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Realizing Pakistan’s potential

Seventy-five years seems like a long time. Three generations of a family. Time for so much to be achieved – or to be lost. And while the present seems overcast, with the countless challenges we are facing in Pakistan, including the current devastating floods amidst ongoing fears of a deep and debilitating crisis, it is important to remind ourselves that three-quarters of a century isn’t all that much time in the life of a nation.

Pakistan, like many emerging economies around us, is relatively young. Ultimately our potential and promise is just that – our youth. But for this youth to blossom we need to temper it with wisdom and the recognition that change – sustained and meaningful change – requires patience and determination. The same fortitude and foresight that we so willingly show as parents when we sacrifice today to invest in our children so they can have a brilliant future.

So how do we help Pakistan achieve its potential? We have to start by recognizing two things.

First, despite the many emergencies we face – the current floods are a tragic instance of that – only addressing any one emergency is not going to be enough. There is a temptation to think of any one moment, as cataclysmic as it may be, as an exceptional moment. And while I hope that we all do whatever we can to help with the current floods in Pakistan, sadly they, and the economic crisis that is looming, are not going to be rare events. Not only are the current floods partly due to years of neglect and inadequate management, the changing climatic conditions mean we will likely see more of these natural tragedies.

While climate science and policy will help, we ultimately need to build a resilient economy and institutional capacity that can see us through these challenges. And in that sense Pakistan’s challenges have been a long-time in the making. The ailment we suffer is not an acute illness, but a chronic one. And while we may need emergency treatment, our health will only truly improve once we are able to develop and administer longer term remedies.

Second, we need to accept that our problems are not the problems of any one party or leader, the missteps that one government made while others were just fine. Our issues are the result of collective failure that prevented us from truly focusing on the future. We all share the blame. But we also need to understand that we also all share in taking credit for our successes. Just as our failures are not the result of any one agent, our success cannot be left to anyone savior. We tell stories of Jinnah and Iqbal to inspire, but what made them amazing was not their singular achievements, but the fact that they achieved so much despite their shortcomings, and through the collective energies and efforts of many people. When we wait and want for saviours, we disrespect them, and we disrespect ourselves by taking away our personal and collective agency.

So then how does one take a longer term, structural view and regain agency so we can rely on ourselves to address the current and future crises we may face?

Let’s begin by not complicating the problem we face so much that it becomes unintelligible and unactionable. There is a tendency for experts to use jargon and supposedly sophisticated terminology, but that is often driven more by our own insecurity at revealing our ignorance. At its core, our problem – at least its statement – is pretty straightforward: we have low productivity, in pretty much everything we do. From producing goods and services to natural disaster management to how we contribute to society. And as a result, the solution is just as straightforward: let us work individually and collectively to raise our productivity.

Let me clarify. Productivity is not the same as production. One can increase production by adding more inputs and resources. But that does not necessarily raise productivity (and in fact can sometimes even lower it if we just throw more resources at the problem and not try and get better at solving it). Higher productivity allows one to make more with the same resources (skills, land, capital, etc). So 2 + 2 becomes a lot more than 4. More productive individuals and economies ultimately win out.

For individuals and nations that generate high productivity, financing is never the constraint and outside aid, even in moments of tragedy and natural disasters, is never a necessity. Investors – domestic and foreign – will rush to support them, and local charity will be sufficient to meet crises. More productive people and societies will grow and thrive, despite what political consensus their society may or may not achieve.

So how does one raise productivity? Let me offer three pieces of advice that are feasible to implement and retain our agency.

First, start by raising your own productivity. The economy is nothing more than a collection of each one of us. Whether you are student, a home-worker, a worker in the manufacturing or service sector, someone striving for a charitable cause, whether you are the junior-most employee or the leader of your organization – remember that what you do and don’t do matters! As you are reading this article, take a minute or two, and think of just one thing you can do to raise your productivity.

Perhaps it’s just finding a better time to study, a cooking recipe that allows you to make an even taster (and healthier) dish by using less ghee, a way to leverage your workmates skills so that you can collectively perform your tasks better, or simply asking what someone wants before giving them aid. It doesn’t have to be something big – even a small, seemingly trivial step in the right direction is a great start. And now that you have thought of this one thing, do it! Then, once you have been able to incorporate this (and don’t worry if it takes time – be patient and keep trying), pick another and repeat. Like any good habit, the path to adopting productivity is about regular repetition. For those who are skeptical, you may wonder whether this can ever work. Well, hopefully. But then again, what do you have to lose by trying? It will likely give you something meaningful to do so and perhaps make you do more and better work and be more fulfilled. So why not try?

