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Isomorphic mimicry on steroids

Mosharraf Zaidi
Wednesday, Jun 12, 2024

The writer is an analyst and commentator.

Every week, there are signs of life in the republic. One week the prime minister initiates a large-scale transformation effort for education by declaring an ‘education emergency’. Another week, the Law and Justice Commission hands over a thorough and well-crafted draft law for arbitration to the Ministry of Law.

One week the government in Punjab launches ‘Clinics on Wheels’ to address primary healthcare challenges at the literal doorstep of citizens. Another week, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government initiates long overdue recruitment of teachers. Meanwhile, there were more remittances last month than any recorded month ever before, and inflation is – without a shadow of a doubt – slowing down.

All in all, it would SEEM that Pakistan may be on a path of stability. To question the positive signals that are emerging from the policy domain may feel a little cynical and negative.

The problem is: if you are seriously invested in Pakistan’s future, and you have examined its past with any degree of seriousness, to question the positive signals emerging from the policy domain isn’t just understandable. It is imperative. Pakistan’s policy domain (read: Pakistani elites) have mastered the ‘techniques of successful failure’. Islamabad is the stealth global headquarters of isomorphic mimicry and the pilot site for ‘endomorphic mockery’ (I explain this term below, but first, more on isomorphic mimicry).

This past weekend, the Law and Justice Commission hosted a very impressive conference titled ‘Navigating Climate Governance: Executive Action and Judicial Oversight’. The superior judiciary as well as judges from the full spectrum of courts from around the country were in attendance and most key climate and sustainable development experts were on hand to take part. Climate is, principally, an issue of justice – both at the global scale, in terms of loss and damage and what is owed to developing economies; and at the local level, in terms of what wealthy citizens and emission heavy industries owe to downstream communities and low-income households.

As he has been doing for many years, Dr Adil Najam, president of the WWF, and one of Pakistan’s finest ever exports abroad, served as keynote speaker. One sentence in Dr Najam’s impressive address left a stab wound and I have been unable to escape the radiating pain it causes. It is a sentence that tragically captures the essence of Lant Pritchett’s “isomorphic mimicry” better than any I have heard in what I have been calling the polycrisis era of Pakistan (February 2022 onward).

Dr Najam said that “the most urgent, most important and most essential role of the courts (in terms of climate change) is enforcement”. He emphasized this point at least three times – and gosh, he was spot on. Enforcement is indeed a major problem in mitigating the effects of climate change within Pakistan. To explain this, Dr Najam used the image of Honey Moon Hotel on the Swat River in Kalam collapsing during the 2022 superfloods. Having visited Kalam regularly in my younger years and knowing exactly what the appeal of the hotels that were literally ON the river – and having pakoras and chai and machhii on the river – I know Honey Moon Hotel. It is every hotel on every river north of Mardan.

Pakistani tourists, hoteliers and small- and medium-sized business owners consume the river and the riverside. Floods come every few years. The gushing flood waters wash away the hotels and the charpais and the logs and cabins and metal signposts and tables and chairs. Each item that the floodwaters pick up becomes a missile that takes out people’s lives and properties downstream. This is a death spiral that ordinary tourists feed with their lust for leisure and ordinary hoteliers feed with their lust for profits. Dr Najam is exactly right. But he is also 100 per cent wrong.

The courts do indeed play a most urgent, most important and most essential role in preventing Honey Moon Hotels of Pakistan from becoming aquatic Scud missiles during a flood. However, the courts are part of a wider ecosystem. Courts can issue judgments (and they often do). Courts can punish people (and they often do). Courts can set precedents (and they often do). But courts can’t physically alter the landscape of political economy, rent seeking, corruption, weapons, fear, and incompetence where the rubber hits the road.

In July 2021, Yaseen Janjua, then the deputy superintendent of police in Balakot, and Niaz Ali, a constable, were shot by protesters in Balakot. The protest was held by hoteliers that were upset about the anti-encroachment drive that had taken down over four thousand illegal structures on the Kunhar River and along the MNJ road.

In Balakot or in Swat (or further downstream in villages in southern Punjab and Sindh where landlords often divert floodwaters to protect their own lands at whatever expense may be caused to others’ lands or to riverine communities), the problem isn’t that the courts aren’t conscious of their role as being urgent, essential and important. The problem is that old laws, or new ones, old legal precedents, or new court judgments, district and sessions judges, or high courts or the Supreme Court – none of it matters.

The ‘enforcement’ of the law isn’t in the drafting of what SEEMS to be the missing element in public policy. ‘Enforcement’ would require a wholesale evacuation of the policy domain (read: Pakistani elite) out of the lazy and instinctive isomorphic mimicry that the entire state is addicted to, and transforming it into focusing on the thing that actually matters. The 18th Amendment omnibus reforms included the addition of Article 25-A to the constitution. Article 25-A says “The state shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of five to sixteen years”. In the fourteen years since this was added to the constitution, ‘enforcement’ of this constitutional obligation has been discussed and debated in at least half a dozen cases at the high courts and debated by at least four different chief justices during their tenures. Every provincial government is committed to fulfilling this obligation. Every federal government too. The last official tally of out of school children? 26 million.

You can pick any major economic challenge and find the same pattern. There is widespread recognition of the problem (fiscal deficit) and there are numerous domestic and foreign funded solutions that have been applied to the problem (lower costs, higher revenue). The problem not only does not go away – it keeps growing. Pakistan’s policy domain (read: the Pakistani elite) keeps rinsing and repeating the well-rehearsed mantra of ‘reform’ and ‘transformational change’. Donors are not just passive participants in this repeat melodrama – they are active enablers and funders of it.

The underlying irony is that very few, if any, stakeholders at all are engaged in this traumatic isomorphic mimicry knowingly. In fact, in each domain, every new initiative, and every new policy imperative, and every new project, not only acknowledges the cyclical nature of interventions to make things better – they also proclaim that this time, it will be different.

The thing about isomorphic mimicry is that it is both a product and a source of the capability trap. Rules-based, purposeless hierarchy and orthodoxy – such as the ‘rules of business’ or PPRA rules, or the traditions and customs that, for example, prevent thirty-year-olds from being chief executive officers or secretaries or even ambassadors – help entrench and calcify isomorphic mimicry systems.

When this is repeated in small, dysfunctional, poor countries, the cycle is never ending. Many African and Central American countries are perfect examples of this. When the complexity of conflict, war and existential security risks is added to the mix: we get Pakistan.

Unchallenged and unmitigated isomorphic mimicry in Pakistani public policy has produced a new phase of underdevelopment that I have been referring to as polycrisis since February 2022. This is a wholly inadequate description because the idea of crisis lends a temporary quality to the situation. Yet no one can inarguably identify when the Pakistani polycrisis began and when it might end. This is because we are not living through a polycrisis. We are stuck in ‘endomorphic mockery’.

Endomorphic mockery is when a country’s elite grow so fat and lazy that they can’t see the circles in which they are running around – through layers and layers and layers of laws, rules, customs, traditions, institutions, agencies, arrests, detentions, elevations, medals, foreign trips, loans, authorities, judgments – all repeating the behaviours that would SEEM to be reformist. All repeating failure. All doing ‘successfully’. An ecosystem mocking itself as it flies from one crisis to the next – seeking indicators of success, congratulating itself on every isomorph. Rinsing. Repeating. Forever.