Tuesday, 11 March 2014

A battle of ideologies

For a while a debate has raged in development economics between the 'bottom-up” school (main protagonist: Bill Easterly) and the approach to the “top-down” school (Jeffrey Sachs and the aid agencies). It seems what is happening in Pakistan is providing an ideal experiment to test which of the competing visions is doing better.

As we all know Pakistan is the front-line state in the 'Clash of Civilizations'. Within Pakistan, too the war is about Islam and What it means for Pakistan.

Both sides hang on to shreds of evidence to prove their case. Truth is there are 2 competing visions of Pakistan and the contest is heading towards the finish line and it seems that the Islamic side is winning.

Those on the liberal side perhaps in recognition of their weakness are getting increasingly shrill--in oped pieces and talk shows-- “begging for the army to save them”.  All they want is some force whoever it might be to go out and fight for them and their lifestyle.

History shows that nations are driven by shared visions that are often created by public intellectuals. Make no mistake Pakistan is no different! The 2 sides are competing for how what kind of a state Pakistan will be in the 21st century and what role it will play on the global scene.

Both factions have worked hard for their cause and both have had their backers and funding sources. Why is one losing and the other winning?

The Islamic lobby has been fighting for its vision of a traditional Islamic state distinctly different from  the current concept of a modern globalized state, offered by the West and now widely accepted by most. While some want a harsher form of Islam and some somewhat benign, there is reasonable convergence on gender roles and the dominance of clerical vision.

The Islamic lobby has been gained ground over the years. They have been amply funded by various agencies in the Islamic world although not openly. But more importantly a large proportion of their funding comes from private sources.

In contrast the liberals vision has been formed by funding on aid agencies. The vision is that of a welfare state keeping the current structure intact. Their vision is social protection—handouts for the poor—and the widespread provision of poor quality education and health. For this they repeatedly ask for more taxation and better tax collection. The rest of society with all its rent-seeking and elite-preservation structures are largely left untouched. The approach is one of handouts not opportunity.

Much of the liberal funding comes from foreign governments. Most of them have had numerous study grants and invitations to foreign conferences for their ideological development. Conferences, and projects provide funding for the propagation of these ideas. A large number of foreign consultants are constantly in country while many more are engaged outside for the ideological development of this vision of the welfare state.

Funds are available for many activities and the might of the west is behind this battle. They even run advocacy programs for education, media development, mother and child care, civil society development and so on. Social re-engineering of all sorts is planned for by donor agencies.

Despite all this funding, the western more modern vision which many will agree is more desirable is failing losing out to the Islamic vision. Why?

The answer may lie in the funding modalities. The Islamic vision “bottom-up” objective based delivery is being funded on a decentralized basis with committed people and a clear goal. Diverse funding sources are seeking to fund small projects like madrassahs or some local welfare organization without micromanaging modalities and instruments, seeking only the goal of propagation of the ideology. As a result committed recipients self select themselves for opportunities to be innovative and original in their delivery of objectives.

Quite the opposite, the approach of international aid that funds the western vision is “top-down” closely-monitored, fully pre-programmed with no role for any innovative local committed individual.  Programs originate in distant offices and are fully designed and managed from there.  Local professionals are all suspect and have only a supporting or as they call it an “implementation” role. They have little latitude for initiative or innovation. International consultants are always controlling the design of the program through constant monitoring and evaluation.

Despite this over-design of projects, numerous donor evaluations have noted that their well funded projects are failing to achieve their objectives. It is also immediately obvious looking at either macro-data or the MDGs that donor funding has largely failed to achieve its objectives.

Like elsewhere the poor of Pakistan are looking for hope from the state. They trusted the technocratic donor funded vision for decades only to be disappointed. It is not that they are fundamentalist but they are looking for something that will give them hope. The failure of the liberal technocratic vision leaves only one alternative. And those people with their 'bottom-up” approach are closer to the poor, more committed and capable of responding to their needs without lengthy approvals from distant capitals.

It is sadly obvious to most of us living here that the “bottom-up” approach is more successful.  Some day perhaps aid will fund an unbiased study to collect harder evidence and reform itself in its light.