Challenges of Governance in the New Decade

Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, president of PILDAT, talks about Pakistan’s Governance Agenda for the new decade and why we must and persevere it.


Governance and its improvement are of critical importance to Pakistan. Pakistan ranks among bottom one-fifth of over 200 countries and territories of the world in quality of governance on the World Bank Institute’s Worldwide Governance Indicators (WGIs) which measure six dimensions of governance since 1996 and is considered one of the most reliable sources of information on the comparative governance indicators around the world.

The 2020 edition of WGIs depicts the same dismal picture of governance in Pakistan as seen since the beginning of WGIs. Pakistan is placed at 23.15 percentile in Voice and Accountability, which means that around 77 % or more than three-fourth of all countries scored better than Pakistan. In terms of Government Effectiveness, Pakistan is at 25.96 percentile whereas our Regulatory Quality is measured at 27.4 percentile.

Rule of Law is at 26.44 percentile and Control of Corruption at 21.15. Our worst showing is in Political Stability and Absence of Violence where we are placed at 3.33 percentile indicating that 97% countries of the world fare better than us. Pakistan’s performance in all 6 dimensions of governance has also been significantly poorer than the average performance of South Asian Countries. We lag behind India in all 6 dimensions of governance. Even Bangladesh does better than us in 3 of 6 dimensions.

Read more: Borrowed governance system of West not fit for Pakistan

Our record in quality of governance, therefore, has remained consistently disappointing in the past 24 years. This depressing scenario is not specific to WGIs; almost all other governance assessment systems tell a similar tale. How can Pakistan, one of the 7 declared world nuclear powers, afford to continue being so poorly governed? The continued governance deficit in Pakistan is, therefore, a major concern for Pakistanis and our friends around the world.

Why is our governance so poor, and what can be done to improve it? What are our key governance challenges? These are difficult but critical questions as we embark on a new decade in 2021. We need to be ruthlessly honest and candid in answering these questions as these relate to the quality of life of citizens and the security and integrity of the State.

Constitutionalism and the Rule of Law

In looking at governance challenges of Pakistan, one must begin with the most daunting and fundamental challenge which is the root cause of many other issues in the realm of governance. The gap between what Constitution prescribes and what is actually practiced for the past 70 years is our fundamental flaw that has produced catastrophic issues of governance with equally catastrophic consequences.

Read more: Pakistan’s biggest issue is rule of law not corruption

One may call it ‘absence of Rule of Law’ or, as put by the former Chief Justice of Pakistan (January 2019 – December 2019) Asif Saeed Khosa, as ‘encroachment of one institution of the State in the domain of the other’. There are ample instances in our history which indicate a supra-constitutional role of the ‘Establishment’ in the civilian and political affairs of the State.

There are four instances in our history in 1958, 1969, 1977 & 1999, when the Constitution was either abrogated or held in abeyance and Army Chief of the time assumed the position of Chief Executive of the country. Besides these direct interventions, the military has continued to, covertly and overtly, exercise its largely undue influence on affairs of the State that Constitution has defined as belonging to the domain of elected Executive, Judiciary and Legislature. Many instances of these can be quoted but let us look at the prominent few:

  • Ayub Khan, who became the first Chief Martial Law Administrator of the country in 1958 and later got himself elected as President, did not, while resigning under public pressure in 1969, hand over power to the next senior-most civilian official as required by the Constitution, but invited or was forced to invite Army Chief Gen. Yahya Khan to take over the affairs of the State.
  • Confessions by late Lt. Gen. Hameed Gul, former DG ISI (March 1987 – May 1989) to have engineered the formation of an alliance of political parties, called Islami Jamhoori Ittehad or IJI, against Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) and its leader Benazir Bhutto just ahead of 1988 General Election so that PPP may not emerge as a decisive winner in the election.
  • Proceedings of the famous Asghar Khan case in the Supreme Court of Pakistan and the affidavit submitted by Lt. Gen. (Retd.) Asad Durrani, who was DG of MI and then ISI at that time gave details of how funds were illegally secured from banks and then distributed among IJI leaders to influence the outcome of 1990 General Election.
  • Former Chief Justice of Pakistan Nasim Hassan Shah (April 1993-April 1994) has also alluded to the military pressure on judges in one of his television interviews after the retirement.

