On Giving

Faisal Bari

IN the last few months alone, I have come across numerous appeals on Facebook for monetary help. Some have needed money for educational expenses for themselves, for their children and in some cases for friends in dire need. Others have needed funds for accessing healthcare for themselves or their loved ones. Almost all the appeals are serious and some are heartbreaking such as asking for funds required for the treatment of cancer. Some are successful in raising the funds they need, others are not but, ex-ante, it is hard to predict who will be able to raise the funds and who will not.

Comments under such posts speak volumes for the kind of concerns people have. The ‘genuineness’ of the case raises the most concerns: is the need genuine and is the person in question really in the tough spot she/he is portraying her/himself to be in? Some want to know if all other possible avenues for fund raising have been exhausted before they are approached or before they are asked to donate. And then there are concerns about how the funds are going to reach the concerned person. Is there a bank account mentioned? Who does the account belong to? If it is not of the concerned person, how will the donor know if the money has reached the intended recipient?

Not all are able to raise the money they need. Sometimes, people feel that the expressed need is not worthy of being funded. At other times, it takes a long while for people to have their questions answered satisfactorily. They need a trusted source to verify that the need is genuine and they are not being hoaxed, that the funds will reach the right person and in time and so on. But most needs expressed on social media are emergent situations. Medical cases are usually serious cases that require timely if not immediate interventions and college university fees need to be paid on schedule as well.

The Pakistan Centre for Philanthropy (PCP) has done a fair bit of research on philanthropic giving in Pakistan. Some of their broader, well-established conclusions are worth iterating. Pakistanis do give a substantial amount in philanthropy and in the areas of health and education as well. But there are few local institutions that accept philanthropy that are trusted by Pakistanis in general. These few institutions are able to raise substantial amounts. But most other institutions, largely due to lack of information and trust, are not able to do so. So, most Pakistanis prefer to give on the basis of individually acquired information and through personalised channels. People help those whose needs they themselves know are genuine or that can be established as such through a trusted intermediary.

Not having institutions that you can trust can certainly have, other things remaining the same, a dampening effect on the sum total of philanthropic giving. If you do not have people around you who need help, and if you cannot trust institutions that could reach out to people who need help but who are not known to you, you might decide to give less. It makes sense for the PCP to work on ways of ensuring that people have more information about certified institutions so that more avenues for institutional giving are opened up.

But the need for keeping channels of more personalised giving open and making them more efficient still remains. Institutions, by definition, have more rigid and standardised rules, and more bureaucratic and time-consuming ways of responding. While all this is necessary for institutions to function well, it also makes it more difficult for institutions to respond to emergent and more atypical requests. Personalised giving can be quick, idiosyncratic and tolerant of deviance.

But personalised giving requires a certain degree of information revelation and trustworthiness too. When personalised giving was restricted to more immediate circles, the knowledge and trust requirements were not difficult to meet. Social and audio/visual media has allowed us to increase the reach of personalised networks significantly. We can access acquaintances and even relative strangers quite easily now. This allows us much better and bigger possibilities of finding kindred spirits. But how do we extend truthful and trustworthy information revelation mechanisms across the social media as well?

Can an institution fill the gap? Could an institution that is trusted to authenticate information step in to address the information and trust issue highlighted here? Could this institution respond quickly to the needs of those who need help and to those who might be interested in helping? And could this institution do this on a sustainable basis? Or would it be too costly and non-sustainable for an institution to step into this space? Could a computer application be developed to help in this area? I do not have the answer for this. But this missing market does require an answer. Maybe readers can suggest solutions to the problem.

What is obvious is that a solution is needed. Given the weak health, education and welfare systems/institutions in Pakistan and the rampant income, wealth and power inequalities in the country, there will, for the foreseeable future, be many who will need help and we already know there are many who are willing and able to help. But lack of authentic information will continue to delay or muffle the response. This is clearly a welfare-reducing outcome. How can this be addressed?

If people do not want to step up and help out in a particular situation, that is up to them to decide. But where many are able and willing to help, and it can be the difference between life and death for those in need, not having the ability to access credible information to act on seems a really bad reason for not being able to do so. We need to think of ways of addressing this challenge.

From the Dawn, Pakistan, published Friday November 3rd, 2017.


