Monday, October 10, 2011

An unresponsive system

* Political will or interest alignment?

Often one hears that the state, though it might hold a position on principle, does not do anything about it because it lacks ‘political will’. When the Supreme Court decision on the Karachi suo moto was being analysed by politicians on various television channels, it was repeatedly said that the solutions had been pointed out but the government does not have the political will to do anything about it.

It is the same with the debate on education. Everybody agrees that all children in Pakistan should get quality education, yet the state is not doing anything about it. The Task Force on Education, set up by government, co-chaired by the Special Assistant to the Prime Minister, had to argue that we need to impose an education emergency and had to resort to innovative marketing methods to reach out.

Why would one part of government have to do this sort of marketing and public cajoling to convince the rest of the government? Especially when rest of the government is also from the same political party, and it was the party head and the president of the country who had set up the task force in the first place? Not that there was any success even after that: we are still going our merry way. But, most people end up saying, the government does not have the political will to change education sector.

Is it really a question of political will? And more importantly, what is political will? Or is it a matter of interests? The players in question, individually and at group level, do not have any interest in addressing these questions. They might find a position morally, socially, or politically difficult to refute and they might, intellectually, agree with it too, and/or pay lip service to it. But if it is not in their personal, class or group interest, will they be willing to spend their effort or political capital on achieving it? For most politicians in Pakistan where it is not a matter of ideology or commitment to common good that makes politicians enter politics or continue in it, it seems private or group interests would trump any public considerations.

When we puzzle as to why the government and elected representatives do not make public schools better and improve quality, the question is why should they? It might be in the public interest, but the children of politicians do not go to these schools, and the politicians also know that it is not by improving education that they are going to be re-elected. It is by appeasing the establishment, getting the right ticket, and/or appeasing some biraderi groups that elections are won. Why should they spend any effort on the public school system? This is not a question of something called political will; it is purely a game of interests.

It is easy for opposition members to blame the government and/or the party in power. But in Pakistan right now, almost all the parties are either in a coalition with the main party or are in power in one of the provinces. Yet, we do not see the game being any different in these provinces too.

If PPP lacks the political will to do anything in education at the centre or in Sindh, what has stopped ANP, PML(N) or MQM from doing things in places where they are in power? Or, given that many school reforms are at the level of school or district and MNA/MPAs get funds for development for their constituencies, what have they done for public schools in their respective constituencies.

Conversations with several MNAs have revealed that they feel that since parents do not come to them articulating the need for improvements in quality of education in public schools, they have no incentive to take anything to their party leaders or do anything about education themselves. But they do agree, and wholeheartedly, that education is important and every child has a right to good quality education.

Given there is little chance that our political system will take a more ideological turn where people and parties will try to get into power to implement a defined and announced ideological agenda, at least in the short to medium run, we have to look to finding ways of how the interests of those in power can be aligned with the interest of the governed.

Elections are definitely a way of creating a feedback loop from citizens to elected representatives on the kind of governance they have been providing. But elections are too infrequent and there are too many issues to really make elections biting for any one issue, unless the issue assumes lexicographic importance in the agenda of citizens. Since there are usually a number of things that citizens care about, for example, infrastructure facilities, health, education, and law and order, periodic elections will not be enough.

What are needed are some other and more frequently available feedback loops between the governors and the governed. An idea that Immanuel Kant also talked about and developed was of public space. He had argued that the newly developing public space, that the civil society (for him civil society was any person who was using public space for public reasons) has, could be a way of providing that loop. Right now our media is probably offering that opportunity, though its usage needs to be improved. More importantly, the same kind of loops need to be created at local levels also, using local media, maybe FM radio channels and other public fora.

The idea of public space and its usage, in the Pakistani context, as a means of providing a feedback loop and connection between the governors and the governed needs more development and we will come back to this issue in subsequent articles. But for the moment, I just wanted to argue for and demonstrate that the talk of political will seems like barking up the wrong tree. The real issue is individual and group interests and their alignment with public interest.