The United Nation’s just-released Human Development Report is a surprisingly refreshing read. Quite unlike earlier editions of their annual development-flagship publication, the UN stresses a noticeably higher emphasis on the role of human agency, collective action, role of political struggles, and the role of civil society towards meeting the climate change goals. It’s one thing that its new and improved HDI indicator does not reflect these emphasis points, as highlighted in this space earlier this week, but the failure to track these forces in any development indicator does not discount their importance for any society, developed or developing.
The world as we all know it is changing, and changing fast, especially in the wake of Covid-19, the gale of technology, climate change disasters, international and intra-national inequality. All these realities warrant a stronger role of human agency, collective action, politics, and the civil society across the development spectrum.
Perhaps the single biggest message from the latest UNHDR’s is the role of human agency, not merely in the sense of few changemakers from political, business, bureaucratic and technocratic elite, but more importantly in the sense of wider society at large. Men and women from all walks of life must start volunteering to drive change in organizations, communities, and politics.
Whilst there aren’t any widely agreed upon empirical datasets to support the following observation but suffice to say that Pakistan’s is a disenfranchised society. This observation could be quickly fact checked if one were to assess his/her active involvement in social and political change, and an assessment of their close family and friend networks. Unlike many developed economies and some even developing economies, the pool of social enterprises and private sector individuals volunteering for change runs very thin in Pakistan, almost non-existent.
Perhaps this is because, as the UNHDR report implies, the narrative in Pakistan and other such troubled countries is one where change is expected from the top, as if waiting for a messiah. The narrative that social and political change lies in the hands of people hasn’t yet been popularized or hard wired in the country’s national consciousness. This must change for narratives can be a powerful instrument to mobilize and empower people.
One does not expect all and sundry to become change makers, for of course a poor income has too many people worrying about their next meal and next month’s medical or education bill of their children. But those who have time and money ought to become part of that change, one such way is to support think tanks and other civil society organizations.
Is it not strange that since the donor funding dried up after the interior ministry’s excessive crackdown against international NGOs, the survival of think tanks and policy research institutes have become extremely difficult? Many have in fact shut down, leading to further gaps in research and policy advice towards social and economic reforms. Pakistani businesses don’t support such organisations, nor do high net worth individuals or even members of the middle class.
Must it be so that charity and CSR activities be only construed as feeding a meal or two or providing education to poor children on a curriculum that fits the needs of last century, when in fact changes in policy and law brought about by think tanks and policy research institutes can bring about changes at a massive scale.
Whether the problem is climate change, poverty, inequality, the provision of public goods, or anything else, Pakistan needs change makers who are willing and able to pay the price, financially and sometime non-financial as well. This won’t be possible without the necessary change in narrative. The job of those sitting on the fences is ideally to join them or at least support them vehemently, morally, and also monetarily by crowd funding the organizations working towards social and political change.
As Frances Stewart said, “policy change is the outcome of a political struggle in which different groups (and individuals) provide support for particular changes. In this struggle, uncoordinated individuals are generally powerless”. For Pakistan’s upcoming youth bulge, this maxim should be the guiding light, if they want to live in a better world. For the older generation, the message is clear: let the permissibility framework of social norms change, in fact facilitate it; and inculcate the belief in people’s agency and empowerment.