Institutional deficits —Munir Attaullah

While ‘corruption’ as an institutional deficit must always be of serious concern, institutional ‘delivery’ is of greater importance

We all talk glibly of, and lament over, that presumed Achilles’ heel of ours in the handling of public affairs: weak or non-existent institutions.

Rectify such institutional deficits and a lot of our problems will disappear, we are told. Additionally, our conventional wisdom has it that dictatorships, in their nature, are averse to either nurturing or strengthening institutions. We need ‘sustained democracy’ if we are to build responsive and accountable institutions.

I want today to re-think these matters. What led me to do so was a recent casual social discussion I had with a friend. So let me first recount for you what he told me.

Like a good many of you reading this, my friend belongs to an elite social club in one of our major cities. Anyone in that city who is status conscious, or has social pretensions, is a member, and the waiting list of aspirants will put to shame any queue for subsidised atta at the local utility store. That should surprise no one. The all-round facilities are top-drawer, with even a small fraction of that on offer being unavailable to the average citizen. And, though the joining fee now may be high by Pakistani standards, the monthly bills are highly affordable.

With thousands of members, the club, naturally, has a healthy annual income, and a substantial bank balance. And, as you would expect, the members, through regular elections, elect a committee that has the responsibility of managing (with the help of professional staff) all the varied affairs of the club, supposedly, in the best interests of the membership at large.

Is this not a good model of democracy at work? Should the workings of such a club, of supposedly educated and responsible people, not be a model of institutional behaviour?

I should have thought so.

But not according to my friend, who as a member of the club in question, has the necessary inside information not vouchsafed to outsiders. I cannot say for certain what he told me is true (I have no way of knowing), and yet I have no reason to disbelieve him either (for he has no personal axe to grind). With that proviso in place, what follows is roughly what he had to say to me.

The club functions reasonably well and the members are, by and large, happy enough with the services provided. The trouble is, there is more than a whiff of scandal rooted in various financial scams, that apparently seem to be a semi-permanent feature of the way the affairs of his club are managed: thus, for example, activities of the club that should normally produce a healthy profit, show large inexplicable losses; purchase procedures for goods and services lack full transparency; and some of the aspirants for membership mysteriously jump the long queue in front of them to get in, etc. etc.

“But does the club not have reputable auditors who can highlight such matters in their annual report? Don’t you have an AGM, where the committee can be held accountable for their alleged misdeeds, by the members? Why do the members elect to the committee people of dubious reputation?” I asked, naturally enough, with an air of feigned innocence.

Simultaneously, I wondered silently if a similar problem afflicted our other well-known social clubs in the major cities. And who has not heard the non-stop grumbles against those various sporting bodies of the country whose management is nominated rather than elected? Are they any better off or worse off?

I found no satisfactory answers. But my friend’s reply was a lament that was all too familiar. I was told that, apparently, there is a sort of an entrenched ‘two party system’ in operation that makes it difficult for an independent-minded candidate to get sufficient votes to get elected on his own steam: ‘party candidates’ stick together as a tightly-knit group and do an effective job, both in canvassing (where lavish entertainment is standard procedure), and in mobilising their supporters to turn up and vote for them on election day.

In contrast, the complainers and would-be-reformers (the ‘civil society’ equivalent) are disorganised, and do not seem to have the needed energy or the political will to combine their efforts for a sustained and effective electoral contest.

Most of them have better things to do in life than the grubby and tedious business of asking for votes and serving gratis on committees. Besides, the club makes a reasonable job of catering to the needs of the members, and the misappropriations, though substantial, do not seriously threaten the otherwise healthy financial position of the club. As for raising such questions at AGMs, who can be bothered to turn up? They are packed anyway with committee supporters.

And so life goes on in that club. But has the story any significance for those matters I referred to in the first paragraph? For, clearly, the club is as venerable and as solid an institution as we can hope to find in our country and no one can say it functions on other than democratic principles. So, what should we infer?

A number of things, I think.

First of all, even though the club appears to be helpless — at any rate, in practice — to deal with corruption, I do not think that affects the argument that it must be better, in principle, to elect rather than nominate. For, in the former case, at least the theoretical possibility exists to vote out a corrupt or inept management, while the track record of nominated officials to various sporting bodies does not inspire much confidence.

The second inference I draw is that while ‘corruption’ as an institutional deficit must always be of serious concern, institutional ‘delivery’ is of greater importance. For, as we saw, the club meets the needs of the members sufficiently effectively, to avoid a ‘revolution’ or a ‘revolt’ in the rank and file. It is the institution that fails to deliver sufficiently (because of its ineptitude) that is unacceptable, even though it may be free of the curse of corruption.

Now where have I heard such an argument before? Ah! Yes, I remember: in this very column, of course, and many times. The evil of corruption exists in every society. Only, in advanced societies, the modus operandi is, perforce, subtle and not brazen, because the latter procedure is socially unacceptable. We, on the other hand, do not find even brazen corruption to be either socially odious, or legally nail-able.

If so, why cannot we be practical and, instead of going on about corruption in our current stage of social development, concentrate instead on that which is eminently do-able, even by us: let us insist on more efficiency and less ineptitude from our institutions. Maybe the MQM — who collect bhatta but also ‘deliver’ — understand what I mean.

The writer is a businessman

Source: Daily Times, 9/7/2008

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