The technocrat problem

In September 2014, there was a seminar in Islamabad organised by the government to present Vision 2025, which was developed by McKinsey & Company, the prestigious global consulting firm. Salman Ahmad, a partner at McKinsey, presented the array of policy options that his team developed in conjunction with the government for the direction the economy needs to take, and during his presentation, made a somewhat telling, if cliched comment: that the solutions to Pakistan’s problems are obvious, if only we had the political will to implement them. With due respect to Mr Ahmad — whom I freely admit is much smarter than I am — that is just plain wrong. Perhaps, an even greater cardinal sin for a top strategy consultant, it is intellectually lazy.

There is a myth — a dangerous one — that pervades all of Pakistani society: that somehow there is a single set of solutions to all of the problems that affect the country and if only we were to have the honest, sincere leaders who would implement them, all would be well in the land of the pure. Our middle class, particularly PTI supporters, love the idea that technocrats can solve everything and that it is all those dirty politicians who are the problem. The reality, however, is rarely quite so simple.

The fundamental flaw in the way we view technocrats is that we think of them as substitutes for politicians. We think that being dispassionate and nonpartisan is good, and that having an ideological view, or supporting a specific political party or agenda is bad. Here is why this view is not only wrong, but dangerously arrogant: it assumes that one person or a single group of people have enough wisdom to decide what is best for everybody in the country, a view that is verifiably false.

To support a specific political party is not to condone all of its flaws or corrupt politicians. It is to acknowledge that if government is the vehicle we use to pool together our collective resources to provide essential services to people, politics is the negotiation process by which we decide who gets what. Having a republic means that all of the many groups that constitute our country get a voice in that decision-making process, making the process not only fairer, but also better.

Picking a political party is not to endorse all its politicians as angels, nor even to ignore their failings: it is simply appointing a negotiator on one’s behalf. And for technocrats to work within political parties, does not mean having to give up their intellectual independence. It is to recognise that the power of their ideas would be multiplied manifold if they were trusted by the elected representatives of the people, a trust that can only be earned through loyalty.

People often fault former president Asif Ali Zardari for not standing firmly behind Shaukat Tarin when he was finance minister. Tarin is unquestionably a smart man, and perhaps even the best man for the job, but why should Zardari have allowed Tarin a free rein, knowing full well that Tarin could very well begin supporting his rivals? Zardari’s lack of trust in Tarin was not that Tarin would not make intelligent decisions or provide sound advice; it was that his decisions would not take into consideration the political interests of the PPP.

There is a role for technocrats and consultants to play in our government. But if they expect to be effective in making things happen, they have to stop acting as though they are above the political fray, and they have to stop hoping to persuade politicians to act against their self-interest. That is almost never going to happen. They have to roll up their sleeves, pick a team, earn their trust, and then help them get things done.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 30th,  2015

Farooq Tirmizi

CEO, Elphinstone

Farooq Tirmizi is the founder and CEO of Elphinstone, the financial services firm that operates SmartRupee.

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