Some former Prime Ministers have either implied or, in one case, openly stated that either policy choices were imposed on them or a process was set in motion which resulted in their dismissal when they refused to follow the suggested policy direction.

Read more: Learning rule of law from the jungle

This confusion, if one may use the phrase, about who is constitutionally empowered to be the final arbiter on a policy decision, is dangerous and acts as the fountainhead of bad governance. Multiple centres of power are a recipe for disaster where governance is concerned. A State may have a democratic, autocratic or a hybrid system but rules of the game should, in any case, be clear and explicit in the interest of good governance.

The gap between de-jure and de-facto needs to be bridged. The effective rules of the game governing civil-military relations can, however, change only with the voluntary and whole-hearted acceptance of these by the armed forces. First order of the new decade should therefore be to hold a heart-to-heart exchange of views on these issues and agree on new rules of the game which are in full conformity with the Constitution.

Some recent developments have amply demonstrated that it is no more advisable or viable to continue with a practice which is not sanctioned by the basic law of the land. The National Security Committee (NSC), with some special invitees from the opposition parties, offers a reasonably suitable forum to candidly exchange views and reach an agreement. It is a pity that the NSC could not be put to optimum use during the past seven years to resolve these fundamental issues but the resolve for the new year and decade should be to take up the subject in earnest and resolve potential points of conflict at the earliest.

Read more: National Assembly: A platform for misleading the nation?

If we are able to resolve this tricky issue, it will unlock the great potential of the State to address several other key challenges facing the nation such as an almost dysfunctional Parliament which could otherwise be an effective forum to resolve political conflicts and develop national consensus on critical governance issues of high rate of population growth, lack of inter-provincial consensus on developing the depleting water resources, credibility of electoral system and a credible anti-corruption (Accountability) system.

Focus on Economic Development

Economic viability of the State needs to be openly discussed and people need to be taken into confidence about the sacrifices we need to make and hard work that we need to put in to come out of this perpetual dependence on dole, grants, loans and more loans. Political leadership needs to make some difficult decisions and mobilise the nation to work harder, increase production, promote exports, curtail waste and focus on economic development for the next two decades, if not more.

Human Development

Connected to economic development is the human resource development at which we have miserably failed in past decades. Countries with demographic dividend and such a high percentage of the youthful population as ours (64% population below the age of 29 and 30% population between the age of 15 and 29) have taken great economic leaps forward after educating and training their youth. We are about to miss the proverbial train of youth bulge by not providing the young people with the right quality of knowledge and skills. Such a large number of young people, if not provided quality education and gainful employment, can become a huge national liability instead.

Read more: Can Pakistan break away from the cycle of past failures

Devolution as an Ideology

Better governance depends a great deal on devolution of powers and resources from the federal to provincial and from provincial to local levels. Pakistan has successfully devolved powers and resources from federal to provincial in 2010 through the 18th Amendment to the Constitution and 7th National Finance Commission Award. Sadly, the process of devolution has since been stuck at the provincial level. Provinces are dragging their feet at establishing effective and empowered local governments.

Unfortunately, the 18th Amendment did not go far enough in providing an outline of Local Governments in the Constitution which could bind the provinces to an effective devolution process. Fact is that devolution has to be embraced as an ideology at all levels if we wish to strengthen and improve the quality of governance. Pakistan’s Governance Agenda for the new decade is both clear and daunting. But start we must and persevere.

Ahmed Bilal Mehboob is the president of PILDAT – Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency – a think tank working to strengthen parliamentary practices in Pakistan. He has been working for the past 8 years for the cause of democracy and legislative development. He tweets @ABMPildat. Email: Bilal Mehmoob, president of PILDAT, talks about Pakistan’s Governance Agenda for the new decade and why we must and persevere it.

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