Thinking Critically – Really?

Faisal Bari

TWO quotes from physicist Richard Feynman set the stage. “There is no learning without having to pose a question. And a question requires doubt.”

“I can live with doubt, and uncertainty. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.”

Higher education has been in the news in Pakistan. When rankings of universities are revealed we find none of our universities are in the top few hundred. When CSS examination results are announced, the dismal performance of candidates elicits comments about the poor quality of our higher education. When university graduates are found amongst the ranks of extremists and fundamentalists, questions are raised about what they are being taught, if anything, in universities. When the quality of research publications is talked about, our universities are found to be wanting. When internationally known academics are ranked, we get to know that we do not have even a few working out of Pakistan.

All of the above are true. The real picture is worse than what we see in these news items or analyses. The quality of teaching I see, even in some of the better-known institutions of the country, tells me that it is quite a miracle that we boast of having 200 odd institutions of higher learning ‘functioning’ in the country. An honest quality audit would force a lot of programmes to shut down. But let us leave that debate for another day.

The remedy, for our higher education woes, usually suggested is introduction of critical thinking: students should be able to think and engage critically with what they learn. This is an eminently sensible position to take. If our students did have the ability to engage critically with learning methods and the content of learning, we would indeed be in a very different place today. But there are some larger issues here that need attention.

The Higher Education Commission and the Planning Commission have always taken a very functional approach to what kind of education our children should have. Even a cursory look at HEC’s draft vision 2025 shows that HEC wants to produce the technicians, engineers, doctors and managers of the future. They are not too bothered about what general abilities all students should have.

A corollary of the above is also the general neglect and disdain with which the arts, humanities and social sciences are treated. Planners and policymakers do not see the value that artists, philosophers or social scientists add to society. ‘We need more engineers and not philosophy graduates’ is a popular refrain in these circles. Clearly, few understand the value of critical thinkers in this society. Most policymakers are still stuck in ‘numbers’ and ‘function’ games.

Even if we stay in the domain of the sciences, we can definitely introduce critical thinking there. But do we have the wherewithal to manage that? Feynman thought ‘doubt’ provided the foundation stone on which learning is built: it is only by trying to prove ourselves wrong that we come closer to better explanations. Is that an attitude that we, as a nation, and our policymakers and educationists, can even tolerate?

We live in a society where space, even for conversations and even amongst friends let alone strangers, has shrunk drastically over the last few decades. Censorship has been internalised by most living in this land. How do we, in such a state and society, introduce critical thinking and doubt as a foundational concept?

We cannot talk critically about religion in this society. Every society, howsoever religious its population might be, will have a few people who do not believe in God or religion. Do we have such people in Pakistan? There must be some. Do they dare come out and declare their existence? Could they come forward and have discussions about their point of views and/or beliefs with all the theists who are around? Could they express their ‘doubts’ about the beliefs of others? Could we, the rest, live with their doubts being openly expressed?

How do we do critical thinking here? Let alone, raising questions about faith, at the moment, we also make it difficult for minorities to preach or practise their religions. Even raising the issue of whether the state has the right to determine the faith of an individual is no longer possible in this country. In Lahore, the city administration went to the point of imposing Section 144 for a month to stop people from talking about sensitivities around khatm-i-naboowat.

This is not just about religion’s domain only. Religion is a seen as a way of life for us. So, the domain extends to economic, social, political and even personal space. Land reform debate is out because the Sharia court thinks it is unIslamic. Is the leadership of a woman acceptable? It is not about competence, it is about what religious interpretations are about. Underage marriage cannot be disallowed because the interpretations do not allow it.

We cannot say anything about what the state thinks is the ‘ideology’ of Pakistan. The road from Mohammed bin Qasim to the making of Pakistan is very linear and causal. If you do not believe that, you are in for trouble.

We cannot talk about anything related to the army. Here too it is not about just defence and security-related issues. It is about all other domains as well. We cannot talk about the army and its hunger for land, its commercial interests from fertiliser to cereal manufacture, its interests in banking or insurance and we can definitely not talk about its role in Pakistan’s politics. We cannot talk about its conduct of the anti-terror campaign, the issue of missing persons and/or the harassment that journalists and social media users/bloggers face. We cannot talk of Balochistan and issues of inequity and inequality in the country.

