Regional laggards -DAWN

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A CURIOUS global feature is that economic and political developments often happen together in several states in a region. The initial East Asian development, East European communism collapse and the Arab Spring emerged together in several regional states. Another key feature globally is that while many states in a region develop, a few lag behind, eg Haiti in the Caribbean, Zimbabwe in southern Africa and Myanmar and North Korea in East Asia. In almost all cases, the laggards are autocratic states. The link between autocracy and stagnation is becoming clearer over time. Beyond China’s exceptional case, it is hard now to find autocratic states doing well via human and technological prowess and not fortuitous possession of natural resources. The two most backward regions globally — Central and East Africa — largely consist of autocracies.

Lacking natural resources like the Middle East and unable to effect human and technological advance rapidly like East Asia, South Asia has progressed slowly. Most Saarc states still face huge socioeconomic problems. Yet, most now can also proudly show some major outcomes that rank highly even globally. Sri Lanka has its social indicators and tourism. India has its IT sector and was among the fastest growing states globally before Covid-19. Bangladesh has been the fastest growing state in Asia-Pacific recently. The Maldives has its tourism and the highest Saarc per capita income of $7,000.

Then there are three small, landlocked and mountainous states that obviously lack such outcomes: Afghanistan, Bhutan and Nepal. But even Bhutan has its novel National Happiness measure and even a conventional per capita income above $3,000 while Nepal has a decent tourism sector centred on Everest trips. That leaves us. We are not a small, landlocked, mountainous state, but the second biggest one in South Asia population and area-wise, with large cities, huge tracts of arable land, ports, industry and a large diaspora. Yet, despite these, it is hard to find any progress outcomes where we rank highly globally, as most Saarc states do now. The best we can muster is high production of some crops or the more dubious measures of military size, arms and extremism. We fool ourselves this is an aberration and we are soon destined for greatness as we were once doing best in Asia. But the reality may be that that progress was actually an aberration and unsustainable, being built on huge US aid.

As with most laggards, our frequent bouts of autocracy are major reasons for our laggard status. But oddly, autocracy may no longer be our biggest immediate issue even though it is the root cause of all our big problems. Many states globally suddenly and quickly got rid of prolonged autocracy and became stable democracies, like Indonesia, Turkey etc. But we are a regional laggard afflicted with a novel, obdurate and highly toxic affliction: autocratic obscurantism. We are fast rejecting the key tenets of global progress: not only democracy but also science, human rights and an openness to foreign ideas.

We are fast rejecting the key tenets of global progress.

A growing number of people are convinced progress will not come from globally tested tenets of modernity but via dubious religiosity and false patriotism while lacking concrete ideas of how that will happen. The religiosity is questionable since crime and dishonesty abound while patriotism also seems so given how easily people cheat the state. Yet, even as we reject key tenets of modernity, we cling fast to its most dubious tenet ie. materialism. The result is a stagnant and unproductive economy dominated by an urge to make quick bucks. These private urges are backed by the state regularly unleashing policies that give short-term national growth and quick bucks for elites in a casino economy.

Thus, the dominant national drives today are political autocracy, social obscurantism and economic greed. Autocracy abounds via crackdown on democracy, dissent and speech. Obscurantism rears its ugly head in frequent cases of mob lynching, body burning and stripping women. Greed is reflected in never-ending scandals and scams, especially around land. Compared to these three toxic drives, any positive accumulations happening in the social, political and economic spheres that could produce sustainable progress pale into insignificance.

The levers of all three drives reside in the firm grip of the establishment. Thus, the sorry state of Pakistan today reflects their shallow worldviews. There is little sign of that iron grip loosening. Until it does so, one can safely assume we will continue to lurch from one social, economic or political crisis to another without attaining sustainable growth that compares even with the mediocre progress of our neighbours.

The writer is a freelance political economist with a PhD From the University of California, Berkeley.