Pakistan’s Enduring Governance Challenges


Pakistan’s Enduring Governance Challenges


Asadullah Noonari

It is the quality and features of governance that translate the extent of peace and stability and prospects of economic development in a country. The word governance is derived from the Greek word ‘kubernaein’, meaning steering or piloting. It was also used by Plato concerning how to design a realm of rule. In contemporary political literature, the term ‘governance’ has gained currency after it was first coined by the World Bank in 1980s in its development reports. Since then, it has evolved from a narrow definition used by the World Bank as the “the manner in which power is exercised in the management of a country’s economic and social resources” to the broader definition as “the sum of the many ways in which individuals and institutions, public and private, manage their common affairs” as adopted by the Commission on Global Governance. So, governance, today, refers to something broader than a government. Though there is no consensus on its conceptual framework, it is an agreed-upon fact that it rests on the principles of justice, freedom, equality and accountability.

In the circles of political analysts, veterans and observers, it is an established fact that good governance is of great significance to the well-being of a country’s people. The stark difference between good and bad governance was aptly depicted by a noted Italian painter, Ambrogio Lorenzetti, in his 14th-century famous frescoes. One part of the frescoes pictures good governance; a beautiful city where justice and freedom reign supreme, where men are working, some are ploughing and others cultivating vine. Children are playing and young women dancing. On the contrary, the part of frescoes show a tyrant on a throne and justice lying tied up on the ground. None is working, no cultivated fields; the only activity is raping women and killing men. 

Moreover, in the past two decades or so, empirical and theoretical evidence have rendered a new insight into the concept of governance. It implies that the quality of governance and institutions determines the broader socioeconomic progress and distribution of the gains of growth. The benefits of economic policies, however efficacious or benign they may be, cannot be dispersed widely unless the institutions interceding these policies are vibrant, effective and efficient. Governance, as a whole, transcends the institutions, rules and practices that provide incentives and set the limits.  

In the case of Pakistan, we see that the country has been stuck in a quagmire of weak governance due to repeated disruptions and derailment of governmental functioning. Provision of basic amenities to the people of the country has been greatly hampered due to inept and inefficient governance. Weak state institutions, rampant corruption, poor democratic dispensation, centralized power structure and a lax tax system lie at the heart of the problem.

Nevertheless, Pakistan has shown improvement in the Worldwide Governance Indicators (WGI) Report, 2017, developed by the World Bank, in all the six dimensions of governance. These include political stability and absence of violence, voice and accountability, regulatory quality, government effectiveness, rule of law and control of corruption.

Improvement in above six indicators is relative to previously recorded data in 2008 and 2012. However, the performance is quite poor if compared to the South Asian mean and other countries in the region. Sri Lanka and India have regularly outperformed Pakistan by considerable margins. For instance, in ‘government effectiveness’ indicator, Pakistan stands at a dismal 31 percent, whereas South Asian average is 41 and India leading the region with a percentage ranking of  57. Besides, Pakistan showed below-average performance in other indicators as well.32

Unfortunately, chronic political instability and prevailing oligarchy-dominated politics have become the biggest obstacle to the evolution of modern governance. Eventually, it has resulted in adopting short-term policies and a narrow approach towards the issues which demand years in their execution and implementation. Today’s mounting water and energy shortages are the outcomes of negligence of past governments, for instance. Consequently, the governance challenges have multiplied and intensified, embroiling the country in an abysmal state of poor governance.

Following are some of the biggest enduring governance challenges the country faces.

Firstly, economic governance has deteriorated to the point where the economy has lurched from one financial crisis to the next in the last few decades. At the top of the issue are unaddressed structural problems in the economy and poor management of public finances—the problems that poor governance and bad management have further exacerbated. The implications are evident in the shape of macroeconomic instability, growing unemployment, high inflation, deteriorating debt profile, poor public services, widespread corruption, crippling power outages, soaring poverty and criminal neglect of the social sector.               

