Development Delusions in Pakistan

Islamabad, US. 2012.

The construction of major highways in four provinces, as well as pressure to designate the Chinese-financed Gwadar as a duty-free port, has breathed new life into ongoing efforts for Pakistani development.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has various plans to speed the construction of a market-driven Pakistan, including new coal-fired plants to overcome electricity shortages. Ignoring the obvious sustainability issues, these moves indicate that industrialists like Sharif, with the support of Pakistan’s military-bureaucratic elites, have little interest in linking development to broader projects of increasing egalitarianism and deepening democracy.

As a result, important questions go unanswered, such as what the point actually is of building motorways in a country that has one of the lowest Human Development Indexes in the world. Sharif doesn’t feel a need to participate in more sophisticated conversations about development, and what its role should be in Pakistan over the coming decades.

I recently had a series of exchanges with my friend Sabahat Ashraf. Our conversations left me with the impression that Pakistan’s problem isn’t necessarily with underdevelopment. It’s the political framework underneath. They are reproduced below:

B: I’m reading about language politics in East Bengal right now. The One Unit thing is fascinating, though . It’s so obviously repressed in the historical record that it’s astonishing. But I’d love to know how your generation (and my parents’) learned about it, because it must have been spun differently.

S: One Unit was a crazy power grab. It was obvious then, too, at least from the Karachi side. I came along after all of that, but the way my father and others talked about it, we all knew what was going on. Our parents lived it, and I think my father was one of those given lateral entry into the bureaucracy under Ayub Khan.

How did it come across in primary and secondary education? There was Pakistan Studies right? How was it spun in the textbooks?

Sesame Street World Order. Islamabad, 2008.
Sesame Street World Order. Islamabad, 2008.

Here’s where I think your Western prism gets in the way. In Pakistan, we don’t trust our textbooks, especially in political matters. It’s not the textbooks that have skewed history; or not just them. We get our “received history” by a more complex process. I went to high school and then college under Zia, for the most part. The textbooks presented facts selectively and in a skewed way. But that wasn’t the only problem.

No, of course not. Pakistani institutions work differently. It makes sense that the military-bureaucratic state has left its mark on cultural memory of what happened in Bangladesh through a complex process that is fragmented and messy.

The problem was also how the media was manipulated. Both news media (then only state-controlled) and entertainment, but also cultural and social structures. I agree with what you say, but be careful with things like that, because just looking at something like textbooks is very, very myopic. It fits the agenda of development professionals to look at things that way, though, because they can easily just get money and build organizations to “fix” the problem.

If the problem is simply the textbook, then you can get some investors to back another one. Then it gets published, and everyone congratulates themselves for solving the problem.

More or less. That’s how development works in Pakistan. Development professionals read the problem as being entirely one that can be solved with sufficient investment, like when you gather together the funds for better textbooks.

After a while, they don’t explain why that hasn’t solved everything, because no one even goes back to raise the question of whether or not it even worked. By then, there’s a new regime, or a new aid program, and there’s another round of hand-wringing about how bad things are, and the cycle starts again.

Oh, sure. Their entire gambit is development vs. traditionalism, and the more backward the ‘tradition’ the better, because its existence presents a stronger argument for intervention. Then what basically happens is that the attitudes you don’t like are bundled together as ‘traditional,’ with the proposed solution being that they will be developed out of existence. Presumably, the process makes everyone feel guilty about Bangladesh. It’s fundamentally wrong to pin everything on traditionalism.

Yup, all the while ignoring the other players in the arena. Islamists, for example. I don’t think tradition is the real enemy at all. It’s a strawman. From the October Revolution, to Mao, to Ataturk, to the War on Terror, I don’t think tradition is the real enemy at all.

Thanks for the development in 2012.
Thanks for the development in 2012.

Well, that and the avowedly secular neoliberal state. But it would be dishonest to argue that the ‘tradition’ thing starts with the current strain of developmentalists. They’re playing a game that originated in the Soviet Union, and its views on how socialism is built when everything proceeds through clear historical stages with an indisputable conclusion. It was the Soviets who first offered that sort of thing as a model for raising living standards, and reducing poverty, in the Third World.

The Harvard Advisory Group seemed to have channeled much the same spirit when they showed up and started advising Ayub’s regime. That wasn’t a coincidence. Its entire platform for how ‘development’ should and would occur in Pakistan was an explicitly anti-Communist one, in a bunch of different areas: functional inequality in the economy, existential individualism in the literature, whatever.

But the basic problem with both is that they rested on this idea that ‘development,’ whether in the Soviet or liberal capitalist sense, needed to occur against ‘tradition,’ and that it happened best when you adhered to this standardized manual. But that doesn’t actually make sense. There isn’t actually a Book of Life when it comes to this sort of thing. I don’t think ‘tradition’ has ever actually been the problem, either, and I don’t trust people who do.

Hmm. I would take it further back to the British Raj, and the Orientalist and divide-and-rule policies they enabled. Or you could say that the Soviet thing was a continuation of that?

I definitely would, but we have to be a bit careful. I’m talking about an issue of understanding how countries develop, which for most of these people, involved overthrowing tradition and entering the modern world by way of a set body of principles. They saw it as killing the magic, subduing everything to market-friendly rationality, and then running the economy with an eye towards generating profits.

The issue is that the Soviet variant on how this happens, and the American-led reaction to it, is based in how the Great Powers treated the people they colonized and/or occupied. As a result, Pakistani liberal elites internalized Western conceptions of how countries are able to progress, whether economically, or politically. Unfortunately, they came to inherit the dynamic of development vs. tradition.

It’s been a problem with everyone. Pakistan never stood a chance.

Well it’s beyond Pakistan. The development industry is all over the Third World, and even now the defeated Second.

The fact that we have a global economy means that none of Pakistan’s problems are wholly specific to its borders. Pakistan has certain problems that no one else gets, like influence from the Gulf monarchies, but in the end, we’re talking about an international system. There are major flaws everywhere, and certain systemic problems just have different local manifestations.

That’s why it’s important to talk about Pakistan, even if it’s just as a case study. It illuminates that even though colonial dynamics are generally alive in a development culture that often verges on neo-colonialism, you’re still talking about different things in different places. Economic development occurs differently based on the nature of the place where it’s happening, because the constraints and demands are different.

Obviously, there’s an endless list of countries that have this problem, and you can write about any number of them. China had Mao implementing the Great Leap Forward at around the same time that the Harvard Advisory Group first showed up in Pakistan. Ultimately, though, you can spot the same logic in all of them. X country is backwards, and requires Y program for development to crush traditional forces, which will result in Z: a modern state that is either liberal or state capitalist. The issue is that it’s rarely that simple, and developing a country is probably about more than simply placing it through an ideologically-charged gestation process. It takes more than investment and aid packages, basically.

Right. We basically agree.

Well yeah, but it’ll be a while before these conversations are had honestly in major institutions. Fixing textbooks and eliminating the Bangladesh problem in one big NGO swoop is still too appealing a narrative. Especially for people who are trained to see social problems as opportunities for market-driven intervention, rather than the foundations for entirely different kinds of politics.

Photographs courtesy of Hashoo Foundation USA, U.S. Embassy Pakistan, and U.S. Embassy Pakistan. Published under a Creative Commons License.

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