Friday, 4 December 2015

Politics and social change

by Haris Gazdar

Pakistan's youngest political prisoner: 4 year old MRD activist Fraz Wahlah, 1985
Photo credit: Wikipedia

Last Saturday, I spoke at a panel discussion - “Pakistan: fossilized or quietly transforming” at the 2015 Khayaal Festival. Dr. Ali Cheema who teaches economics at the LUMS and conducts research at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives (IDEAS) and the Centre for Economic Research in Pakistan (CERP) moderated the discussion. I was privileged to share the panel with the distinguished demographer and social scientist Dr Zeba Sathar who heads the Pakistan country office of the Population Council in Pakistan and does pathbreaking work on fertility and demographic trends.

Has Pakistan changed, or is it caught in a rut? Ali Cheema introduced this question using the work of two commentators on Pakistan, William Easterly and Anatol Lieven. Easterly wonders why Pakistan lags behind in so many social indicators of education, health, and women’s empowerment despite having a relatively educated and sophisticated elite, and having produced many individuals who excel in the professions globally. Lieven characterizes Pakistan as being “governed by the traditions of overriding loyalty to family, clan and religion... a highly conservative, archaic... inert mass of different societies".

Zeba Sathar set the tone for the discussion by pointing out that statistically speaking, Pakistan was changing, and perhaps changing rather more rapidly than often appreciated. She went to the core institution that supposedly holds Pakistani society or societies together, or holds them back – the family. She pointed to evidence that men and women in Pakistan desire a different family than what has been traditionally inherited or imagined. The decline in fertility is indicative of this forward-looking disposition of the people, and the conservatism, if any, is that of the state. People are desperate for greater agency to plan their families, have fewer children, and think actively about the lives of future generations. Such is the desperation that in the absence of an active policy with respect to family planning and reproductive health, couples are deciding for women to have induced abortions in ever-increasing numbers.

I talked about how the failure of the state and conservative educational outcomes are connected across countries. The literacy transition – or the transformation of a society in which only the elites could read or write, to one where literacy was the norm – has almost without exception been a societal project driven by the state. Sweden was the first major country to achieve universal literacy in the modern era. The Lutheran Protestant Church, motivated by a missionary zeal to spread the reading of the Bible in the Swedish language, led this movement up to the 18th century. In the 19th century, a more secular mission was overtaken by the Swedish state to produce citizens through the public schooling system. Both the early religious effort and the subsequent secular one first imagined a uniform society and then created it through administrative methods. Countries with diverse political complexions (for example much of Europe, Turkey, and China), which followed suit had similar societal impulses forged into elite agreements and popular participation.

Pakistan, unlike Sweden and other countries that have undergone a literacy transition, lacks an active state that acts as an instrument for social change. This is perhaps because there is an absence of consensus among elites about the direction of social change. A deficit in agreeing upon the contours of an imagined community was revealed early on. The first national education conference held in November 1947 shied away from a political debate on whether and to what extent the state will espouse religious or ethnic identities of its constituents. It is only recently that the political process has begun to come to terms with these disparate elements of Pakistani identity. The lack of state action, in a country of segmented communities and societies, has led to fragmented outcomes. In our work, we find that ALL children belonging to a particular caste or kinship group in a village may have finished secondary schooling, and hardly any from another kinship group is even enrolled in the primary level.

The paradoxes which Easterly and Lieven point to might be all too real, but to see them simply as signs of social conservatism and elite indifference is almost tautological. Social change is primarily a political question.