THREE beliefs about Pakistan’s destiny trouble patriotic Pakistanis deeply. A review of each belief seems timely. The first, based usually on comparing Pakistan’s lower-middle-income development status inappropriately with advanced rather than peer countries, is that Pakistan has done extremely poorly.
Independent sources show that among eight Saarc peers, Pakistan ranks second after India economically despite the higher per capita income of Bhutan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Among 40-plus non-oil-rich ummah peers, Pakistan ranks among the top five to six economically, behind Malaysia, Turkey, Indonesia etc., but ahead of high-income Lebanon.
However, exports-wise, it rivals poor countries. It is also performing poorly overall economically since 2007 even among peers. On social development, Pakistan rivals low-income countries and on security is among the most dangerous countries presently. This contrast between economic, social and security indicators reflects elitist and erroneous policymaking, especially under unelected regimes. Overall, this track record should invoke neither pride nor complete despair.
Political collapses usually occur in undemocratic states.
Patriotic Pakistanis may reject these comparison countries and argue (the second belief) that had Pakistan had sincere leaders, it would have rivalled South Korea given both countries’ similar initial per capita incomes. However, is it just bad luck that Pakistan got bad, but Korea good, leaders? The focus on good leaders is correct but decontextualised.
Progress does come from sound policies adopted by effective leaders. However, both emerge from strong, people-oriented institutions, which emerge from relatively egalitarian societal structures developed gradually over time.
Besides per capita incomes, one must consider the differences on those societal structures which determine the quality of governance that emerges nationally at a given time. Those governance-determining endowments are less obvious but more binding than economic endowments. Not just Pakistan but dozens of developing countries with initial per capita incomes similar to East Asian countries but weaker governance- determining endowments have developed less rapidly.
Patriotic Pakistanis voice the third, rapidly spreading, belief: given its current mess and mal-governance, Pakistan faces imminent collapse which only a technocratic government can forestall.
Predicting state failure is difficult. The US-based Fund for Peace’s Failed State Index (renamed the Fragile State Index) has placed Pakistan around rank 10 since 2006-07, supposedly dangerously perched near collapse. Yemen, Syria and Libya were ranked around 20th, 40th and 120th then. Today, they have collapsed while Pakistan, still ranked 10th, limps along!
Faced with multiple, grave challenges since 2005, Pakistan has shown more resilience against collapse than many countries facing lesser problems. This does not make Pakistan eternally collapse-proof, but does mean that collapse prophecies should include stronger evidence-based analysis.
Political collapses usually occur in undemocratic states, when militants capture large territory. Taliban ‘conquests’ peaked under Musharraf, but today they hold isolated pockets. While their striking capacity remains intact, nobody seriously thinks they can recapture large territories, despite IS support. Economic collapses occur due to Zimbabwe-style continuous 25-30pc annual fiscal deficits and hyper-inflation; 1997-98 East Asia-style private-sector foreign loan overexposures and currency collapses; or USSR-style prolonged negative growth. None seems imminent in Pakistan today.
Their likelihood actually decreased given reducing inflation and increasing foreign reserves due to falling oil prices and PML-N half-measures.
Thus, advocacy for technocratic governments is misguided. Ironically, Pakistan collapsed in 1971 after 20 years of non-democratic techno-military governments, despite their supposed economic miracles. If inegalitarian societal structures produce self-serving political institutions, those structures will invariably also produce self-serving military, religious and bureaucratic institutions. Expecting them to provide better leadership is futile. Better leadership emerges through democracy as social structures change gradually.
Pakistan is not facing imminent collapse but is certainly deeply fractured and experiencing titanic institutional, ideological, sectarian, class, gender and ethnic struggles. Countries develop rapidly after resolving such struggles amicably. These struggles are Pakistan’s biggest challenge rather than the techno-managerial tasks that techno-military regimes excel at.
It would be dishonest to claim that democracy (or even technocracy) will help improve overall governance immediately. However, even flawed democracy is better at resolving such struggles and keeping Pakistan intact than unrepresentative regimes that exacerbate societal conflicts.