Three urgent national crises

Mosharraf Zaidi
Tuesday, Apr 25, 2023

Three urgent national crises will remain unaddressed no matter who comes out on top in the political and institutional free-for-all battle royale that currently rages among Pakistan’s elite.

The reason for this is simple: none of the key actors in the political spectrum, none of the Supreme Court judges and no individual civil servant, none among the twos, three-or-four-star generals, nor any of the BPS 22 secretaries has any interest in addressing these three urgent national crises.

Regardless of who ends up ‘winning’ the current set of battles, Pakistanis will continue to suffer from living in a country plagued by low productivity, low economic growth, and poor public health. In short, election or no election, democracy or dictatorship, rule of the jungle or rule of law – Pakistan will continue to be less than the sum of its parts.

What are these three urgent national crises and why are they so important? The first is Pakistani society’s broken relationship with time. The second is extremely low female labour participation rates. The third is irredeemably poor hygiene. The broken relationship with time is intimately connected to a national work culture that features, above all, low productivity. Extremely low female labour participation rates essentially exclude half the population from contributing to the gross domestic product or GDP. Poor hygiene is the source of public health crises that range from typhoid and cholera to persistent and chronic diarrhoea and gastroenteritis, Hepatitis A and more generically, overall low immunity to viruses and infections.

These three distinct national crises convene together to become a much deeper and profound vortex of persistent low productivity. Pakistan has very slowly but steadily gone from having a very capable state managing a weak social contract and resultantly weak society, to having a weak state that is incapable of managing the challenges faced by its people – there is no real social contract, and no real leadership to speak of. A parade of charlatans and disconnected elites whose sincerity falsetto is amplified by an equally ignorant and clueless national discourse keep churning through the same horse manure that passes for serious discourse, in the false hope that you can bake a cake with a broken spatula, some sand and bracken water. We can’t. The proof is everywhere we look.

Pakistan’s broken relationship with time begins at the same time the rest of the world awakens and heads to work – at dawn. Where is Pakistan at this time? Not up and ready to tackle the day. Not headed to work. Not even up for Fajr prayers. The vast majority of us – even when we accidentally or per force end up dropping our children to school, or head to work earlier than usual – discover markets, shops and businesses shuttered down and far from ready to begin their day.

Twenty years ago, many local markets would be ready for business by nine o’clock. Today, it is difficult to find major markets that are open before noon. Banks and other formal sector entities that used to be ready to go as early as eight o’clock a generation ago, are sleepy eyed and cranky when they open at 9:00am and will seek to push important business engagements and decisions to after lunch. Lunch hours are, for those that can afford them, like mini Eid festivals – long and winding. Traffic is jammed in the late morning and early evening because even though the culture is to start the day late, it is also very strict on ensuring that business ends as soon as possible. This leaves a lot of retail and commercial trade to be conducted throughout the evening and late at night.

When the rest of the productive world is preparing for a night’s asleep at 9:00pm at night, Pakistan’s major cities are only just awakening to the possibilities of an overdose of sugar, processed foods, and high, complex carbohydrate dinners and post dinner dinners that will last through the early hours of the next day.

This broken relationship with time is manifest from the very top of society down through the very bottom. Cabinet meetings will meander and last for hours on end. Senior officials will delay and postpone meetings with investors and foreign dignitaries – once, twice, three times, often on the day of the meeting. Many foreign guests have to clear diaries to be able to meet a minister because ministers will change meeting times so repeatedly and consistently that trying to fit in two, three or four meetings (a regular and normal diary fact in the rest of the world) just isn’t possible when one of those is a Pakistani VIP.

The flip is as true. Tailor masters will rarely deliver new outfits on time, plumbers and electricians will refer to a midday visit as “first time” or early morning, and often show up to fix shower heads and leaky faucets at 11:00pm. Cleaning crews, nannies and chauffeurs are consistent no-shows because of genuine and chronic health conditions; and they must deal with the constant pressure of demanding employers who themselves – even with LUMS, IBA, Harvard and Oxford credentials – can’t seem to manage time any better than their custodial staff.

Formal economics discourse has very little data on these phenomena, and because so much of the formal economic discourse is driven by international organizations and by foreigners, there is extreme hesitation in engaging with this kind of complicated and potentially messy ‘cultural’ collateral. To top this off, in the space of one generation, the meaning of leadership has gone from establishing ideas and norms, to following trends and hashtags. What serious national leader would today dare to call out his or her own followers for this sloth-infused broken relationship with time? None.

If messing with people’s messed up relationship with time is taboo, trying to challenge world-beating low female labour force participation rates is completely off the menu. Working-age women at the workplace should be an increasing phenomenon in an economic context that demands ever more from single-earner households. But the culture within which this change is taking place amplifies both the quantum and the impact of the change. Men without the capacity to process how domestic mores need to adjust to working women, and mothers-in-law that stand for the retention of ‘the way things were’ leaves more and more households torn asunder from the economic and social pressures that a changing working landscape is causing.

The result is two-fold: growing social conservatism and resistance to female labour force participation, and the deepening of Pakistan’s consistently low showing in the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index. Too many in the political and media landscape choose idiocy and cowardice over genuine leadership on this issue – often complaining of the anti-Pakistan bias that lands Pakistan so low on such rankings. Again, like the issue of time and low productivity, it is a lot easier to just opt for lazy likes and retweets than it is to roll up one’s sleeves and try to find Pakistani solutions to the challenge of low female labour force participation, low safety and security for working women, and low employer support for females that have to deal with biological, social and economic pressures that flex differently for them than they do for men.

Compounding this is a hygiene crisis from hell that tears right through the fictions of Pakistan’s faux religiosity and dysfunctional public health discourse. Hopped up on cheap sugar and cheaper hyper nationalism, diseases like typhoid, cholera and chronic gastroenteritis destroy public health outcomes, weakening livers and immunities across lifetimes and geographies – with no real resistance from a public health discourse too busy fighting urgent fires, many of which many be anchored in factors that improved hygiene could help mitigate.

Meanwhile, the most visible religious leaders have strong views on cryptocurrencies, on the state of Uyghurs, and on the political system’s inability to adjust to their moral compass. But on cleanliness, hygiene and public health – or on positive messages on how working Pakistani women need the society to support and protect them, or for that matter, even on the importance of timeliness and the value of time (as enunciated through Muslim prayers and Holy Scripture itself)? Crickets.

Enduring economic success cannot be achieved in a low productivity culture. It cannot be achieved without dramatically reducing the gender gap and ensuring much higher female labour force participation rates. It cannot be achieved by a population that is falling sick every week, every month and every year to costly, income-destroying and productivity-draining avoidable illnesses and disease. In short, election or no election, democracy or dictatorship, rule of the jungle or rule of law – Pakistan will continue to be less than the sum of its parts.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.