A question of governance By Maleeha Lodhi


WHILE the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage across the world, the faltering response of many governments has sparked a lively global debate about why some countries have effectively managed the crisis while others haven’t.

This has focused renewed attention on fundamental issues of governance. While the jury is still out on how countries have fared, there is considerable evidence now of what it takes to manage competently. Countries with leaders who governed well before the crisis, and were decisive, inclusive and listened to their experts after the outbreak, did much better to contain the virus than whimsical leaders who made policy a hostage to their ego.

The question has also been raised of whether democracies or authoritarian states have managed the crisis better. Illiberal democracies have been identified as among those who have mishandled the response. Gender as a factor in leadership has also been considered with analysts pointing out that many women leaders have outperformed several of their male counterparts. The examples cited are of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

More important than the type of political system or gender is the quality of governance that preceded the pandemic and was tested, as was the leadership, when Covid-19 struck. Able management has been possible under different political systems. But democracies with poor leadership have had no edge over other political systems.

Examples abound. Perhaps the US provides the most compelling illustration of how a country under an erratic leader governing divisively and capriciously made such a mess of its pandemic response. There is consensus among Western opinion makers that President Trump’s inept handling has exacerbated America’s health crisis. Writing in the Financial Times, Martin Wolf argued that the “President and administration neither want to govern nor know how to do so”. Trump became the “embodiment of fierce internal divisions” that played a destructive role during the crisis. David Remnick wrote in The New Yorker that Trump’s stumbling response was no surprise given that even before, his administration was “more interested in setting fires than in investing in fire prevention or containment” — dismantling the “administrative state”, abandoning international agreements and cutting spending on science, health and emergency preparedness. Moreover “expertise offended Trump”.

Other leaders who governed by whim not wisdom or consultation also fumbled badly in the pandemic. These cases confirm a basic fact — that ruling and governing are fundamentally different. Securing the country’s top political office is one thing, but knowing what to do and acting in the public interest quite another.

So, what distinguishes governance from simply ruling a country? What makes for good governance? There are several, often interrelated principles which are generally accepted as contributing to effective governance. Of these four are noteworthy.

The first is having a national vision and a clear road map to govern in the public interest. This entails crafting a national — not polarising — narrative to inspire confidence and elicit public support. Its antithesis is a reactive approach, which lets events drive policy and responds only after a crisis has erupted.

A second principle is inclusive governance, which brings people together and unites the nation behind a chosen policy course. This involves governing by consensus and reaching out to political opponents to build trust — the key to securing compliance from citizens and political actors. It also means shunning partisan politics to achieve national goals.

The third principle is an institutional, not personalised, approach to decision-making and ensuring that any impulsive instincts of a leader are kept in check by laid down processes. Structured governance is predictable and orderly, which by following established procedures enables advice to be systemically received and factored into decision making.

Good governance is, above all, competent government. The fourth principle to achieve this is to seek sound solutions to problems, not bemoan the past and the legacy of challenges a government has inherited. This means a focus on problem solving for the future, not living in the past. It involves valuing expertise in decision-making and listening to others.

How does Pakistan’s current leadership size up against these principles?

As much has already been said about its haphazard response to Covid-19, it is instructive to evaluate its general approach to governance that preceded the pandemic and was subsequently reinforced. From the outset the federal leadership rejected an inclusive approach, preferring to rule unilaterally in excessive partisan fashion, dubbing all non-supporters as unworthy of engagement. This meant losing an opportunity in the ongoing health crisis to unify the country and forge a national strategy by political consent. The government still prefers to only represent its own party supporters rather than the entire country.

Its polarising conduct is demonstrated by its ministers and spokesmen picking daily fights with opponents and so-called mafias. This not only distracts attention from ongoing challenges but also sets up a divisive form of governance. These distractions have meant that as problems have emerged — ranging from shortages of flour, petrol and energy — the government has been behind rather than ahead of the curve in tackling them.

The most stunning example of its missteps has been the irresponsible handling of the PIA pilots affair. Addressing the licence issue did not have to involve destroying the national carrier’s credibility and tarnishing the country’s reputation.

The government’s penchant to constantly blame others for every problem has actually hobbled its problem-solving efforts. Ceaseless references to the conduct of previous governments has mired ruling party leaders in battling the past rather than fixing their minds on the future.

The cult of personality that characterises the government has contributed to the lack of institutional governance while the leader’s dominance has encouraged group think and denuded his government from receiving alternate, expert policy advice. Personalised governance devalues processes through which expert advice is relayed. Despite the bevy of advisers appointed by the prime minister the paradox is how little premium is put on their advice.

In view of this it is not surprising that the image that persists of the government is that it is an amateurish team that endlessly congratulates itself for its competence but has a great deal of ground to cover before the public sees it the same way.