Complacent and satisfied

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Here’s the Pakistani version of the chicken-and-egg dilemma: Which came first, the incompetent and myopic leadership that produced a rotten educational system or the rotten educational system that produced the incompetent and myopic leadership?

This dilemma goes to the root of the malaise that afflicts the political and bureaucratic leadership specifically and all sectors of the Pakistani society in general. Were it not a malaise, fundamental issues mocking Pakistan would have been fairly successfully resolved by now.

Let’s map this failure on the civil and military bureaucratic landscape and handle the intrinsic limitations of the political class at a subsequent stage.

Day-to-day incompetence is tolerable in all societies and cultures — it’s the strategic ineptitude that does us in. But why does this happen? Why is the Pakistani State (inclusive of governments) unable to fix the most basic of elements that require fixing for any nation to progress?

The answers lie outside our comfort zone. So buckle up.

The carnage in Quetta triggered a wave of myopic and — dare I say — hypocritical official reactions. RAW did it, said the tribal chief minister; CPEC was the target, concluded the leadership conclave. None among them paused to consider that after the APS tragedy they had decided not to needlessly externalise an obviously internal problem.

If your average thinking Pakistani can see the obvious, why can’t the leadership?

There’s more. The need to school every single child in this country is as obvious today as it should have been in 1947. Yet it’s not happened, and not even close to happening.

If your average thinking Pakistani can see the obvious, why can’t the leadership?

Stretch the logic further: rule of law and application of merit have become clichés, but neither has become a reality. If it were so darn hard to make these happen, no other country would have done it. Yet, when your average thinking Pakistani can see this obvious need, why can’t the leadership?

Onwards to more essential and elemental reforms and the saga remains equally depressing and perplexing. The blueprint for a progressive, vibrant society remains almost the same across the world — from China to Malaysia to Europe and the United States — and the essential ingredients have not changed since the rise of the modern nation-state. And yet the obviousness of these intrinsic factors is not recognised by the leadership.

Why?

There could be a number of factors explaining this dismal reality, but allow me to zero in on one of them — possibly the most obvious one — that may illuminate the shadowy world of official incompetence: the incapacity of the men and women who constitute the leadership of Pakistan.

Incapacity?

Let’s consider the bureaucracy first: the seeds of mediocrity are sown very early within the leadership cadre. Gone are the days when the best and the brightest students opted for a career in these fields. Since the 1970s the quality of those entering civil service academies has been progressively regressing. Those who end up in these services are more likely than not those who were unable to rise to the merit required for excellence in higher education followed by brilliant careers in the private sector.

The mediocre lot thus gets admitted into these services. These young men and women may have tonnes of God-given intelligence and talent but brought up in a system that provides atrocious education, they start their careers at a huge disadvantage. Most of them are not among the very few who are exposed to the world of ideas and the wonders of critical thinking at this age.

If the schooling of these section officers has been insular, their cocooned life in their respective institutions enhances this insularity. Very few among them get the opportunity to enrich their minds and horizons through reading, scholarship, travel and interaction with diverse peoples, ideas, and multicultural experiences that contextualise issues, themes and policies within a wider global canvas. As these bureaucrats climb up the career ladder they are sucked deeper into the vortex of institutional mediocrity where postings trump policy; conformism slays debate; and compliance culls initiative. Who you know ends up being more important than what you know.

And before you know it, that mediocre kid who could not compete with the best and the brightest in school has now reached the top. He is now making policy that shapes the affairs of the country and the future of those who live in it. But he/she is not fully capable of handling this responsibility because the system — from the education to the career one — has not equipped him to stay plugged into the global mainstream. This poor chap is like the Pakistani athlete in the Olympics — completely unprepared to compete at that level.

And so these individuals with their limited capacity, limited exposure, limited education and a career shaped around pleasing your boss to get the right posting invariably stumble into mega blunders at macro levels. Yes political priorities play a major role, but it is precisely to counter the imbecility of politicians that bureaucracies exist. The United States may end up electing a wild character like Donald Trump but the institutional strength of its system and the nuanced hard-nosed policymaking emanating from its civil and military institutions will keep the President confined with a certain straitjacket.

So we return to our original question: why can’t we solve the basic issues afflicting our society? Part of the answer lies in the inability of our leadership to recognise why these fundamentals should be reformed. Why do we need every child to go to school? Why do we need every single citizen regardless of his status, gender, or religion to be equal before law? Why do we need deep institutional reform, including that of the political and bureaucratic system? Why do we need to understand that China, South Korea, Germany, etc.transformed into powerful and prosperous countries not because they built nice roads but because they engineered their national landscape to produce excellence from their within their citizenry — all of the citizenry and not just the handful who could go to school.

To our men and women within the top echelons of bureaucracy, these obvious ideas may sound like matters of deep philosophy best left to those who are uninitiated in the world of policy. And herein lies the tragedy of a leadership that is unable to rise beyond the limits of a mediocre and petty status quo. It is not that this cadre does not want to reform the system atop which it sits; it is mostly because the majority of these men and women do not have the capacity, the depth, the understanding and the initiative to do what it takes to navigate Pakistan into the global mainstream.

Take your pick then: Which came first, the incompetent and myopic leadership that produced a rotten educational system or the rotten educational system that produced the incompetent and myopic leadership?

Published in The Express Tribune, August 21st, 2016.