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Clueless in Pakistan

Is Pakistan too difficult a nut to crack for World Bank economic advisors?

December 2, 2001

Is Pakistan too difficult a nut to crack for World Bank economic advisors?

Here I am again in Lahore, capital of Punjab province, Pakistan. It is April 2000 — and I am here to analyze public spending in the Punjab for the World Bank. With no previous experience of Pakistan besides the scary statistics I have read in World Bank reports, I feel like the clueless advising the helpless.

The provincial government depends for more than three-quarters of its revenues on a national government that has a debt of 94 percent of GDP and spends money on large expenditures like nuclear weapons and national expressways that nobody uses.

Still, Lahore has so much vitality. It’s really overwhelming. Traffic on the roads is a steady stream, with all vehicles weaving in and out at their respective maximum speeds.

There are donkey carts, bicycles with two or three people on each one, pedestrians walking in the road, motor-scooters with two to five people on each one (often with a toddler clinging to the handlebars), cars, hand-pushed carts, trucks, motor rickshaws, taxis, tractors pulling overloaded wagons, as well as garishly painted buses packed with people clinging to their sides.

People throng the markets in the old city, where the lanes are so narrow that the crowds almost swallow the cars. I see people buying, people selling, people eating, people cooking. Every street, every lane is crammed with shops, each shop with people. This is a private economy with a lot of dynamism.

The Old Fort in Lahore is a reflection of the city’s rich history. Lahore’s successive conquerors include the Hindus, the Mughals, the Sikhs, the British and the Pakistanis. I admire the beautiful mosque and the touching devotion of the believers.

At a lavish meal featuring Pakistani specialties, I talk to the guests, many of them with Ph.D.s and M.B.A.s from the United States. They have all found ways to make money in Lahore. They are elegant, witty and courteous folks. They only reinforce my image from previous contacts with the Pakistani diaspora of a well-spoken, well-educated, courtly people. This is a beautiful, wonderful culture — with so much potential for creativity and prosperity.

And yet so much has gone wrong in Lahore, Punjab and Pakistan as a whole. Wonderful people, terrible government. The majority of the population is illiterate, ill-housed and ill-fed.

The government alternates between military dictators and corrupt democrats, each more interested in keeping power at all costs than in bringing prosperity to the masses.

The government cannot bring off a simple and cheap measles vaccination program. And yet, it can build nuclear weapons. The powerful military endlessly obsesses about disputed territory in Kashmir held since 1947 by their bitter enemy India. Every day, the headline in the local paper has something about Kashmir. Yet, they make no assault on their own unoccupied territory of prosperity for the masses.

I am here to lead a 15-member team reviewing public services provided by the government of Punjab. I am fortunate to have a team of field-hardened, well-informed, hard-thinking World Bank staff. It is quickly apparent that a corrupt, hierarchical, autocratic bureaucracy in the country has done a miserable job providing public services.

Pakistan’s bureaucracy has little incentive to provide services as opposed to filling its own wallets. For example, there were only 102 convictions for irregularities of all kinds in anti-corruption courts during the entire 15-year period from 1985 to 1999. That is a rather unusual and low number for a one-million-strong provincial civil service universally agreed to be corrupt.

The adult literacy rate remains at about 40 percent in the Punjab. And the rate for women remains at only about 27 percent.

Despite decades of foreign aid to improve the lot of the masses, Punjab province has some of the worst social indicators in the world.

Most health problems in the Punjab are easily preventable. And a major effort to increase services has been under way in a donor-supported, eight-year-long campaign called the Social Action Program. Still, the province is spending only $1.50 per capita on health.

Only half of the children in Punjab provice are immunized. Only 27 percent of the pregnant women here receive prenatal care. Tuberculosis is not under control. Half of primary health care facilities in the area reported stock-outs of more than two essential drugs during the last quarter of 1999.

The adult literacy rate remains at about 40 percent in the Punjab, and the rate for women remains at only about 27 percent.

The annual per student direct spending on elementary education was the equivalent of $27 per student in 1997-1998, which is on the low side even for poor countries.

There is a budget allocation for teaching materials of about $0.36 per student — and $0.36 for operations and maintenance per student.

The government officials we meet seem genuinely well- meaning. The panacea offered by the provincial government is decentralization: let local beneficiaries of public services determine how money should be spent on improving those services. Let mayors be elected by the local people — and so be democratically accountable for their performance.

It certainly sounds like an improvement on the over-centralized, top-down Pakistani bureaucracy that is known to micromanage over 4,000 projects like “canal bridge near village Abbianwala Nankana Sahib.” Decentralization is no panacea without more fundamental reforms to the civil service and the system of semi-feudal land ownership.

Near the end of my mission, I went on an officially sponsored visit of a primary school for girls in Sheikhupura district near Lahore. The school was in a village at the end of a one-lane dirt road. As we arrived, a pre-school girl and boy gave each one of us a bouquet of flowers.

The older girls were lined up in two columns, each holding a paper plate full of colorful flowers. As we walked between the two columns, they pelted us joyfully with the flowers. Flower covered, we walked into the school.

Other children were sitting politely quiet in their classrooms as we entered the school. Each room was used for two different grades. They were short a room even then, so the first grade held their class outside. Each class stood up as we came into the room.

They had no textbooks — and no paper or pencil. The headmistress told us that their parents couldn’t buy the textbooks and paper until the end of the month, when they get paid. And this was the school the district shows off for visitors!

December 2, 2001

Adapted from “The Elusive Quest for Growth” by William Easterly.
Copyright © 2001 by Massachussetts Institute of Technology.
Used by permission of the publisher.

William Easterly is Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Development and the Institute for International Economics in Washington, DC.