A State of Denial, An Absence of State

This evening, I read a column by Murtaza Razvi in Dawn of Pakistan touching on how Pakistanis, and the Pakistani government in particular, have been living in a state of denial on many issues confronting the country for far too long now. The wholly article is worth reading and indicative of the thinking of a segment of Pakistani elites who recognize the problems that Pakistan faces. Its leader are in a state of denial and the real problem is an absence of the state in critical areas.

Firstly, one must note the withering away of the state's writ, not only in Fata, Swat and Balochistan but all around. Like everything else that is so rotten and bad with us now, this trend could also be blamed on Gen Musharraf's eight long years in power, and perhaps justifiably so. In the big cities crime is rampant and terrorists strike at will. The flaring up of ethnic tensions in Karachi which left a number of people dead recently, and terrorist assaults on the Sri Lankan cricket team and a police training school in Lahore in March as well as the recent bombings in Peshawar are but obvious examples.

Lastly, it is the absence of governance which dogs the current dispensation. Living in denial of the many differences the coalition partners have on national and on inter-party issues has delayed the task of effective governance. One lesson that the PPP must learn from its experience of falling out with the PML-N is that reneging on promises will not win it or the country any respect. It's time to fulfill rather than delay delivering what it promised the people, which is decentralisation of executive and fiscal powers, leading to provincial autonomy.

I read this and as a Colombian I can relate. In Colombia for too long we too were in a state of denial and it took some time before we realized that answers to our problems were extending the state to areas where it was noticeably absent. Let me first dispense with the fiction that Plan Colombia has been a success.  If the goal was to reduce drug trafficking, then Plan Colombia has been a resounding failure. What saved Colombia was the 1991 Constitution.

We went from being a country where Bogotá decided everything to being a country where political power was diffused and dispersed. Decentralization saved Colombia. It's likely part of the solution for Pakistan.

Not to minimize the accomplishments of Alvaro Uribe but he is not the primary mover of Colombia's step back from the brink. President Uribe deserves credit for modernizing Colombia's armed forces and for a strategy that took the war to the FARC. Nonetheless, the limits of that strategy are all too evident now. The FARC has been reduced to some 8,000 fighters and it is not likely that Uribe's strategy can deliver a final blow as long as the drug avenue can finance their sustainability. This is why Plan Colombia can not work. The solution in Colombia is no longer a war strategy but a peace strategy.

Colombia was embarking on change well before on Alvaro Uribe arrived at the Casa de Nariño as President in 2002. In the early 1990s, Daniel Samper Pizano remarked that Colombians were pájaros en sus jaulas, birds in their cages, and the cages were well rather abysmal. Bogotá and Medellín were horrendous places leading the world only in homicide rates. There was not much to be proud of really. The 1991 Constitution sparked a change because for the first time ever, Colombians could directly elect their mayors and governors. And more than anyone, it has been the mayors who have changed Colombia. Largely because they made Colombian cities livable and sustainable. Bogotá today boasts the world's best bus system for example.

It is perhaps coincidence but two of the mayors that have had the most impact are a) not traditional politicians and b) mathematicians. Somehow I am sure it was the former that has mattered most. In Bogotá, Antanas Mockus served two terms as mayor. Here's a brief overview of his tenure:

A Colombian mathematician, philosopher and politician, Antanas Mockus left his post as vice-chancellor of Colombian National University in Bogotá in 1993, and proceeded to preside over Bogotá as mayor for two eventful terms. His surprising and often humorous initiatives tended to involve grand gestures, often including local artists or personal appearances by the mayor himself - taking a shower in a commercial about conserving water, or walking the streets dressed in spandex and a cape as Supercitizen. Mockus hired 20 mimes to control traffic and poke fun at traffic violators - a program so successful that another 400 mimes were quickly trained. He also initiated a 'Night for Women,' on which the city's men were asked to stay home for an evening to look after the house and the children. The city sponsored free open-air concerts, bars offered women-only specials, and the city's women police were in charge of keeping the peace. Under his leadership, Bogotá saw remarkable improvement across the board - water usage dropped 40%, the homicide rate fell 70%, and traffic fatalities dropped by over 50%, to mention only a few.