According to the Pakistan Economic Survey, average annual growth rates remained 6.8% in 1960s, and 4.8%, 6.5%, 4.6% in 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, respectively; whereas, in the last decade, the annual average growth rate was 4.9%. This volatile growth exposes the deep-seated structural flaws in the economy. There is no denying the fact that there is a direct correlation between higher GDP growth rate and foreign financial inflows. It is what Pakistan experienced in the interlude of martial laws.

Poor governance is also exemplified by recurrent ‘loan waivers’. A total of Rs 403 billion were written off by different governments between 1997 and 2009, causing a colossal loss to public exchequer. It did not stop here, the last government of PML-N waived off Rs 280 billion in bank loans over a period of three years, i.e. 2013-15, and the incumbent PTI government has written off Rs 300 billion in the last year alone. Moreover, country’s tax-to-GDP ratio has slipped to around 11% in the last two fiscals, from 13% in the year 2017-18. The fundamental reasons behind this inconsistent performance are the ad-hoc policies and high dependence on foreign assistance. WtQUow0          

Secondly, centralized governance has abandoned the institutional capacity to deliver at the grassroots level. Local bodies, which make the third tier of governance structure, have been neglected. Pakistan’s governance structure has been based upon two tiers, federal and provincial, historically. This is in spite of the fact that the 18th Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan has ensured permanent existence of local bodies in the country’s governance structure under Article 140-A of the constitution which states, “Each Province shall, by law, establish a local government system and devolve political, administrative and financial responsibility, and authority to the elected representatives of the local governments.” Local bodies have been put in a cold storage. Frequent changes in Local Government Acts by all provincial governments have brought the functioning of this imperative tier to a standstill. Provincial governments, with the exception of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, have even failed to establish Provincial Finance Commissions to divide the resources among provincial and district governments. Ironically, it reveals the contradictions of popular rhetoric of decentralization; provinces demanding more powers from the federal concurrent list while ceasing to devolve the rightful functions to their district governments. Nonetheless, it is inevitable to share the powers to smaller administrative and political units for better service delivery to common man and good governance at large.        

Thirdly, fragile institutional governance has posed many challenges. Almost all the key public-sector institutions such as PIA, Pakistan Railways, Wapda and Pakistan Steel Mills suffer from multiple problems; political interference, over-managing, widespread corruption, mismanagement and nepotism in appointments are rampant. As a result, the budget of almost 20 percent of all the total tax revenue every year has to be set aside in order to meet recurring losses of, or make up for subsidies given to, those enterprises. It was confirmed by the government on 5th June, when it told the Senate that total accumulated losses of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) had surpassed the annual defence spending.  labor-3485805_1920-21zwoep

Fourthly and finally, current education governance has posed serious challenges to the country. Pakistan ranks 113th out of 120 countries in the Education Development Index of UNESCO. Its literacy rate stands at 57% (including those who could only write their names), well behind its neighbours. It has also the world’s second highest population of out-of-school children. The total annual average expenditure of public sector education is barely 2 percent and the problem is compounded by weak governance, insufficient trained teachers and their absenteeism. Moreover, prevailing education sector is stratified in three parallel streams; public-run schools, private schools and madrasas, each having its own curriculum and examination conduct. Its consequences have been well summed up in the National Internal Security Policy 2014-18 which says: “Serious cleavages have appeared in the society as a result of these systems, and continued existence in parallel spheres compounds the possibilities of violence among divided youth.”

The history of Pakistan confirms the validity of empirical evidence and theoretical literature about governance in developing countries. The cost of centralization of power and political instability Pakistan had to pay has been in the form of poor governance and institutional decay. Nevertheless, the country has shown flexibility when it comes to national agenda; from 18th amendment to NFC to merger of Fata with KP. It has also been successful in establishing vibrant institutions like SBP, National Highways and Motorway Police, Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, and so on.     

Countries with strong institutions, decentralized governance structure and policies based on long-term planning prosper by ensuring delivery of basic services. The governance standards can be ameliorated through the internationally established best practices, historical experiences and various characteristics peculiar to the situation of Pakistan.     


The author is a candidate of BS in the department of Government and Public Policy at National Defence University, Islamabad.

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