Monday, 18 November 2013

Horton hears a who

Horton hears a who

Nadeem Ul Haque

As Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission I struggled with a mindless Finance ministry focused on dumb budgetary arithmetic to put economics and policy into the cabinet and ECC. I soon learnt that there is no economics anywhere in government. Much worse, the country seems to have lost economic thought.

Economics has become simple homilies like "increase revenues", "educate all",, "build social sectors", "control fiscal deficits",  "increase exports", "trade with India", "get more aid". What is common in all these so called economic narratives is that they are all wishes. And there is no analysis telling us how.  So wishing has become economics from the columnists to the government to the cabinet table and the ECC.

So where are the thinkers, the professional economists who are supposed to keep us honest through research, translating the knowledge of the world to us. Sadly, the few that get trained have no place in the country. Ministries don't want them, universities offer them cheap jobs merely for low level teaching.  If there is any place in this country for such people to hide it is in donor offices. There they serve in positions that report to junior officials in embassies or donor agencies or their contractors, consulting firms. There only option is to run the agendas given to them. They cannot be independent analysts. Of course we are very happy to see them leave the country.

Those who hang around universities playing at being professors, learn soon enough that there is no funding for independent research. Dumb budget management led by a broken ministry of finance with big ego, politically-ambitious finance ministers has eroded the demand for research and thinking. Big egos know all. Section officer prepared power points are enough. After all there is no one to challenge them.

Big ego FMs have the donors to do their bidding but often end up doing the letters bidding. . Large donor funds with their refugee academic Pakistani minions are eager to please with reports, presentations, policies etc that might be required to elevate the minister's stature.  Now there is no money for research anywhere in the government.  Besides these junior officials dare not say anything to upset big ego FMs. Moreover, often retired (sometimes even incumbent) secretaries are in the payroll of the donors.

Not surprisingly, there are no public funds available for research. Donors have some funds ostensibly for policy development and capacity building. These funds are used for a) running their own agendas, b) pandering to bureaucrats and ministers, and c) building careers of local donor officials. Of course there is always money available to send minister and secretary on trips overseas. Indeed their children relatives etc can all be funded by some donor funded project.

The poor academic is forced to conform to this environment and work on someone else's agenda. No independent thinking. No chasing hypotheses. No developing and testing theories. The only job is to cheaply, quickly fill out the donor/bureaucratic agendas. Hastily prepared reports are presented in ceremonial conferences where the minister makes a token star appearance and the only role for poor academics is to make a cameo appearance. The conference is a ceremony without thought conversation or debate but it does help big egos and impress distant donor offices.

A serious analyst labors to make good analysis and a good presentation. But the audience is so focussed in the donor/minister/bureaucratic nexus and the continuing game that the poor academic and her serious analysis is never heard.

I have often been in that situation. Analysis surprises this nexus. They have not seen it. They are comfortable in beliefs and wish lists and cliques where Popperian falsifiability is unheard of.

At such occasions Pakistani academics that I have talked to feel like the who in Dr. Seuss' Horton hears a Who. The poor academic can present great analysis but the Hortons (ministers-bureaucrats-donors and their employees) have no way of hearing them. The Hortons are comfortable in their beliefs and continue to gather in these ceremonial conferences to pander to ministers egos and preserve the status quo.

How can the whos be heard. As Dr. Seuss told us if only all the whos can get together in networks which would let out a loud collective yell with a common messages. But with no funding, no physical space, how can they collect to do this?

I tried as the Planning Minister to make a growth center that will allow such networks to be made. But the donor/bureaucrat nexus fought back and the finance minister who would be prime minister was too conflicted to hear the advantages of allowing the whos to collectively think. After all if academic networks are formed they could be competition to the Hortons in ideas for policy. That cannot be allowed.

Great development parable-- that Horton Hears a Who! Dr. Seuss deserves a Nobel.

For those who have not read the book here is a summary from Wikipedia.
The book tells the story of Horton the Elephant who, in the afternoon of May 15 while splashing in a pool located in the Jungle of Nool, hears a small speck of dust talking to him. Horton discovers that the speck of dust is actually a tiny planet, home to a little who community called Whoville, where sub-microscopic creatures called Whos live. The Whos are led by a character known as the Mayor.
The Mayor asks Horton to protect them from harm, which Horton happily agrees to do, proclaiming throughout the book that "even though you can’t see or hear them at all, a person’s a person, no matter how small." In doing so he is ridiculed and forced into a cage by the other animals in the jungle for believing in something that they are unable to see or hear. His chief tormentors are Vlad Vladikoff, the Wickersham Brothers and the Sour Kangaroo. Horton tells the Whos that--unless they end up being boiled in "Beezle-Nut" oil (an extremely dangerous substance that can destroy objects on impact)--they need to make themselves heard to the other animals (what could be the book's most iconic scene). The Whos finally accomplish this by ensuring that all members of their society play their part in creating lots of noise so they are heard by the jungle folks. In the end it is a "very small shirker named JoJo," whose final addition to the volume (namely, a word known as "Yopp!") creates enough sound for the jungle to hear the Whos, thus reinforcing the moral of the story: "a person’s a person, no matter how small."
Now convinced of the Whos’ existence, Horton’s neighbors vow to help him protect the tiny community.