But for all of the above, we still think that introducing ‘critical thinking’ is the answer to our problems in higher education. What are students going to think critically about? There are very few ‘safe’ topics one can have discussions on in Pakistan.

If critical thinking is to come, it has to come in all domains. Are we ready for that? To me the answer is clear: we are not ready at all. If it does not happen in all domains, it is hard to see how it can happen in higher education only.

From the Dawn, Pakistan, published Friday October 20th, 2017.

The Powers That Be

Faisal Bari

BORROWING from the example that Kaushik Basu uses in one of his books: imagine that the mother of the prime minister applies for an electricity or gas connection. Imagine that she is told to wait for a few months till it is her turn to get the connection. If the prime minister decides that he or she should not intervene and lets the matter proceed in the way it is supposed to, without strings being pulled, how would our society view him or her?

A lot of people will think that the prime minister is weak and ineffective: if his/her mother cannot be helped, then how can I be helped? And how can the prime minister govern effectively and make tough decisions?

Power is usually defined in relation to someone ie power over someone. It can be persuasive or coercive or both. But there is another way of thinking about power. It is about the ability to defy rules, norms and laws, the ability to not only get away with it but to also signal one’s level of ‘power’. So, defiance is not shown in private or while hiding from the law and society. It is shown, most often, in public with the intention of expressing one’s power and ensuring that all and sundry can see it.

Do we need a convoy of 30 to 40 cars when our prime minister or his family members move in public space? Is it all a security requirement? A few cars might be. But 30 odd cars? Surely not. They are actually a show of power to impress all.

Do police cars, whether or not on official duty, have to defy the traffic rules? Again, clearly not. They are not supposed to do that except in an emergency. But, more often than not, you will see police department cars defying traffic laws. And not only do they defy the rules, they think it is the right thing to do as well as they are members of law enforcement. Reminds one of the dialogue from Judge Dredd: “I never broke the law. I am the law!”

Even institutions have started behaving in this manner in Pakistan. Laws are being drawn up in ways that can be used to show the power of the institution rather than to regulate an area effectively or facilitate certain legitimate activities of citizens.

People who have registered not-for-profit companies under the Companies Act have been asked to have the registration renewed every five years. One wonders why this is needed and why it applies only to not-for-profits, but so be it: the state feels it needs to re-verify everything about a company from scratch every five years even though they get quarterly and yearly updates from each company, but, again, so be it.

What, in fact, might be of more interest is that the Security Exchange Commission of Pakistan (SECP), the regulator of the corporate sector, requires the interior ministry to give clearance before it can renew the registration of a not-for-profit firm. This has clearly been done with security and control purposes in mind.

And what is even more interesting is that SECP has not imposed, and clearly does not feel it can impose, any timeline on the clearance process from the interior ministry. So, one hears of firms that applied for the renewal of registration a couple of years ago but that are still waiting to hear back from the SECP. In some cases, the SECP has told firms in writing that their clearance is pending with the interior ministry and until they hear back from the latter, they cannot move the case forward. Informally, SECP officials have even told firms that if they have connections in the interior ministry and can get the go-ahead, they should do that.

What sort of a regulatory structure is this? Is all this necessary for security? Or is it about control? And even here is the structure efficient? By not having timelines, the door is opened for arbitrariness. And by allowing the ‘connected’ to get away with so much, power is being exercised by them, indeed, the pursuit of power itself, is being encouraged.

At a different level, and with different and much more serious consequences for individuals and families, the issue of ‘disappearances’ is also related to the exercise of power in terms of flouting the laws and impunity. People disappear; every individual in Pakistan knows that it is the law-enforcement agencies that are behind a lot of the disappearances, but there is nothing that anyone can do about it. The courts cannot do much. The political setup does not want to do anything; in any case, it, probably, can’t do much. This is power in its most naked and fearsome form: the ability to make a person disappear beyond the reach of the law, and with no recourse for redressing the situation. A true claim to absolute power — the kind of power that, in some societies, is only attributed to divinity or nature.

