On failure: reply to Bilal Lakhani

On Failure!

Bilal Lakhani wrote a poignant and painful piece on how we failed our forefathers. 

His questioning has been visited by abuse and derision. He has been accused of being unpatriotic, pessimistic and even worse un-Pakistani. I share the pain of youth crying out for answers.

Pakistani youth like youth everywhere wants to achieve, compete, and prove themselves worthy of being global citizens. Unfortunately, they find that channels, forums and institutions to foster their ambitions missing. 

Bilal is correct, raising questions asking for a debate is not condemning Pakistan. The strength of advanced societies is their ability to foster debate even on uncomfortable issues. The long and emotional debate on civil rights did much to mend the race problem in the US. Critics from within like Noam Chomsky, Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Emile Zola have evolved society in a better direction. Such thinking should be fostered and intelligently debated. 

Pakistan reacts emotionally to the word “failure”. So let us stay away from it. But no one can say we have no problems with terrorism, poor governance, corruption, crony capitalism, violence, sectarianism, poverty and many, many other social and economic problems. Any one growing up in this environment is likely to feel sad and lose hope. 

What do we offer youth? Ill though out inventive packages where they have to show guarantors and invest money in highly risky environment with a high cost of doing business. Surely that is window dressing. 

What does youth need? The Greeks had it figured out. Why can’t we? Youth is full of vitality. They need to compete. They need challenges: the Golden Fleece, 7 labors etc. They do not want handouts. They want to show themselves worthy. 

Following the Greeks today in the world, youth is offered many more challenges not just in sports but in academics, entrepreneurship, trading etc.  Examples of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs etc. are well known.  These young adventurers gave us so much. How did that happen? It was a combination of first rate universities, generously endowed by both state and business, an open society which cherished eccentricity, a vibrant, agile market and dense, diverse cities. 

Gone are the days of rigid hierarchical societies where age and rank was respected. In all countries the average age of leaders in all fields from academics to presidents is dropping. Obama had become president when he was 47. 

The key word here is “merit”. Modern day society has mimicked ancient Greece and Rome again and rediscovered merit. Whether you compete in a tournament or in the market place or even in a corporation, age and family do not matter. Ability and merit is all that counts.

Modern society is also much flatter than traditional society. Protocol and hierarchies have been discovered to be shields against merit and ideas. There talented young people do not have to waste their youth waiting to grow old, lose their vitality to be heard or given responsibility.  

What frustrates youth here is the lack of opening which a merit and competition allows. Government dominates market and society stifling merit and all good things. Government is organized for power and privilege and not merit and service delivery. It is hierarchical and totally no merit. All it can do is offer youth these ill-thought out non-workable incentive schemes. 

The poor quality of governance has also created a rent seeking private sector that is opposed to merit and competition. Here monopolies hide behind SROs and government enforced cartels. Here entrepreneurship is made well-nigh impossible.  

We need a large and long reform effort to restructure and reform government, private sector and society.  The Framework for Economic Growth at the Planning Commission developed the beginnings of such a reform effort in 2011. It envisaged reform of for quality governance, vibrant markets, creative cities and youthful communities. Sooner rather than later we should start taking such reform seriously so that the reform to bring merit and competition into the system is put in place.

Reform efforts in most countries follow ideas that thought leaders have developed and debated. Most societies have forums such as think tanks, research universities, and professional associations that facilitate discussion and debate on the future. These are generously funded by the government and the private sector.  Why both these would rent seeking agencies fund change here? We have seen their unimaginative, hierarchical attempts at development and progress which have only laid the foundation for fundamentalism. 

Unfortunately, our leadership both government and private sector would rather spend all their time getting GSP+ rather than engage in domestic reform. Their priority is to preserve the current stifling system.

Perhaps Bilal you can help galvanize a debate on reform. It is long overdue!

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