Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Conversation With Political Economist/Columnist Mosharraf Zaidi (Part I)

Alright, so The News columnist Mosharraf Zaidi and I agreed to have a public conversation on a bunch of issues. Since there were a BUNCH of emails exchanged, I'm dividing the discussion into two parts. The first is on education in Pakistan, clientelism, Barack Obama, and Asif Zardari (and his team). The second, which will be posted tomorrow, is on the IMF bailout, Pakistan's political economy, the middle class in Pakistan, and foreign policy. Without further ado...

Ahsan: Alright, Mosharraf, why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself? Where did you go to school? What do you now other than write columns for The News?

Mosharraf: Thanks Ahsan. The main school in my life was home. My mom, grandfather, uncles--all teachers. I started high school at a Canadian public school, did my O'levels at an Islamabadi private school, and wrapped up with an F.Sc. from a quasi-military college in Islamabad. You can hardly be better prepared to understand why the world doesn't quite work for everybody after that. Yet somehow, the Good Lord decided I wasn't. So I got a Bachlors from LUMS, the first undergrad class there, and a Masters from Baruch College, in New York City.

I have done a fair bit of public policy work in the US and Pakistan. So I spend a lot of time outside of writing on advising donors, governments and nonprofits on what to do, how to pay for it, and how to get it done. None of what I do is rocket science. Its amazing how linear things are not. Or how not-linear, things are.

Ahsan: Let's go back to the education question. You have a highly eclectic educational background, and you obviously have family connections to the world of education. This may be too broad and open-ended a question, but have a dig at it anyway: what are structural factors impeding Pakistan's educational system? Why are institutions of higher education so decrepit? Why do primary and secondary schools - the ones that actually exist - so ill-prepare our youth for being tolerant as well as productive members of society?

Mosharraf: You know this question is so common. As a public policy issue, I've not met an educated Pakistani who doesn't think about this issue on a regular basis. Its amazing then, that as the number of educated Pakistanis increases (pure math, not progress), the condition of the Pakistani education unsystem (its unfair to call it a system) gets worse. There's a lot of questions in there. Let's take them one by one.

Structurally, there are two overwhelming factors that have catalyzed the rot. Money and jobs.

On money, there is simply not enough of it being put into education as a sector by government. It hovers between 2 and 2.5 percent of GDP. Now just to put that into context, consider that New Zealand spends just under 7% of its GDP on education, South Korea, around 5%, and India consistently over 3.5%. If budgets are the surest way of measuring a country's priorities, then its clear that education is simply not a priority for Pakistan.

On jobs, there is, since the 1970s in particular, a committment by the political parties to use the state as the employer of first and last resort. The politics is relatively simple. Someone that knows that the only reason they have a tenured job--be it a driver, a naib qasid or a teacher--is because of the patronage of thier political party, they'll be forever indebted. Political parties then use this debt to resource campaigns and favoruable treatment even outside of campaign cycles. It should not be a surprise that the highest percentrage of employees in the public sector are teachers. I could be wrong, but am quite certain upwards of 80% in all four provinces and the federal government. What does the jobs issue mean? Simply that teaching ability plays almost no role whatsoever in the selection and appointment of teachers. Teaching acheivement plays no role in the promotion of teachers, and teaching potential plays no role in the career growth of a teacher.

Institutes of higher education are a mixed bag. Just as a disclosure, I should point out my involvement in the formation of the HEC and the higher ed reforms of 2002. I was obviously not leading that effort, but I was a key member of the management team for something called the Steering Committee on Higher Education (SCHE), which was tasked with formulating a post UGC world in which the core structural and financial issues of universities would get sorted.

Public universities in Pakistan had been poorly structured at the top. The separation of executive and oversight authorities was just not there. There was no emphasis on research at any university, because teacher incentives were non-existent. The HEC was an attempt to right a lot of wrongs. While I never agreed with the science and engineering skew of the HEC, which was a problem for many eminent members of the SCHE as well, it was the best time in university education in Pakistani history. The teachers' unions, stacked with political operatives at the top and sheep beneath them knew that if the reforms actually worked, they would be out of jobs and young people would actually get a chance to learn and grow -- rather than become bitter and unemployed at the end of thier university experiences.

I can go into a lot of detail on this, but let's leave it at this: As soon as it came into power, the PPP government decided to essentially destroy the HEC. The entire management team was sacked, the Finance Division, which hated handing money to the HEC to begin with, basically has cutoff almost all the funding it had been getting during the Musharra era. Of course, as long as the PPP can hand out a few more jobs, I suppose the price to be paid is small--its just a bunch of lower middle and middle class kids trying to learn afterall.

Ahsan: Well, as Asif Zardari famously said, he "is the expert". How can you quibble with that? So do you think that all political parties generally engage in the same level of clientelism or do you see a distinction between those based on feudal/business interests (the PPP/PML-N) and those that draw their support from urban middle class, relatively educated people (the MQM/JI)?

