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As the media struggled to cover the ongoing economic crisis, an interview with the MCB chairman Mian Mohammad Mansha stuck out like a sore thumb. Although he offered views on many policy issues, the observation that fascinated me the most was this: Pakistan’s biggest problem is not corruption; it is incompetence.

Now let us face it. It is easy to dismiss this statement as a stereotypic view of a rich man. After all, is it not how all entitled and affluent people are portrayed in those films and television series? Yelling at their staff for alleged incompetence? Except it is getting harder to dismiss these comments with every passing day.

Before addressing the issue of incompetence, let us pay some attention to how businessmen and traders are portrayed in Urdu literature and, to an extent, the entertainment industry. I think Mushtaq Yusufi has got our number. In his Zarguzasht, he maintains that in Urdu epics, traders and businessmen feature only for one purpose. To get robbed. And that too in a way that your sympathies invariably remain with the robber.

This animus towards the moneyed classes may have any number of deeper roots that need to be explored. Still, Aitzaz Ahsan’s The Indus Saga and The Making of Pakistan makes a valiant effort to explain away conspicuous consumption in the land of the pure when it quotes this saying by Waris Shah:

Khade peeta lahe da, Baki Ahmed Shahe da (Whatever you eat is yours, the rest belongs to Ahmed Shah).

Nations that are repeatedly invaded know what to do with their surpluses. Use them or lose them. Wolf it down or throw it to the wolves. The rich in this paranoid worldview are either hoarders, the complacent, the corrupt or often all three simultaneously. Hard not to dislike or distrust them then. Should it be that way, though? Certainly not. In a merit-based system those who are rewarded should be celebrated, not rebuked. And their suggestions should be welcomed with open arms.

Now we return to the issue of incompetence. You do not need to share my experiences in the public sector to know that something is awry in our work cultures. We demand less, we offer less, we settle for less, we produce less, and the first thing we do when we undertake any serious project is to look for safe exits and ready excuses just in case. With due apologies to Balzac, behind every big failure is a quitter and a truckload of premeditated and elaborate excuses. Again should the things be that way? Certainly not. Unhealthy.

What is the way out? The answer is in two parts: one, the broken reward and punishment system. Human beings run all systems, and they invariably come from the same society. If it is dominated by the incompetent, the first thing such a society does is bulldoze the merit system. How could such a dominant class allow the rise of the competent? Its own existence would be jeopardised otherwise. Consequently, you come across paper pushing and only ritual work in public and private offices. Upward mobility becomes a dream, society obsesses about ideology, not destiny and no one worries about embellishing a Pakistani dream.

The second part is the response of the working class. What are we told is the purpose of our lives? To get a degree, get a job, find a spouse, start a family, support elders, acquire some modest property and get ready to meet our Maker. Not exactly climbing the mountain Everest of ambition. But the more the society learns to shoot for mediocrity, the more elusive those modest goals become. The bottom is always crowded, remember? Gradually, we all settle for whatever we have, never working to enhance our capacity, well within our comfort zones, and blame the fates.

There is another way to approach this problem. In his brilliant 1996 book Trust: The Social Virtues and The Creation of Prosperity, Francis Fukuyama takes us to the root of the societal bonds — family. He highlights three types of family — extended family (let’s make it a joint family), nuclear family (parents and dependent children), and single-parent family. While the last one creates enormous problems for individuals, the first type is an engine of inefficiency. In extended families, the critical social capital is blood relations. Family above everything else. That means if you are highly competent and a cousin of yours is not, you will have to put yourself at risk to get them somewhere. Society’s merit system is bound to collapse because family loyalties displace competence and merit. The ideal type is, of course, a sustainable nuclear family where kids leave the nest as soon they come of age in pursuit of work. This means their first loyalty is to their own selves and their work, not inefficient familial links. And they go where work takes them and do not refuse to leave the city or town where their relatives live. This is the most efficient organising principle one can find societally, and that’s precisely why we go to remarkable lengths to reject it by obsessing about our so-called family values. If you really want to know how ineffective those values are, don’t look beyond Chaudhary Afzal Haq titled Ek Punjabi Zamindar Ki Kahani — the tale of a Punjabi landowner. These bonds come into effect when people need something from you, not when you desperately need help.

There is also a way to push yourselves to limits. To make your life count. To make society better. To realise your unrealised potential. And that is by challenging yourself. Push yourself out of your comfort zone. Throw yourself into conversations with better-informed people. At first, you will find yourself out of your depth, but then with increasing demand, will come the enhancement in capacity. In your mind, travel back to your age when your thoughts were unmolested by the harsh realities of life and recall what you wanted to be. Find out if your work is in accordance with your aptitude. If not, ask yourselves how to fix that. Before going to sleep every night, I ask myself four questions: 1) Am I happy? 2) What did I learn today? 3) What did I teach others? 4) What can I do to make my life and of others around me better? When I don’t like the answers I attempt to find appropriate solutions.

In this age of global connectivity, no excuse is good enough. Professionals worldwide are going out of the way to generate content to help you get better at things. If you do not like printed word, audio and visual material is available. And most of it is free. Global opportunities are a click away. All you have to do is look. If we can’t avail of this opportunity, we should know we consciously choose to be part of the problem.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 11th, 2022.

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