A Dysfunctional State

by Saad Hafiz

Pakistan’s societal, economic and political travails place it in a category of deeply dysfunctional and nearly ungovernable states. Generally speaking, dysfunctional states exhibit high degrees of institutional inconsistency, social malaise, ideological confusion, political malfunction and national paranoia. As a consequence, such states are unable to leverage their people’s histories and traditions to construct effective formal institutions with wide legitimacy; nor can they draw on the social capital embedded in cohesive groups to facilitate economic, political, and social intercourse; neither are they able to employ the established governing capacities of their citizens to run the affairs of state.

Moreover, national development is much dependent upon the quality of a nation’s human capital. Dysfunctional states do not invest in human capital—such as better schools and hospitals. They tend to discourage people to look for newer opportunities through investment in innovation and raising productivity. Instead, people are tied down with handouts and subsidies to bloated state enterprises and protected business oligarchies. Additionally, the rent-seeking behavior of the elites, who are notorious practitioners of ‘crony capitalism’ and nepotism, stifles competition and national productivity. The elites tend to control the money and the levers of repression, their natural instinct being to raid, grab and control rather than create and nourish.

Significant factors that contribute to state dysfunction in Pakistan are: (i) chronic levels of crime and unemployment; (ii) pervasive public and private sector corruption; (iii) an institutionalized distrust of the organs of government; (iv) a stuttering economy heavily dependent on foreign aid; (v) the economy remaining on a presumptive war footing which renders it difficult to pursue liberalization and diversification in the globalization context; (vi) the political system functions under the shadow of military power and religious extremism; (vii) the dominance of personality in politics over ideology or policy; (viii) the uneven land and income distribution; and (ix) the feudal or patron-client dynamic in business and politics.

Owing to state dysfunction, Pakistan has witnessed a series of baffling contradictions: a state of political conflict and instability, the politics of alienation, exclusion, and domination, accompanied by an incredible variety of micro-nationalism and pseudo-nationalism; a ‘brain-drain’ of people a state should be most interested in keeping such as entrepreneurs and students; and the search for the existence, establishment and sustenance of a well-rounded, vibrant system of democratic governance.

The alternation of civilian and military regimes, each troubled by internal discord and uncertainty, has been inimical to effective leadership, the consolidation of capable institutions, or the provision of essential public goods. Elected regimes have faltered over precarious institutions, factionalism among elites, and pervasive corruption. Despite their reformist pretensions, military regimes have proven no more capable than the civilians at resolving central challenges of state building and development. The clash between democracy and Islam also resonates in Pakistan today. Democracy, with its stated commitment to liberty, equality and representation seems at odds with an Islamic state and society. As a state at odds with its own identity, Pakistan has struggled to fully establish a brand of democracy to fit the Pakistani context. Pakistan has vacillated between Islam and more secular forms of government, democracy and military rule. State building efforts have been impeded by periodic military interventions and persistent efforts to inculcate Islam in the state and the society. The weakness of central political authority, and the insecurity of rulers, exacerbate social tensions and undermine the state. Not surprisingly, terror groups find Pakistan’s dysfunction particularly attractive, as the shell of state sovereignty protects them from outside intervention, but state weakness gives them space to operate autonomously.

An encouraging recent development in Pakistan has been the gradual strengthening of a political system whose rules allow competition for power and the possibility of alternate groups achieving power within a reasonable period of time. There is a need to foster such a system which allows large numbers and groups to be involved in the selection/election of decision-makers at different levels of the power structure. The issues that matter in this respect are establishing institutions that are free from pressure emanating from the executive or from voters, such as independent electoral commissions, an independent central bank or public protectors, special ministries or dedicated courts to deal with corruption that have an independent autonomy and accountability to parliament and the constitution rather than the executive.

The other related challenge in Pakistan is to reorient and rebuild state apparatuses where predatory, neo-patrimonial governance have held sway. Several important principles are absolutely critical to such a political system: (a) extensive devolution of power; (b) accumulation of wealth through the use of state institutions must be totally forbidden; (c) the principles of good and democratic governance must be fully implemented, i.e., transparency, accountability, independent judiciary and complete civilian control of the military; (d) broad involvement of indigenous independent civil society groups in national and local affairs especially in the monitoring of policy implementation and service delivery. Many developing-country democracies are addressing state dysfunction, by building these institutions—not all at the same speed, independence or strength—and succeeding in enhancing people’s lives.

Comments are closed.