Mosharraf: Sure. No quibbling with the Mr. President! I think that the MQM and Jamaat have had the luxury of being protected by their limited constituencies. But both have demonstrated the same flashes of clientelism as everyone else. The MQM in particular has learnt, post-Operation Cleanup, that the Muhajir people have no reason to be left off the gravy train of making juice out of the public sector, and the Jamaat learnt during its unexpected rise to the top of the Sarhad heap on the coattails of the JUI (F), that its brand of "honest", middle class mullah deserved some sugar just like everyone else. I think the PML (N) is more urban and less client-patron focused than we think--largely because its power base has dramatically changed--demography, economics and post 9/11 cultural adjustments in the Punjab. And I think the PPP has gotten worse, because it has no Bhutto magic left. All that's left is to give out jobs and favours and hope the love spreads.

Ahsan: Speaking of spreading the love, what are your thoughts/opinions on the Messiah aka Lord Almighty aka Jesus aka the male Oprah aka Obama?

Mosharraf: I think he's the most transcendent and fascinating political talent we've seen. His election is a reminder of the magic of American democracy and renewal. He's more tentative and careful than he needs to be, but he is deeply conscious of who he is, where he's come from and what the stakes are. He's been more tentative than I'd like, especially on consumer behavior. But talking to Al Arabiya before Fox? And speaking directly to Muslims? He's the 21st century president we should have grown up with. America gets it right again. Having said all this, I should point out he's the president of the US, not Pakistan or Palestine. Anyone expecting that he'll cater to constituencies outside those that elected him, are dangerously out of touch with how the world works. If Pakistanis want a solution to Pakistan's issues, they'll need to find thier own Obama.

Ahsan: There are a number of things that drew me to him almost immediately. The first is his obvious intelligence - and intellectual curiosity. David Brooks once made the great point that he has spent almost his entire adult life around three of the top ten universities in the U.S. - Columbia (undergrad), Harvard (law school) and U of C (professor of law). This is reflected in the way he speaks (constant balance of thought) and, as you say, his deep cognizance of who he is and where he comes from. It is also reflected in his ridiculous ability to intersperse the mundane minutiae of daily politics with philosophy. This was probably my favorite passage about him during the election season, also drawn from a Brooks op-ed:

Yesterday evening I was interviewing Barack Obama and we were talking about effective foreign aid programs in Africa. His voice was measured and fatigued, and he was taking those little pauses candidates take when they're afraid of saying something that might hurt them later on.

Out of the blue I asked, "Have you ever read Reinhold Niebuhr?"

Obama's tone changed. "I love him. He's one of my favorite philosophers."

So I asked, What do you take away from him?

"I take away," Obama answered in a rush of words, "the compelling idea that there's serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn't use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away ... the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism."

My first impression was that for a guy who's spent the last few months fund-raising, and who was walking off the Senate floor as he spoke, that's a pretty good off-the-cuff summary of Niebuhr's "The Irony of American History." My second impression is that his campaign is an attempt to thread the Niebuhrian needle, and it's really interesting to watch.

The second thing that drew me to him is related to the first, and that is that no politician I have ever seen or heard privileges "thought" and "science" the way he does. More than anyone I've ever seen, he wants to know what the research suggests. He is ideological to be sure, but he's also an empiricist. As a budding social scientist, I love that about him.

The third thing that drew me to him is his ability to the human Rorschach test: we all project on to him what we would like to. This is the reason he can hang with Jay-Z as comfortably as he can with Tony Blair as comfortably as he can with professors at a conservative law school like U of C as comfortably as he can with black preachers.

But as you say, his tentativeness is worrying. To misappropriate Plato's terminology, I fear he may too much philosopher and not enough king.

Mosharraf: Well the fact there is an imbalance there, is a function I think, of his historic stature. In many ways, it is disabling. There's the old theory about how revolutionaries make for poor governors. Obama is no revolutionary in terms of his individual brilliance (President Josiah Bartlett had a PhD and a Nobel Prize -- sic), nor indeed in terms of his team (mostly borderline neocons in Dem-clothing). He is however revolutionary in that there isn't any demographic in the US today that doesnt look at its young and think, hey, that kid could grow up to be President. I know this is overplayed, but I have Americans in my family that ten years ago said things like voting was not important, who are now registered Democrats. It really is unprecedented.

More than anything else, I try not to let my fascination of the man cloud the lessons available in Obama's story for developing economies and democracies like Pakistan. Grassroots politics, message consistency, not losing your cool--EVER, being comfortable with God, faith and public life, without prosecuting those that don't beleive what you beleive, like you beleive it. There is a lot of wisdom in the little parts of the Obama narrative, without us ever needing to be blinded by the brilliance of the whole package.

