Upgrading Social Governance – Part II


 Salman Zaidi, Director Programs, Jinnah Institute

Safiya Aftab, Executive Director, Verso Consulting


 Mosharraf Zaidi, Senior Fellow, Tabadlab

Zafarullah Khan, Governance and Democracy Expert

Fauzia Yazdani, Social and Public Policy Advisor

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought existing fault lines into sharper focus and has raised concerns regarding the lack of a coordinated strategy in the face of such crises, stated Safiya Aftab. However, Pakistan is not by any means the only country that faced governance issues during this unprecedented time. In the Pakistani context, the health and education sectors have posed pressing questions in particular. Another aspect that was highlighted was the gendered impact of the crisis. Fauzia Yazdani pointed out that the mortality rate for children under the age of five is determined by a mother’s education, financial standing, and geographic location. She emphasised that it is important for the conversation to be anchored in looking at how the population dynamic is evolving and how the country is expanding. Furthermore, in times of such crises, priorities pertaining to education and health are the first to be sidelined in the cases of women, especially in households facing budgetary constraints.

Building on the intersection of gender and class, Mosharraf Zaidi stated that it would be impossible to evaluate the impact of COVID-19 without factoring in its impact on the work and livelihood of millions of low-income households across the country. On gender-based violence, Mr. Zaidi posed a couple of pertinent questions that need to be examined. “How much of gender violence is rooted in political oppression? To what extent is gendered violence being furthered because of the perpetual economic crisis these households find themselves in?” He further added that the volume of data being collected by the government currently is unprecedented in Pakistan’s history; this can be instrumental in helping devise better macro and micro policies. He added a caveat that the issue of who owns the data and how it can be accessed and by whom is a concern but a different debate entirely. In addition to the data angle, he pointed out that another positive during the pandemic has perhaps been the success of social protection programs such as the Benazir Income Support Program (BISP).

Reflecting on the state of affairs, Zafarullah Khan remarked that a couple of things have changed indefinitely. Particularly, the sense of space we were used to and the traditional structures and institutions, in addition to service delivery mechanisms that are no more conducive to social distancing SOP’s. “The entire notion of supply chains has been disrupted. How can we have an alternate supply chain for essential services in the future when there is such a crisis?” Mr. Khan further remarked that authoritarianism has had a great laugh during the pandemic. “The data collection while helpful for governance, also raises pertinent questions regarding data protection and abuse.” He added that there is a need to reimagine emergency clauses because giving blanket authority to populist or authoritarian regimes can have serious repercussions.

On the topic of technology gaining increasing importance since the onset of the pandemic, Mosharraf Zaidi opined that the technology question is perhaps overstated in the context of Pakistan. He explained that Pakistan has an enormous out of school population, and also a feature phone vs smartphone divide. Platform based solutions such as Zoom or WebX can perhaps solve some problems, but not all of them. “There is a need for retraining and helping the workforce learn new skills to adapt to this changing environment. Pakistan must do this in a time dwindling fiscal capacity; this is what sets Pakistan apart from the other countries.” With regards to social protection initiatives, he stated that there is a need for continuing relief measures such as the Ehsaas grant. To have a real conversation about universal basic income seems premature at this point considering the state’s capacity at the moment. In each of these non-COVID issues, there is one thing in common, a lack of funding. “How can we then address the digital divide and ensure provision of social protection? These gaps can only be filled with competence and money. The state needs to dedicate itself to find ways to fill these gaps, and that can only be done by raising money.”

Focusing on the health care sector, Fauzia Yazdani pointed out that technology has undoubtedly helped in recent times. This was illustrated by the setting up of psychosocial support helplines to assist women facing abuse amidst the pandemic. Moreover, phone applications such as the Women’s Safety app also helped in reporting crimes pertaining to gender-based violence. On the other hand, going forward, it is expected that we will face significant challenges relating to Maternal, Newborn, and Child Health (MNCH), and it is likely that we will have more complicated surgeries and unattended births because of the obstacles faced by Lady Health Workers (LHV). The fact that Basic Health Units (BHU) and Rural Health Clinics (RHC) are operating at a significantly reduced capacity further compounds the problem. She pointed out that abortion cases in Pakistan are four times that of in the US. This statistic perhaps encapsulates the crisis our health sector is facing.

On the subject of how governance can be improved going forward, Fauzia Yazdani stated that telehealth models need to be explored further as they have been successful in parts of Africa as well. Moreover, in Pakistan’s context, the issue is not limited to just the access to health services, but also the provision of commodities. She reiterated the importance of paying attention to the population dynamic and the need for instituting family planning measures. “Instead of funding initiatives such as the Tiger Force, the funds should perhaps be diverted towards the education and health sectors in areas of the country that are severely lagging behind. It is not just a matter of money, but also political will.” Agreeing with Ms. Yazdani’s remarks, Mosharraf Zaidi added that there is a clear case for universal basic income in Pakistan. Additionally, there is a need for a much more robust set of laws that protect citizens’ data and allow for access to data for service delivery. “At some point, there should be legislation to enforce the framing of policy and decision making using available data. There is a lot of data out there that is currently not being used for policy making on issues such as where to build infrastructure, schools, how many beds a hospital should have, and whether it should be primary, secondary, or tertiary health care.” He explained that these decisions are often arbitrary, based on personal or limited financial gain of the individual involved or notions of popularity as opposed to actual need. In consensus with the other panellists, Zafarullah Khan concluded by stating that the life vs livelihood narrative put forth by the government during the pandemic is problematic to say the least. “We need to reimagine our state and its priorities, and start focusing on the reallocation of our resources.”