Trials of a client state- Palvasha von Hassell

Most of Pakistan’s problems can be traced to its status, past and present, of serving as a pawn in furthering America’s geostrategic and ideological interests in the region. From the mid-fifties onwards, Pakistan’s history has been one of alternating adoption and rejection by the US, with economic growth linked to the former and stagnation following the Americans.

While it is conceivable that a fledgling state like Pakistan would have found it difficult to resist being drawn into the Cold War back in the fifties and sixties, it can be argued that this could have been avoided in the late seventies if the right decisions had been taken on time. This would have had enormous repercussions in the region as well, plus the phenomenon of extremism could not have flourished as it has. If Pakistan is to avoid making the same mistakes in future, it is important to understand what has been going wrong so far.

The main problem has been that the considerable dividends accruing to it in the form of financial flows, economic and military aid either directly from the US or financial institutions controlled by it, such as the World Bank and the IMF, have not been invested in the country with a view to bringing about long-term improvement in its economy and its human potential.

The economic boom that followed Pakistan’s close alignment with a US anxious to curtail Soviet influence in Asia in the late fifties and sixties was unfortunately squandered, whereas it should have been invested in economic and social reforms. These would have put the country on the kind of sound footing that does not need constant foreign financial support, for which it has to fulfil questionable tasks as quid pro quos. With per capita income standing 50 percent higher than that of India at the time, the important question for all developing countries, namely that of raising domestic savings rates by reforming the taxation and public expenditure, should have been addressed. Instead, there was war with India, which eventually also led to foreign aid drying up.

The neglect of Pakistan’s rapidly growing young population is of scandalous proportions. Human capital is today the greatest asset developing countries can have. But only if it is trained to become a modern highly skilled work force that is capable of participating in a world economy that requires high-value-added products and high-tech services. Because there was no attempt to educate the masses and develop science and technology, a field India can be proud of, Pakistan’s millions of bright young people are poorly educated, have minimal job prospects and who, to escape apathy, not infrequently fall into the extremist trap.

Taking part in a conference on education in Pakistan in Berlin recently, I had the unenviable task of relating this sad story of missed opportunities. True, higher education, science and technology did get considerable boost under Musharraf, but it has come too late. Education has generally to be made available much more widely than is the case, at all levels and without gender bias.

Pakistan’s current rate of population growth could make its population the fifth largest in the world, reaching between 230 and 260 million by 2030. If the right steps had been taken back in the sixties to educate its girls and boys, Pakistan now would be much better integrated into the world economy and the infrastructure to ensure further generations of educated Pakistanis would be in place and functioning.

If these steps had been taken, the country would have been in a better position to absorb the shock of the US rejection during the Bhutto years, after another disastrous war with India and during which the economy fared so badly that by the time Zia took power Pakistan was holding out its begging bowl again.

Then Pakistan signed up to fight the Soviets, this time right next door in Afghanistan, for which parts of the Frontier Province were used to indoctrinate young minds with the poison of jihadism conceived by a think tank in Nebraska. Zia unleashed his unholy Islamisation with beards and closed minds appearing on the campus of Peshawar University.

These were the consequences, the blowback of which both Pakistan and the world are facing now. Needless to say, during the Zia era the Pakistani youth was ruined rather than educated. Nor was any sustainable ground for economic growth laid, with the result that in 2000 Pakistan, once again under military rule and penniless, signed on for the next war for the US, with no visible end in sight so far.

Closely related to the lack of a good public education system has been the lack of democratic institutions in the country, with the chronic political instability as a result. This has produced weak leaders interested only in self-aggrandisement and vulnerable to pressures from both the army and from Washington.

What are the prospects for the future? There are no quick solutions, nor perfect ones. We have seen why we stand where we do. If the problem is identified, only then can the solutions be considered. The problems, to name the principal ones, are: a) a slowing economy hit by the global food crisis and oil prices, b) one of the lowest literacy rates in the world and c) lack of a political culture, and d) extremism and violence.

The only long-term solution to all these problems is an educated population. For example, only trained workers can produce the goods needed to diversify exports, a measure badly needed to remedy Pakistan’s trade deficit and improve the economy; the Information Age needs IT experts and only educated citizens can take enlightened and unselfish initiatives to improve the political institutions of the country.

The demon of extremism, a self-created one, can only be exorcised slowly by training minds to think critically and solve problems. With Asia set to increase its share of global economic power in a major way in the future, Pakistan must act now and start turning its huge population into an asset, not a burden.

The writer is pursuing an MPhil degree at Cambridge University. Email:

Source: the News, 16/7/2008


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