Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Strong, independent, accountable institutions are the key to development

Strong, independent, accountable institutions are the key to development

The 2012 book 'Why Nations Fail' by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson argues that no country can develop unless its institutions are strong.

Even in Pakistan's 74-year history, the country made progress only in times when our institutions were allowed to function independently. During the periods where we politicised them or used their resources for personal gain, the progress of the country took a hit.

Now the strengths or weaknesses of any state institution can be gauged from a few characteristics.

The appointment of the institution’s head/chairperson is most important. If the head is appointed keeping in mind their political affiliation or connections, they will be used for personal gains by the chief executive.

In Pakistan, the judiciary and the military are considered to be stronger institutions because personal preferences or dislikes do not matter much when it comes to the appointment of their chiefs. The senior most judge of the judiciary will always be the chief justice and chief of army staff will be chosen every time from among the most senior generals in the army.

The second criterion for assessing the strength of an institution depends on the guarantee of the tenure of the head or its employees.

A person who knows that they cannot be removed before a certain period of time will care more about the interests of the state than the one who is unsure of their stay in the institution.

One of the reasons for the strength of the Federal Public Service Commission, the office of the Auditor General of Pakistan and the National Accountability Bureau is the guaranteed tenure of their heads, which cannot be changed without amending the law. It is due to this tenure of protection that such people think several times before giving importance to a political recommendation.

Next up is the workforce of the institution, which also affects its strengths or weaknesses.

The Prime Minister's Office and the Establishment Division are a few examples of strong institutions since there is no shortage of staff deployed as compared to other departments. There are some institutions of the government where the number of employees is less than 20% of their sanctioned strength.

Staff training and familiarity with related issues also help make the instructions weak or strong. Police officers who do not write the reports correctly or do not investigate properly face the wrath of judges on every hearing. With their incompetence, they not only spoil the case but tarnish the image of the institution they work for.

Then there is recruitment of employees. If a hiring is on merit, competent people will come forward and the system will keep running smoothly. Recruitments in the Ministry of Defense, Intelligence Bureau, etc. were done through the commission and not by keeping in mind someone's constituency. So these institutions are stable.

On the other hand, the PIA, APP and Pakistan Steel Mills were ruined because they recruited too many people whose only criterion was affiliation with a political party.

The appropriateness of salaries and their proportion to inflation is also important for the employees of an organisation. Compare the Motorway Police with Punjab Police, one of the reasons why the former is better is because of higher salaries and benefits the employees receive.

Similarly, the lack of innovation in the method of promotion of employees also leads to poor performance and stagnation. When an officer knows they will move on to the next grade after five years, whether they do justice to their job or not, why would they care to work hard?

Accountability and seriousness regarding the application of existing laws also determine the quality of the institution. If a department does not respect its own rules, it will soon fall apart. Most of the private institutions in our country are successful because the violators of their rules are not usually given a second chance. On the other hand, corruption cases in most government institutions drag on and are later closed due to lack of progress.

There is also a notion that the institution that has more power to harass the people is stronger. This is not so.

The police station where the SHO has been posted using his political connections will never be able to control crime. He will have to appease those who facilitated him to get the job.

Despite the presence of all the features mentioned above, a country cannot develop if there is a lack of balance of power among institutions. Institutions need to be allowed to operate without undue pressure. The state must ensure that one institution does not interfere unnecessarily in the affairs of another.

A few days ago, the prime minister tweeted that he was postponing the High Power Board meeting for some time as he wanted to review the real performance of the officers instead of believing in the usual analysis. This can be the first step towards the elevation of the right people for state departments. But the ruling party must also have to take measures to address institutional reforms as early as possible.

We can reap the benefits of independence only if we improve the system and make every institution work.

The writer is an M Phil scholar and currently serving as the deputy director at the federal ministry of information.