We are often told that Pakistan’s true potential is always one step away from being unleashed, if only it were to find sincere leadership ready to take on vested interests. But to paraphrase a timeless Hollywood dialogue, “the greatest trick policy wonks ever pulled was to convince the public that all of Pakistan’s challenges persist due to lack of political will”.
Political expediencies may have exacerbated many issues that could have long been resolved, but so have defective policy positions that feed into executive decision making. And while the collective instinct may seek to fault incompetence and lack of capacity in state’s executive-arm for flawed governance, the facts are often greyer than they appear.
Consider the platoons of WAPDA trained career-engineers sincerely found advocating that mega-dams as the cure-all of water crisis. They believe – often more earnestly than Moses was of parting rivers – that as river flow becomes ever more volatile due to climate change, the country needs more reservoirs to store water.
This is in face of mounting evidence from ecological research globally that dams reduce environmental flows, lead to sea-water intrusion in coastal regions, and has caused the death of aquatic life in the mangroves. Yet, even as global trends shift to dam-removal, the countrywide fund drive for Bhasha dam last year clearly showcased that the narrative of water ministry experts prevailed under the sun.
Do the folks at MoWP not care for environment? On the contrary, they are satisfied that their scheme will protect it. And their suggestions may be valid as those of any other set of subject specialists. In fact, the breakdown stems from the non-consultative nature of policymaking, which refuses to take into account feedback from other equally well-meaning experts, be it the private-sector policy circles, or other ministries such as Environment.
This example is not in an isolation, or unique to any one governmental department. In fact, it may be argued that such well-meaning proposals have played out most strongly in the rapid decline of agriculture sector’s performance. Agricultural experts hark back to colonial suggestions of zoning to protect ‘traditional crop belts’, disregarding powerful forces such as farm economics and ever-evolving soil-suitability.
Then there is the loud opposition to genetically modified crops, which stems from concerns for protecting local varieties and seed-saving practices. While noble, the dominating voices discount the potential economic benefits to farm economy and positive spill overs for national food security.
Calls for increasing value extraction from Pakistan’s livestock economy offers another classic case study. And while the value proposition may appear enticing, it disregards environmental risks of pursuing a pro-livestock policy; that is, the global livestock industry contributes up to 18 percent of global greenhouse emissions – second only to fossil fuels.
The purpose is not to insist that policymaking does not involve hard choices; after all, if economics is the study of cost & benefit inherent in human choices, public policy represents the art of making those trade-offs by creating a political buy-in at collective level. But central to creating consensus is a consultative policymaking process, which is predicated on a willingness to step out of silos.