Ahsan: Did you think he would get by Clinton? Did you think he would get by the Republican slime-machine?

Mosharraf: I was sure he would blow by Clinton after Maryland. More than SC, I thought Maryland would be the tsunami that put him over the top. And when Richardson endorsed, I thought that was a really big sign that the post-Clinton Dem orthodoxy would just not allow the Clintons back in. I think what he's done to the party, is a story that is lost in the overall context. It is fantastic.

I was less sure about the Republican slime-machine. I mean the repeated references to him being Muslim, and to Bill Ayers for example, were scary. Yet, again, I think history and events conspired in favor of Obama. The cynical choice of Palin was in retrospect, suicidal. Just goes to show there aren't many ladies in the Republican Party, coz if they thought women would vote on the basis of organs and biology--well we all know how it worked out. But even on the map, imagine, Charlie Crist on the ticket, and McCain takes Florida. Tom Ridge on the ticket and he takes Pennsylvania, and Ohio. I mean, even Romney could have delivered a couple of extra states. So I think the electoral college math might have been different in a sense, if the smile machine had just not turned on at all. Most of all, I think I was worried that he'd get wiped out on a terror-event right before the election. This is all after-the-fact analysis though! Who really knows!

Ahsan: The Poli Sci world was basically quite sure about him getting by McCain. The fundamentals of elections too heavily favored the Democrat. I don't know how far along I was with that consensus, but I do remember thinking many times along the campaign: goddamn, this guy's good. He was always on an even keel, kept his message concise and consistent, and didn't let the battle(s) of winning the daily news cycle impinge on the grander war of the election. Hillary and McCain, both of whom have seen and done much more in politics, were basically schooled.

Mosharraf: True. There's a lot to be said for having a PhD in the science of politics! I have to say I was, and continue to be in awe of his temperament. Its superhuman.

Ahsan: Speaking of superhuman, let's talk about Asif Zardari. Put yourself in his shoes for a minute (if you can muster the abilities of self-mutilation). You have no real education. Your last name is not Bhutto. You don't know how to woo and play the media (domestic or foreign). You have no discernible skills, other than the accumulation of masses of wealth.

And yet, you have expertly sidelined opponents both within the party (Amin Fahim) and without (Iftikhar Chaudhry and Nawaz Sharif). You, as basically a no-name feudal, have come to appropriate the language of parliamentary democracy (or Haqqani has done it for you, whatever). Pre 26/11, the Army was, if nothing else, exhibiting patience with you, as was Uncle Sam. You were, in other words, King of the World, and didn't have the foggiest idea of what to do once you got to the top of the hill.

Where do you go from here?

Mosharraf: We underestimate President Zardari. He has demonstrated an instinct for political survival that belies his seeming lack of preparation for the role he is in. Someone pointed out that the President doesn't ever appear on television, doesn't visit any part of the country and is generally invisible. I thought to myself, that's not fear or stupidity. Its genius. Part of the survival of this government is predicated on his not being a major presence. Yet in most of the important areas of business in a PPP government--massive employment programmes, money giveaways like the Benazir Income Support Programme, a bloated bureaucracy--he and the heirs of the Bhutto legacy are the primary beneficiaires. Those jobs that the PPP creates today are worth thier weight in gold, politically.

Let's also remember that while his advisors are not going to win a place on people's Top Friends application in Facebook, they are brilliant employees of the Zardari-Bhutto enterprise. No one knows the systems of government like Salman Faruqi, no one knows the police like Rehman Malik, no one knows the newspapers like Sherry Rehman, no one knows the Pakistan-analyst community in DC like Hussain Haqqani, no one knows muscle in the post modern Punjab like Salman Taseer. Its a dream team man. You don't need to like them, but I guarantee there isnt a better assembly line to serve the Zardari-Bhutto enterprise than these folks. Anyone that can plug into this, in terms of aligned priorities will also benefit from the current dispensation.

As far as where he goes from here, I think, regardless of 26/11, this is not a party with a very long best-before date. The music lowers sometime this year. The lights go off whenever they go off, but there are lots of speedbumps ahead.

UPDATE: You can read part II here.


AKS said...

Excellent piece. Do hurry up with part 2.

Kalsoom said...

Great interview Ahsan. I thought his points on education were interesting - mainly because I'm handling this very issue for work right now, but considering the fact that the U.S. is funneling (via USAID) and will be funneling a lot money into Pakistan's education and health sectors, why have things still been so ineffective? Has it been the program design? I think the solution isn't to throw more money at the sectors, but to learn how to use it more effectively, and to implement it properly. There seems to be a major gap between the aid that comes in and the results we see.

I really loved this line, but it greatly saddened me: "If Pakistanis want a solution to Pakistan's issues, they'll need to find thier own Obama."

Who on earth would be our Obama?

Tazeen said...