Children, when they want to impress parents with their increasing prowess, will drive a toy car or cycle with their hands in the air instead of being on the handles or the steering wheel and shout ‘look Mummy, no hands’. The way we use the concept of power in Pakistan seems similar. We only believe that a person or institution has power if he/it can break the laws or flout the rules and get away with doing so. And the ‘no hands’ part has to do with being able to violate the rules publicly. If democracy, the rule of law and institutions are going to evolve in the right direction in Pakistan, our notions of power and its exercise will have to undergo a radical change as well.

From the Dawn, Pakistan, published Friday October 6th, 2017.

Registering an FIR and After

ABOUT eight years ago, a friend’s car was stolen from outside his house in Lahore. He went to the police immediately. It took all his connections and three days of effort to get a First Information Report (FIR) registered.

About a month later, he received a phone call from the concerned police station to let him know that his car had been ‘recovered’ and that he could come and collect it. The car was a bit battered and rundown, but it was all there. It seemed the police had recovered it a week or 10 days prior to calling my friend and had been using it in the meantime. It took my friend another 10 days to get possession of his car.

This would still have been a happy story had it ended there. But it did not. Since no one had been arrested or convicted for the crime of stealing my friend’s car, the FIR he had registered remained open. The car was evidence and my friend was told that he could have his car back but he would be responsible for producing it anytime the police or the courts needed it. Eight years later, my friend is still saddled with the car. He would like to sell it but he cannot. Though he has never been contacted by the police or the courts since, his possession still continues to be conditional. He could sell the car at a steep discount but my law-abiding friend is concerned: what if they ask him to produce it someday?

He did inquire about the process of getting the FIR quashed and the matter disposed of, but he felt he did not have the time, money or the connections to pull it off. He is resigned to the fact that this car will stay with him ‘till death do them part’.

Another acquaintance had a similar experience. But, eventually, after a year of spending a lot of time and money in the concerned police station and lower courts, he was able to have the authorities close the case and was then able to sell his car. But even after everything was done, he was not sure if all proceedings had been carried out legally and if the paper he had received was enough.

It is no surprise that when, quite recently, another friend’s car was stolen, he worked on ensuring that his vehicle was not recovered. Instead, he worked on getting the requisite paperwork from the concerned police station so that he could get his insurance claim processed and just buy a new car. He took a hit of a few hundred thousand rupees but he felt that the loss incurred was still more tolerable than the hassle of waiting for his car to be recovered and then going through the process of getting the FIR quashed etc.

Why do the police need the physical car as evidence even in this day and age? Could documents, photos and other evidence not be substituted for the original? There must other ways of dealing with the quashing of an FIR as well.

There has been a lot of talk, recently, of how new technology has been introduced at police stations and law enforcement, and how citizen help desks have been set up for almost everything. Yet, on issues that matter to the citizen, especially when it comes to interaction with the police station staff, almost nothing seems to have changed.

A couple of years ago, a gentleman I know was held up inside one of the ATMs he was visiting. The robbers made him use all his cards to their limit and left him poorer by a couple of hundred thousand rupees in the process. He had an FIR registered. As is usually the case, it took much effort to do so. The police asked him to get video recordings from the cameras at the ATM. The gentleman had to convince his bank to share the relevant video recording with the police station.

He visited the police station three to four weeks later to check on the progress that had been made on his case. To his astonishment, his photo was also displayed on the police station noticeboard as a wanted person. “Whoever was in the camera footage that we got, we have put their picture up. It is for the courts to decide who is guilty of these and who is not,” said the station house officer. The gentleman has never been back at the station and he has heard nothing about the case from the police. He is quite glad he has not heard back from the police.

Having facilitation desks, technology and new rules over and above an existing but archaic system does not solve problems. In fact, it complicates things further. If your car is stolen, Dolphin and other police personnel can be there in less than 10 minutes now. But if they still need an FIR first to be able to move, and the FIR is going to be registered in the old way, you are still giving the robbers a 36- to 48-hour head start, even if you are very connected. What is the point of new personnel and technology here?

Of late, I have been reading Osama Siddique’s new novel Snuffing Out the Moon. It is a historical fiction spread over six epochs: Mohenjodaro, Taxila, Jahangir’s time, 1857, 2009 and 2084. A key theme that runs through the novel is that irrespective of the form of government, the lack of space for citizens to participate effectively in governance or work out even decent, let alone optimal, governance arrangements for the people creates most of the problems that citizens face. Those in power seldom have an interest in addressing the issue, and so the citizens continue to struggle.

