Reportedly, PM Khan is unhappy with the results of recent by-elections. Political commentators offer two broad reasons behind the results. One that fall in the realm of politics, and the other economics, where rupee depreciation, interest rate hike, price hike of utilities, and its ensuing impact of general price level has irked businesses and individuals alike. One average Joe even complained about the registration of PTA recognized mobile sets – that IMEI affair: “this is not the Naya Pakistan we voted for.”
The fault does not lie with people. When PM Khan campaigned for elections, one of his main thesis was that the masses have been left without education, and largely poor, whereas the corrupt elite have looted the country by giving the people small economic offerings (such as subsidised prices of various forms) and looting away the big money legally or illegally generated by the economy. When you run under this assumption then you cannot expect the masses to understand let alone accept the painful consequences of the reforms.
Reform by its very nature is ripe with complexities. It’s a complicated messy business with many ups and downs and perhaps even U-turns that so far Khan has become famous about. The very word is‘re-form’! Anybody who has even tried to quit smoking, ensure a healthy diet, and make an effort to become physically fit by changes in lifestyle will tell you how difficult re-form is and what kind of communication it demands to friends and family who are used to and in fact support the old unhealthy lifestyle.
At the country level re-form communication becomes even more important. A 1997 World Bank study of senior public service and civil society representatives from 60 developing and emerging economies reported that “the public’s poor understanding of economic reform as a key obstacle to its success”. That was 1997 when the print media was alive; attention span was longer than a minute. Today with the onslaught of social media, and attention span of even adults at less than 5 seconds, the size of that obstacle is much, much bigger.
The proven solution to that problem across countries has been what’s taught in every business school these days: effective communication. Because even industrialized countries that arguably has a relatively educated population “are not immune to the negative consequences of poor communication with constituencies”.
To this end, the government will do well to publish public service messages on electronic and print media. But adverts alone will not cut it; the diverse nature of the audience – citizens of Pakistan – requires a multi medium approach. There should be social media – What’s app-able - adverts translated in various local languages.
The PTI could also use its volunteer party workers to use, because in some sections of the society informal channels of communication are more effective than radio or other media. “In work undertaken on economic reform in Kuwait, it was determined that ‘diwanias’, places where people gathered in the evening to discuss politics, were as important as the media,” according to World Bank’s experience.
Then of course, as Nadeem ul-Haque, former boss of Planning Commission puts it in an upcoming interview with BR Research, each minister should give hold a press conference periodically and inform them about policy actions or inaction, publish progress reports of their works, and eventually debate it out in the parliament. Such debates eventually feed into the public discourse.
Instead of focusing too much on Buffalo Reforms, and mud slinging on rival parties, PM Khan’s information point man, Fawad Chaudhry, should take the following five decisions about communication of economic reforms: (a) which audiences need to be reached, (b) what change in behaviour is required, (c) what messages would be appropriate, (d) which channels of communication would be most effective, and (e) how will the communication process be monitored and evaluated. That’s the learning from World Bank’s development communication across the developing part of the globe. Meanwhile, PM Khan would do well to avoid selling rosy of pictures of flowing rivers of milk and honey. At the least, he should effectively communicate that the road to those rivers is bumpy, nasty, brutish and very long.