Second, and now things get a bit harder, help create an environment around you where we expect and encourage each other to be more productive. The good thing is if you followed the first piece of advice, you have already started on the second, since the best way to create such an environment is to role-model it through your own actions. As a parent and teacher myself, I know that children and students learn the most from what they see their parents and teachers are doing.

And next, having demonstrated this through your own behavior, do more. At home, provide the resources to enable productivity and celebrate when others around you become more productive. At work, help and promote others who are working towards raising their own and their team’s productivity. In society, ask our leaders how their policies and reforms will help raise our nations’ productivity, demand they demonstrate whether these efforts increased productivity or not, reward those leaders who helped raise productivity and vote out those that didn’t. Each of these actions may feel hard, but again, once you pause to think, for each one of them there is something – even if it seems small (encouraging a child, helping a workmate in a task, reposting a message about a leader’s reform that was tested) – that you can do. So let’s do it!

Third, and finally, adopt a ‘systems view’ for how we view and conduct reform in Pakistan and in whatever domain (house, work, society) that we can impact. A systems view is fairly simple and intuitive. It starts by recognizing all the relevant actors in an ecosystem, then identifies what obstacles and frictions these actors face, and finally it designs and implements reforms that can alleviate these frictions and tests what impact they had on the ecosystem overall. And it works. Let me give three examples from work I have been doing in Pakistan over the past two decades, from education, civil service reform, and disaster relief.

In education, along with Professors Tahir Andrabi and Jishnu Das, I have spent the past two decades helping raise educational quality in Pakistan through the Learning and Educational Achievement in Pakistan Schools project. The various projects in LEAPS have demonstrated the power of taking a systems view, where we recognize and empower the relevant actors in this space, from parents and students to schools and teachers. In one project, we show that providing village and child-level school report cards to parents leads to greater competition amongst schools raising educational quality and dropping school fees. In another series of studies, we show that addressing financial frictions that public and private schools face can raise school quality. Finally, a number of our studies highlight how educating the teachers of tomorrow, and designing better reward mechanisms for them, can increase educational access and quality.

In civil service reform, we focus on taxation, examining whether tax collectors and taxpayers can be empowered. In one project, we show that rewarding tax-collectors, through different performance-based pay schemes can raise tax collection for multiple years leading to a very high rate of return on this ‘investment’. In a follow-up paper, we find that we can get similar increases without even changing financial compensation of tax collectors. By simply basing their future transfers and postings on past tax collection (ie: top performers get to pick their postings for next year) rather than the usual politically motivated transfers, we are able to raise tax collection. These studies demonstrate that the same supposedly corrupt and lazy civil servants when rewarded justly can raise their productivity. And in an ongoing project, we are empowering taxpayers by linking the taxes they pay to local government spending. We do so by having the same tax-collector directly poll citizens about what specific local needs (sanitation, street lighting, road quality, etc) they have and then ensuring that a fraction of the taxes collected from that neighborhood are spent on addressing these needs.

Finally, in disaster relief, after the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, my colleagues and I helped build RISE-PAK, a disaster management web-portal that takes a systems view on how to coordinate relief. A critical issue in disasters is that there is a need to urgently respond, to identify heterogenous needs, and to coordinate relief across a multiple of providers and hold aid accountable. One needs to figure out how to centrally support what is an inherently decentralized response for all four stages of disaster management: rescue, relief, rehabilitation, and reconstruction.

Our insight was that doing this by trying to have a centralized actor, like NDMA in Pakistan or FEMA in the US, is never going to be sufficient. Instead, a web-portal can enable bilateral and multilateral real time coordination through a unilateral but data-driven and dynamically updating web-portal. The same approach can work in our current floods and any future disasters we may face. My collaborator, Dr Tahir Andrabi talks about this in a recent podcast that is worth listening to.

The point that all three of these examples demonstrate is that a systems approach can work – and in Pakistan.

I realize that many of us are despondent as we face individual challenges and see the plight of people every day, the current flooding being a sad and very tangible illustration of that. Many of us want to and do help. And many find optimism by relying on their faith or simply because there really seems to be no other choice but to hope.

But we need neither be despairing nor naive. We have agency. And we have been granted tremendous blessings. Having experienced several personal losses myself over the past couple of years, I have come to realize that counting these blessings is especially important precisely when we feel all is lost. Because all is never lost. But only if we accept that we are always able to act and bring about positive change. First, to improve ourselves. And then (perhaps only then) to ask the same of others.

Asim Ijaz Khwaja, "Realizing Pakistan’s potential," The News. 2022-09-07.
Keywords: Economics , Economic crisis , Emerging economies , Taxation , Corruption , Accountability , Dr Tahir Andrabi , Pakistan , NDMA , LEAPS