A women's bar night out isn't likely to work in Pakistan. But one thing Mockus also did was to create a Bogotá 110% Club where citizens were encouraged to pay 10% more in taxes and then determine how that money could be spend. By the end of his second term, the city collected more than three times the revenues it had garnered in 1990. In Pakistan, tax compliance is fairly low. Only 50% of the registered persons and businesses file monthly tax returns. Increasing revenue is of paramount importance for the bankrupt Pakistani state but the first step must be to root out corruption. Tax revenues have a way of increasing when people feel that their money is being well spent and not pocketed. Mockus invested in the neighborhoods. Citizens quickly saw a return on their investment and this spurred the increase in tax receipts.

Then there is Sergio Fajardo who just completed a four year stint as mayor of Medellín. Dr. Fajardo, who boasts a PhD from the University of Wisconsin, had also never run for office until 2003 when he ran for mayor. He now leads in the polls as the heads on favorite in next year's Presidential elections.

From a 2007 Newsweek interview. Notice the answer he gives right out of the gate on the first question.

When you took over as mayor in 2004, what were the most critical problems facing the city?

Sergio Fajardo: I walked Medellín from end to end to get a clear conception of its problems, going house to house and talking to people. The first problem was inequality, and to start working toward equality you must improve education--public education. Public education must be the motor of social transformation. The second problem was violence. Everyone in Colombia today has lived in a violent society, but in Medellín we had a particular kind of violence because of drug trafficking. It is a violence with deep roots, and it has profound effects on a society, and it is a kind of violence that no other place in the world has the same experience of. But we have had results here. In 1991 there were about 6,500 murders in Medellín--381 per 100,000 inhabitants. Last year, 2006, approximately 700 murders--about 29 or 30 per 100,000 inhabitants. That is less than all other comparable cities in Latin America. My approach was to treat these challenges like math problems.

What was your formula?

Pragmatism built on basic principles, like math. We had to reduce violence, but every reduction in violence we had to follow immediately--and immediately is a key word--with social interventions. The order is important. Social interventions require time and resources to work, so they will have little effect in the midst of such profound violence. It is true that you must have effective social interventions to make sure violence does not return, but first you must do something about violence. I never before in my life thought that I would work closely with the police or that I would call for more police on the streets. But you need security for democracy, and for that we needed more police--as long as they were police who respected human rights, and out of conviction, not just because Human Rights Watch tells them to. Now the police force is the pride of Medellín.

Everyone in Medellín seems to disagree about where you fall on the ideological spectrum--left, right, center. How do you describe your governing philosophy?

We have broken the traditional structure of politics here. In 1999 I got together with 50 people, friends, from different arenas--academia, cultural organizations, social organizations, NGOs, business--all of whom were, in one way or another, interested in working for the city. We realized that we could work, talk, dream, but to really do anything we had to go into politics, because politicians are the ones who have power. So after many years of being outside of traditional politics, we built an independent civic movement. As a mathematician, I think in terms of axioms on which we can construct everything else. And that is how I came up with a proposal for the city. I don't define myself as liberal or conservative, left or right. Those old classifications don't mean anything today in Colombia. Now I can explain why public education must be the engine of social transformation, or why we have to work for equality in order to improve growth, and a conservative person can listen to me and see a lot of reason in what I say. That is what we have achieved: creating a new space to work together. It is a civic philosophy for the 21st century.

How did you go about improving education in the city?

We had to have a comprehensive approach. It is not just about schools. It is about the whole life of a society. And I should emphasize: it is about making public education good, not privatizing education. We went school to school, classroom to classroom, designing and carrying out "quality pacts." We mobilized everyone--business leaders, universities, private schools--to start working in the public education system. We increased spending on education to 40 percent of the municipal budget. We also built a lot of new schools and five "library parks" in the poorest neighborhoods in the city. These are not just libraries; they are community centers, the new axis of the neighborhood. And we made sure that they were beautiful, with spectacular architecture.

Some of your critics accuse you of wasting money on fancy new buildings that do more for your image than for poor communities or poor students.

