In a Tedx talk I gave last year, I argued that Pakistan should not be called the Islamic Republic but rather the One Per Cent Republic. Opportunities, power, and wealth here are limited to the top 1% of the people. The rest are not provided opportunities to succeed.
Pakistan’s economy thus only relies on whatever a small elite can achieve. It remains underdeveloped as it ignores the talent of most in the country.
Suppose we had decided to select our cricket team only from players born in the second week of November. That would always have produced a weak team as it would only be selecting from 2% of the population. Our teams would not have benefited from the talents of many of the greats we have had over the years. This is the same unfair and irrational way we choose our top people. And just as our team would have kept losing, so we as a nation keep losing.
This year over four million Pakistani kids will turn 18. Of these, less than 25% will graduate from the intermediate stream and about 30,000 will graduate from the O- and A-level stream. Over three million kids, or 75%, will not have finished 12 years of schooling. (Half of all kids in Pakistan are out of school.) These 30,000 kids from A-levels will dominate our top universities, many will study abroad and go on to become leaders. That’s less than 1% of all 18-year-olds. These are the only Pakistanis for whom Pakistan works. But it gets worse.
There are around 4,00,000 schools in Pakistan. Yet in some years half of our Supreme Court judges and members of the federal cabinet come from just one school: Aitchison College in Lahore. Karachi Grammar School provides an inordinate number of our top professionals and richest businessmen. If we add the three American schools, Cadet College Hasanabdal and a few expensive private schools, maybe graduating 10,000 kids in total, we can be sure that these few kids will be at the top of most fields in Pakistan in the future, just as their fathers are at the very top today.
Five decades ago, economist Mahbub ul Haq identified 22 families who controlled two-thirds of listed manufacturing and four-fifths of banking assets in Pakistan, showing an inordinate concentration of wealth. Today too we can identify as many families who control a high proportion of national wealth.
Concentration of wealth is not unique to Pakistan: this happens globally, especially in the developing world. Trouble is that five decades after Haq’s identification, it’s many of the same families who control the wealth.
A successful economy keeps giving rise to new entrepreneurs, representing newly emerging industries and technologies, becoming its richest people. But not here in Pakistan where wealth, power and opportunities are strictly limited to an unchanging elite.
Look at the top businessmen in America like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, etc., none of whom owe their position to family wealth. The richest people of the earlier eras – the Carnegies, Rockefellers – don’t still dominate commerce. Among recent former US presidents, Ronald Reagan’s father was a salesman, Bill Clinton’s father was an alcoholic and Barack Obama was raised by a single mother. Here almost every successful Pakistani owes his success to his father’s position.
In Pakistan, doctors’ children go on to become doctors, lawyers’ children become lawyers, ulema’s children become ulema, etc. Even singers have gharanas. There are business, political, army and bureaucrat families where several generations have produced seths, politicians, generals and high-ranking officers. In such a society, a driver’s son is constrained to become a driver, a jamadaar’s son is destined to become a jamadaar, and a maid’s daughter ends up becoming a maid.
Top corporate and other professionals only come from the urban English-educated elites, especially from the two schools I mentioned above. The only influential professions where non-elites can enter – bureaucracy and the military – are also set up such that once their people enter the highest echelons, their lifestyle, like their elite peers from other fields, becomes similar to the colonial-era gora sahibs, materially removed from the lives of the brown masses composed of batmen, naib qasids and maids.
Political power too is concentrated not in parties but in personalities. Except for one religio-political party, there isn’t a party where the head is ever replaced. Politics is based on personalities down to the local level, where politicians come from families of ‘electables’, where fathers and grandfathers were previously elected.
Is it any wonder why Pakistanis do not win Nobel Prizes? We properly educate less than 1% of our kids. Of course, we have smart, talented people. But most of our brilliant kids never finish school and end up working as maids and dhobis and not as physicists and economists they could have been. Pakistan is a graveyard for the talent and aspirations of our people.
According to United Nations Children’s Fund, 40% of Pakistani children under the age of five are stunted (indicating persistent undernutrition); another 18% are wasted (indicating recent severe weight loss due to undernutrition) and 28% are underweight. This means 86% of our kids go to sleep hungry most nights and have the highest likelihood in South Asia of dying before their fifth birthday. This is our reality.
Pakistan works superbly for members of social and golf clubs. But it does not work if you are a hungry child, landless hari, a madressah student, a daily-wager father or an ayah raising other people’s children. Pakistan does not work well for most of our middle-class families. This is why disaffection prevails and centrifugal forces find traction.
The real predictor of success is a person’s father’s status. Intelligence, ability and work ethic are not relevant. Of course, some manage to become part of the elite, but those are the exceptions that prove the rule.
Pakistan’s elite compact allows wealth and power to perpetuate over generations and keeps everyone else out. This is what’s keeping Pakistanis poor and why it’s necessary to unravel the elite compact. We need a new social contract to unite and progress as a nation.
This article first appeared in Dawn.