From the Dawn, Pakistan, published Friday August 11th, 2017.

Quality Assurance Process

Faisal Bari

A FRIEND driving a new Honda City that had travelled only 2,000 kilometres had a near miss on the motorway. One of the rear tyres burst while he was driving at 110 km per hour. He was very lucky that there was no traffic at the time and that he was able to keep the car under control as he pulled up to the edge of the road.

When I bought my last car four years ago, I remember the dealer explicitly told me to have the tyres changed and not to rely on the Pakistani company manufacturing them. When my friend told me about his incident, I asked him if he had been similarly advised by his car seller. He said that he had been given this advice but that he had ignored it. When my friend went to get the tyres of his vehicle changed, even the vendor said he should have had them changed as soon as he got the new car.

What is interesting is that clearly the tyre manufacturers are aware of this perception and the issue; a recent advertisement focuses on why people should not have the tyres of a new car changed. They clearly think that their tyres are good enough. But the perception in the market is divided: even if you do an internet search on the company and the quality of their product, you get a very divided opinion: some say the tyres are good, others feel they are not.

These tyres might indeed be good enough. I am not an expert in tyre technology to pronounce one way or the other. And if Pakistani car manufacturers, even when selling cars worth Rs 2.5-2.7 million, are using them, this must be after careful reflection. But it is surprising that even so, the strong perception about the tyres’ quality persists and several dealers still keep advising people they should get the tyres changed right after they buy a new car.

For me, the question here is different. Where is the regulatory structure of the country in all of this discussion? It would seem that we cannot believe the tyre manufacturers as they have an interest in selling their tyres. Neither can we give too much credence to the car manufacturers as it might be a regulatory requirement for them to use local tyres. So, who should we, the citizens of the country, rely on? Where is the local quality assurance mechanism and the local regulator? Do they not hear of stories about exploding tyres? Do they not even see advertisements on television that are talking of perceptions of tyre quality?

This is not the only product or the only time this issue has come up. It was only after a bus full of children had an accident in the Kallar Kahar area that it was revealed that the body-maker of the bus was at fault: the body was too soft and collapsed easily. When a number of children died in a CNG explosion in a van carrying children to school in Faisalabad, we found out that there are substandard tanks being used for CNG storage, and that sometimes installation of CNG kits is also of poor quality.

When a tanker spilled fuel on the road and over 200 people died in the fire that was caused, we came to know that most of the tankers that are being used to transport fuel across Pakistan are not safe and do not meet the quality standards that have been set for them. When buildings catch fire or collapse, we get to know that the construction was faulty or that fire regulations were ignored.

Though the issue of tanker safety is still being discussed this is largely because the incident is still fresh in the memory of people. In all of the other cases, we do not know what happened to the ‘investigations’ after the initial findings. Was anyone punished? More importantly, what was done to ensure better quality bodies for buses, better kits for CNG and better quality installation for these kits? If there were any changes, why have they not been communicated to the people? If history has any lesson, it is that nothing will come of the discussions about tanker safety. There will be some hue and cry, there will be some payments made to the injured and the families of the dead, and then all will be as it was.

So, when dealers tell me to change the tyres of a new car, should I not take that advice seriously even though it might just be an issue of perception? How can I distinguish the truth from falsehood here if it is my family and my life that are at stake? Should I be taking a risk for a few thousand rupees? If I can afford a car of Rs2m or so, why not get new tyres as well?

The issue is not just about cars, buses, tankers or buildings. It has to do with almost every product/service in the country. More effective or less, other countries do have many quality assurance mechanisms in place before products are allowed to reach the customers. And customers can invoke remedial measures when they feel that standards have been breached and/or when standards are not effective enough. We do not have any such assurance.

I do not know if the bottled water or milk I am drinking is safe, if the vegetables or meat I am having are safe or even if the medicines I am taking are at least of minimum acceptable quality. We do not have many options so we have to continue to use all items. But is it not high time for us, as a country, to think of creating more effective quality assurance mechanisms?

From the Dawn, Pakistan, Friday 28th July, 2017.