People who say that a beautiful building doesn't improve education don't understand something critical. We have to build Medellín's most beautiful buildings in the places where there has never been a real state. The first step toward quality education is the dignity of the space. When the poorest kid in Medellín arrives in the best classroom in the city, there is a powerful message of social inclusion. That kid has a newfound self-esteem, and he learns math more easily. If you give the most humble neighborhoods beautiful libraries, you make those communities proud of the libraries. That is powerful. We are saying that that library or school, with its spectacular architecture, is the most important building in the neighborhood. And it is sending the rest of society a very clear message of social transformation, but of social transformation without rage. This is our revolution. The most powerful people see us focusing on the most humble, and they are supporting us--that is an important achievement.

If Colombia is succeeding, it is because of men like Antanas Mockus and Sergio Fajarado who recognize the problem in Colombia as being an absence of state in critical areas. They first quelled the violence and then extended the presence of the state into areas where the state had a minimal presence if any. In Medellín, Mayor Fajardo did this by building five world class library parks that more than just libraries, they are community centers. Each center boast a library, a free Internet hall, a day care center, a job training center, a community-run bank and a micro-finance lending agency that is run by the community itself. It is a conception of state that has a real significance for the people it serves. These majestic structures are in poor neighborhoods. It would be like placing a building akin to the Guggenheim in Bedford-Stuyvesant. But the project has worked. The homicide rate in Medellín has gone from being the highest in the world to being below-average for Latin America.

Whether this approach can work in Pakistan is another question. Pakistan is not Colombia. For starters, Colombia is much more developed. The Colombian elite is much more politically diverse and better educated. Pakistan's problem remains a problem of its elites some of whom retain a feudal mentality. Neither Zardari nor Sharif inspire much confidence to be frank and I doubt either one of them will be recorded in the history books of the future as the saviours of Pakistan.

But Pakistan also has a centralization problem. Too much power is concentrated in Islamabad. If Pakistan is to survive, power must be devolved to its regions and expenditures in education have to double as percentage of GDP from 2.6%. In Colombia, 5% of GDP is spent on education and 89% of children attend primary school. Increasing spending on education is step one to reversing systemic inequality and ending endemic poverty. That is a lesson that we in Colombia have learned and it is one that Pakistanis better learn quickly if their country is to survive.

Tags: elites, governance, Modernization, pakistan, US Foreign Policy (all tags)



Cash for Clunkers

I feel pity for Pakistanis and those who live in Pakistan. If all their leaders are in a state of denial and the real problem is an absence of the state in critical areas, what could be the future in its state? I do believe that one state could survive if there are cooperation between government and its people. But if their leaders are in denial state I don't think they would overcome all their national issues. In relation to state issues, just recently, President Obama's has a program to be implemented called "Cash For Clunkers". It appeared to be a promising plan to spur new car sales by enabling car dealerships to take in older cars at better trade value. It is economical and environmental since it promotes getting rid of old, non-green vehicles. Also, the program is likely to be included with a further climate change bill, aimed to reduce carbon emissions and perhaps institute cap and trade legislation. A healthier earth is fast becoming a priority among the industrial nations. The Cash for Clunkers program is almost like a cash advance and cash repair for mother earth.

by NolanH 2009-05-12 12:20AM | 0 recs
very interesting post

Thanks for this.

by John DE 2009-05-12 10:15AM | 0 recs

When Obama talks about bi-partisanship I bet he has something like what Fajardo managed. While Bush was right in his complaints that the media was ignoring the fact that life went on in Iraq, markets were shopped and schools attended even during the violence of the times, yet also was he wrong.

So while my image of Columbia has been in a frozen-time-warp state, one where FARC kidnappings and drug war violence dominates, and I too can complain that the media has not served me well, it is a progressive media to which I must complain.

The picture I am now getting from you is one where FARC has morphed from a Che to a Mugabe and where progressive decentralization and dispersment of political power has occurred during the day to day life that has gone on in front of a backdrop of a U.S. propped-up drug war. Such a situation cries out for a real "free" trade arrangement with Columbia.

That's a bit of a ramble, sorry.

by Jeff Wegerson 2009-05-12 06:38PM | 0 recs
Re: Fascinating

I am not suggesting that Colombia is out of the woods. Poverty remains deep and endemic. That said, decentralization provided an opening for progressives leading "independent civic movements" to take power in some cities. And it has been the cities that have taken the lead in redefining the norms that govern society.

Fajardo and others circumvented the "traditional" parties. And the aim is to change the way people view the concept of the state.

by Charles Lemos 2009-05-12 09:24PM | 0 recs


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