences one or two bad leaders, it makes sense to blame bad luck. However, bad luck cannot explain a never-ending series of bad leaders. There have to be deeper, underlying causes, rooted in the nature of the Pakistani society, for this long sequence of events.
This last sentence unfortunately also provides fodder for the second school of thought. It claims that Pakistan’s current condition (including the bad leadership) is due to, and in fact is deserving punishment for, the widespread deterioration of morality among common people throughout society. If only we had better morals we would be another South Korea, this school laments. “It’s the morality, stupid,” its sages pontificate. Undoubtedly, Pakistan would be a much better place without the widespread corruption, crime and deceit that plague it presently. However, again, these problems are mere symptoms of deeper problems, in my opinion. Moreover, this school is also simplistically prescriptive in its claim that the path to individual salvation in the hereafter and collective national development in the herein lies in each one of us improving our individual morals.
While the first part of the claim is undoubtedly true, the second is dubious, for there is no documented case of a country trailblazing the path of national development based primarily on mass-scale, miraculously simultaneous, individual guilt trips and redemption efforts. History reveals a more complex relationship between morality and national development. Countries manage to develop despite less than sterling morals, as the forces that unleash development (technology, knowledge etc.) are strong enough to override the undoubted drag that moral imperfections create in the path of national development. Societal morals ultimately improve as state capacity increase sufficiently to ensure the rule of law.
The root cause of both poor governance and moral imperfections reside in certain congenital dimensions of the structures of Pakistani society. These dimensions include enormous identity-based (ethnic, caste etc) fissures; overconcentration of economic and political power in the hands of a tiny elite consisting of landlords, generals and traditional businessmen; an absence of long history as an independent state; low educational attainment and low incomes. The combined wisdom of the social sciences suggests that countries which start with these characteristics suffer from strife, poor governance and lack of development for long. Thus, analysts are predicting the same fate for South Sudan—the latest “kid” on the block. These dimensions constituted Pakistan’s birth conditions. As such, heretical though it may sound to suggest such a dim initial fate for a supposedly divinely mandated country, these conditions meant that Pakistan, like dozens of post-colonial, developing countries, was destined to struggle for long right from the start. External factors combined with these internal factors to make things even worse. Most important of these was the Cold War which strengthened the US-Pak military nexus and ultimately led to the Soviet Union’s fateful invasion of Afghanistan, whose after-effects blight Pakistan even today. In other words, what has happened in Pakistan over the last 60+ years is not surprising but very much in line with its conditions of origin. The two schools of thought mentioned earlier, focusing perhaps on some of its congenital assets (such as natural resources and small but educated and industrious middle class), will disagree ferociously and may even point to Pakistan’s good early performance. However, the initial liabilities were always much greater than the assets. They just kicked in a little later than the assets.
However, fortunately, there is a brighter side to things. Since 2007, numerous western scholars have been constantly declaring Pakistan a failed state and writing its epitaph. There was perhaps some justification for these dire predictions back in 2007-08 when the extremists, just “60 miles away”, were breathing down Islamabad’s swan-like neck and the economy was starting to tailspin. However, extremists are no longer advancing now but are barely clinging on to their past gains. While they are far from finished as a serious threat, clearly they no longer threaten to capture power in Pakistan. Even suicide attacks are on the decrease. Economically, last year was Pakistan’s worst in a long time. However, even here, Pakistan’s economy exhibited remarkable resilience by still churning out a modest positive overall and per capita growth rate (and in the process becoming a middle-income country) despite facing more complex and serious challenges than almost any other country in the world. Weaker countries have experienced double digit negative growth rates even in the face of fewer, less serious problems. Some of the challenges that beset Pakistan’ economy last year, such as the massive floods, will likely not be around to the same extent in the coming years. Thus, the worst is probably behind us both economically and with respect to extremism, although serious challenges still remain to be tackled. However, the chances of an imminent state collapse in Pakistan are almost zero now, in my analysis.
The structural factors mentioned earlier are also showing gradual signs of change, heralding better times in the long-run. Educational and income levels have increased significantly since 1947. Ethnic fissures remain but a sense of Pakistani nationhood is also taking hold. Finally and most importantly, newer forces are starting to emerge from the middle class to challenge the status-quo forces. In fact, much of the strife and uncertainty in Pakistan today is due to this struggle between newer forces and the old guard. There is no guarantee that the newer forces will prevail. However, if history is one’s guide, then one can take comfort in the fact that these status-quo forces have ultimately capitulated in numerous places globally. Thus, there is no guarantee but still a fairly good chance that the same will happen in Pakistan.
But enough of the diagnosis as it now time for the fun and the party to start. Happy birthday Pakistan and many, happier, returns of the day!
The writer works as a Research Associate on political economy issues at the University of California, Berkeley. email@example.com.