Is Cheating A Norm Now?

Faisal Bari

A STUDENT cheated on an examination in a colleague’s course. He was caught and his case was referred to the relevant committees for investigation and action. The family of the student started pestering the teacher of the course. Since I was head of the department, I told my colleague to ask the family to come to me if they had any issues with procedures.

The mother of the student came to meet me. She started off by saying that the student did not know what he was doing. I told her that our university made sure that all incoming students are told that we have zero tolerance for cheating and that all incoming students are given written and verbal warnings about this.

She then said that she had lost her husband very early and had been solely responsible for bringing up the young man and this charge would have a significant impact on the student’s career trajectory. I told her that since the matter was with the relevant committees, the student would have to make his case there for mitigating circumstances and/or leniency.

Half-hearted efforts in the form of more police at exam centres are not going to work.

The mother then went on to tell me that one of the student’s maternal uncle was a senior DMG officer while his paternal uncle was a senior army officer and if I did not help the student, it would have consequences for me. I told her that I would ignore the last bit of what she had said and that she should leave before things got more serious. As she was leaving she said: “Cheating is normal in Pakistan. Don’t you live in Pakistan?”

It does seem that there is a lot more acceptance of cheating in the education system today than was the case a couple of decades ago. All high-stakes examinations have a high incidence of cheating. Matriculation and intermediate examinations have become quite notorious for this. But even grade 5 and grade 8 examinations that Punjab takes are known to have a lot of cheating.

This year, the issue was highlighted in Sindh where the chief minister wanted the department of education to reduce or eliminate cheating. In the end, it seemed the department was pretty helpless in the face of the strong ‘mafias’ that have been formed to facilitate cheating.

Whenever examinations are a high-stakes affair where a lot depends on its outcome, the motivation to use all means, fair or unfair, increases. Matriculation and intermediate examinations shape the career and future of students ie they determine where students can get admission and which professions they can enter. It is no wonder students want to do well in these examinations.

In Punjab, the results for grade 5 and grade 8 examinations are used to grade teachers and schools. Not surprisingly, in many instances of cheating, it is the teachers and school administrations that are themselves involved in facilitating cheating.

If we want to challenge the norm, major changes will be needed. Half-hearted efforts in the form of more police at exam centres and random but very public raids alone are not going to work.

Our examination systems need to change. Instead of relying on exanimations conducted annually or at the end of the respective course, we will need to move to more frequent and formative assessments. These are not easy to conduct when a large number of students are involved, but for better assessments, lowering the stakes attached to a single examination and for getting better measures of student learning, the move to formative and more frequent assessments is very important.

We will need to change the nature of examinations as well. Instead of relying on asking questions that test memory and/or are sourced from a particular textbook, we need to move to questions that force students to think, argue, articulate and exhibit their critical thinking skills. We need to move to examinations that are curriculum- and not textbook-based. Several examinations that I sat for in my academic career allowed us to bring any number of books and other material with us. Such examinations are more difficult to set, but they do test student abilities better.

An examination question from a philosophy paper that I fondly remember was: “The trunk of an elephant looks like a snake. Discuss”. Such a question can be answered, legitimately, from a number of perspectives: perception, language, mind, reality/appearance, and biology. What is at stake is the quality of the argument that the candidate makes, and rote learning is of little help here.

We do need to make sure that the conduct of examinations makes cheating as difficult as practically possible. Random checks by third parties are a must. Teachers should not be the invigilators of their own students. Students who are caught cheating must be punished sufficiently to have some deterrent effect on others.

But all this will not be enough. We have to work on the values in our society as well. Our moral values and norms as a society have weakened over the last three to four decades. In some ways, this is a necessary counterpart to change in societies. We have, as a society, not tried to manage change and understand what it means for our values. How we have an impact here is a longer topic and we will come back to it another day.

Cheating might not be a ‘norm’ in our society yet, but it is close to being one. To challenge it and change the current equilibrium is not an easy task. A multipronged strategy is needed that looks not only at how we set exam papers, what we examine and how we conduct examinations, but also at societal values that are in the process of making cheating normal. One measure is hard enough to implement; to do it all at once seems well nigh impossible for us right now.

From the Dawn, Karachi, published June 2nd, 2017.