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The Question of Policy, Poverty and Society


Dr. Arshad zaman

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While examining the question why it is that we cannot alleviate poverty, we need to understand what is meant by policy proposal. We must distinguish policies from dreams and from  advertising jingles. To say, for instance, that there should be a just society, is a dream and not a policy proposal. To say that we should have a government of the people, by the people, for the people, is an advertising jingle for democracy not unlike ‘Coke is it’. It is a meaningless statement; it is not a policy proposal. Therefore, let us be very clear what is a policy proposal. A policy proposal should clear a few essential tests.

Firstly, to be policy, it must identify the agent of action. Any proposal which is agency-free is not a policy proposal. What is an agency-free proposal? If the mice gather and say that the cat is eating the mice and that if there was a bell around the neck of the cat it would protect us. The logic of the proposal is perfect. There is no doubt that if there was a bell around the neck of the cat, the mice would be safer. It is a policy proposal but it is agency-free because it does not identify which agent would put the bell around the neck of the cat. And so when we say let us alleviate poverty, we also have to clearly identify and tell who “us”, thus, if somebody asks me the question: Tell me how can we alleviate poverty?’ I will have to ask him ‘who is “we? And is it somebody’s personal poverty that he wishes to be alleviated or that of his neighbour and how much is he willing to part from his property in order to achieve his objectives? So, First criterion is that the policy should not be agency-free.

Secondly, the proposal should be within the ability of actors to whom it is addressed. The suggestion that the government should eliminate corruption in society is not a policy proposal because it is not within the ability of the government to eliminate it. To say that the prime minister should not be corrupt is a policy proposal if it is addressed to the prime minister. To say that the army general should not be entitled to duty-free imports of Mercedes is a policy proposal. But the proposal should not be made to incompetent person or authority. So, it should be within the ability of the agent and in the interest of the agent. To say to a government that you should dissolve yourself and give power over to somebody else is not a policy proposal because nobody likes to dispense with power. And so the policy proposal, like saying to government ‘please! do not enrich yourself and out of your potential enrichment give money to the poor,’ if this were acted upon, poverty would certainly be alleviated. But it will not be acted upon because it is against the interest of government and for that reason is not a policy proposal.

Yet another criterion, which is a little more complex, is that the policy proposal should be instrumental. It should not be merely a restatement of the proposal as a solution. Nor should it be a combination of jingoism like in the problem of budget deficit. The proposal that deficit should be reduced is not a policy proposal. It merely restates the problem as a solution. On the other hand, as we observe in the World Bank report [September 1995], the number one policy proposal that something or the other should be deepened and strengthened, is jingoism and not a policy proposal. A policy proposal is if you feel that people are dying of small-pox, then you say this is because inoculations against small-pox are few and far. So you have said that the object of policy is to reduce small-pox deaths, the instrument is vaccination and the proposal is that this instrument be expanded. That is why it is a policy proposal

Even if read very carefully, the Poverty Assessment Report of the World Bank does not identify a single proposal that would meet anyone of these criteria. There is not, by definition, any policy proposal in this most definitive report of the World Bank on poverty.

So, if we are to avoid dreams and advertising jingles, and seek a policy, then we must deal with those proposals which can be implemented by government and are within its ability as well as interest.

How do governments implement policies? They do so by legislating laws and by enforcing them and adjucating disputes among them. So, policy has to do with government and laws, at least in the context of our subject, and therefore we must understand the nature of government before we are led too far astray in mistaking dreams and marketing slogans for policies.

What is the nature of government? The most fundamental problem with policy proposals, that are currently fashionable, is a mistaken notion of the nature of government not only in Pakistan but in postcolonial Muslim societies in general. Muslim, because they share a different framework, postcolonial, because colonialism gives rise to a particular form of government.

The crux of the issue is that government in Europe is based on the fiction that the few impose their will upon the many by popular consent. There is a fiction that the people came together and constituted themselves in a fundamental act — the constitution — and all laws and policies How from it and there are a variety of rituals which maintained this fiction of popular consent like elections and executive committees and parliamentary procedures and so forth. Unfortunately, this is not the nature of government in Pakistan. The nature of government in Pakistan, for historical reasons, has been more of the Mongol state which Ibne Khaldun described as the umara-shurafa system of government. The Mongol state consisted of the ameer on the horse-back in the midst of his family and tribe with a sword in his hand. It was mobile, it was not confined to  any geographical locality. In order to hold its sway over large areas of land, it set up governments.


Source: Poverty Alleviation in Pakistan: Present Scenario and Future Strategy, Mohibul Haq Sahibzada. Republished with permission.