//Let's also remember that while his advisors are not going to win a place on people's Top Friends application in Facebook, they are brilliant employees of the Zardari-Bhutto enterprise. No one knows the systems of government like Salman Faruqi, no one knows the police like Rehman Malik, no one knows the newspapers like Sherry Rehman, no one knows the Pakistan-analyst community in DC like Hussain Haqqani, no one knows muscle in the post modern Punjab like Salman Taseer. Its a dream team man.//

Mosharaf sahib, that was just about the most perfect analysis of the current government and you get brownie points for brevity.

Sputnik said...

I came here to write a snarky response to your comment on SOS (fitting acronym, eh?)... but I have to say this interview was fascinating, particularly the parts on education and Obama. Well done!

redkazim said...

Waiting for the second part...

AKS said...

"...ability to intersperse the mundane minutiae of daily politics with philosophy."

Whatever man, I like him because he's Muslim who can jive and score a mean three pointer!


I'm with Tazeen, the second last paragraph is brilliant.

hahahaha.... said...

"If Pakistanis want a solution to Pakistan's issues, they'll need to find thier own Obama."

No joke, that is probably the stupidest thing I have read or heard in a very long time.

Shame, because the rest of it was good.

Kalsoom said...

@ hahaha

I think the point of that line was that Obama will cater to his American constituency - so for us as Pakistanis or Palestinians to expect a dramatic change for our countries will probably not happen.

What was so stupid about that?

Ismat said...

@ AKS:

Don't forget that one of his favourite recreational activities is body surfing! How cool is THAT?!

Raza said...

"As soon as it came into power, the PPP government decided to essentially destroy the HEC. The entire management team was sacked, the Finance Division, which hated handing money to the HEC to begin with, basically has cutoff almost all the funding it had been getting during the Musharra era."

Much maligned is our ex-leader, but I've always maintained he'd got the right idea about most things. Sure, he was no Obama-ian orator, he was no Zardari-ian politician, and he sure as hell was no Sharif-ian appeaser. But where as politicians today fail to exude any genuine concern for institutional decay and rampant corruption, Musharraf at the very least talked about this stuff. He wasn't perfect, but he sent out the right vibes, and every so often, he would put together a High Education Commission or so, and try to fix things.

And while on the issue of leadership, Mosharraf I don't quite understand your point here: "Part of the survival of this government is predicated on his [Zardari] not being a major presence." Part of the initial success of Musharraf was his accessibility and approachability. Almost like Chavez, he was a TV regular. It set him apart from all former leaders, and particularly endeared him to my (younger) generation. I would think that Zardari's absence from the public eye would cement his slime-ball rep, and leave his critics unanswered.

lala pathan said...

great post brother ahsan, he made some excelent points and you asked some brilliant question there is nothing to add but that we can't wait for the next part nonetheless i would like to state that don't judge to conclusion abt obama yet, yes we as pakistanis need to find a good leader some 1 who is not zardari or musharraf but i wouldn't say obama because he hasn't really done any thng, but yeah if he does what F.D.ROOSEVELT did after the great depression then we could use his name as an example until then we should stick with clinton i guess...haha

hahaha said...

@ kalsoom

I know the context it was said in, and I still think its a stupid statement.

Obama's appeal so far is personal achievement in face of adversity.

His achievement with respect to his constituency, ie the US, stands at zero and can only be judged after he actually does something. His story is unique and inspiring, but the US is still woefully institutionally racist, is still illegally involved in the oppression of people all over the world (be they afghan, palestinian or indeed pakistani), is still torturing innocent people through proxies abroad, is still socially unjust etc etc.

IF he honestly improves on these double standards even a little, or just truly tries to - then sure, Pakistan needs someone like him.

Until then, we don't need a persona or hysteria-inducing celebrity who happened to win an election in the wake of the US's worst ever presidency and president and happened to be black.

Greg Martin said...

My Pakistani intellectualish friends, it might be difficult for you all to accept that an Obama is born out of a flawed machine like the Democratic Party of Illinois. So, in effect, Governor Blagojevich and Obama come out of the same process but with contrasting impacts.

Now, the more I read the Pakistani English language commentary the more I realize that most of you are somehow more inclined towards perfect solutions. So you will only keep getting Ralph Naders (on the blogs) and George W. Bushes (in power) rather than Obamas.

Has anyone, including Ahsan and Mosharraf ever voted or participated in anything truly political (like organizing in downtown Karachi or a Sindh or Punjab village)? It is time some of you combined your intellectualism with the real world of politics and maybe one of you can play David Axelrod to a future Pakistani Obama.

Until then, you will just be like Ralph Nader criticizing Zardari for being Bill Clinton, Malik for being Bill Richardson and Haqqani for being like Carville or Holbrooke.

Anonymous said...

Mosharraf is awesome.

Fasi Zaka