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Merit in Pakistan

October 16, 2009

Kamran Abbasi explains, ever so eloquently, why honest success is so elusive in Pakistan.

I once heard a parable of why ability is rarely a criterion for
progress in Pakistan, why merit counts for nothing. It is not the whole explanation, of course, but an important part of it.

Imagine a ladder reaching up to the heavens, with all the millions of people of Pakistan condemned to an eternity of clambering to the top, an exhausting desperate existence. The first person to reach the summit will liberate his people from this ladder-climbing hell but will also become king and master of his nation.

In the heavenly ladders of other nations, people reach the top to
bring succour to their fellows. They achieve this through co-operation and a realisation that the best of them should reach the summit for the common good. There are some false starts, and some progress to their goal faster than others, but they move towards liberation from their plight.

On the Pakistani ladder, people climb forever, a purgatory of
perpetual struggle without reward. Pakistanis of all hues and tongues rush to the top, trampling over their weaker countrymen, pushing many off the ladder to their deaths a thousand miles below. Some are pure geniuses, racing up the ladder with skill and artistry unseen on any other heavenly ladder. But each time a Pakistani nears the top, a hundred, nay a thousand bitter hands reach upwards, making a superhuman effort to grab their fellow, drag him back, and plunge him into the darkness below.

Nobody reaches the top. Nobody succeeds. Nobody brings solace to a troubled people.

This then is the state of Pakistan, the mindset of Mr Jamshed Dasti, a supposedly honourable parliamentarian. It is the mindset that pervades too much of Pakistani society and cricket.

Why let a good man succeed when you can’t succeed yourself?”

Of course, this parable is far from being the full explanation. But much of it rings true. Although I don’t agree with the assumption that the first to reach the top of the ladder will become the king of the nation. Nor do I FULLY agree with the contention that in other nations, people give way to rising stars out of an acceptance that their success lies in the success of others. To an extent it’s true.

But another important factor in the institutionalization of meritocracy is – the presence of strong institutions. For example, in an organization where promotions are decided by a committee of diverse stakeholders in the success of that organization, more often than not merit will carry the day. Where the benefit of a small group or single entity holds precedence, merit may not be so important. The strength of an institution, thus, is an important factor in dissuading corruption – unfortunately this implies a vicious cycle where weak institution –> corruption –> weaker institution –> more corruption.

The pity, I think, lies in this:

Generally, Pakistanis are not too concerned about others as long as they are failing. My boss is exploiting my willingness to work hard by putting me through 80 hour weeks. Who cares? I’m a blind old woman crossing the street with my grocery…no one has the time to guide me. I’m at the police station trying to get some information about my car that was stolen at gunpoint two weeks ago. I could not be more unimportant.

But rise, and see the thousand hands that clutch at you and bring you back down to earth. It seems to be a strange sadistic pleasure at times, born of suffering and a deep sense of injustice. At other times it is perhaps simply a case of someone trying to maximize personal growth by hanging onto the coat tails of someone successful…and sometimes it is sheer selfishness – jo mujhe nahin mila, woh tumhe kaise milne doon?

Thinking about this reminded me of this famous scene from A Beautiful Mind, where John Nash proposes a win-win situation for all by acting for the self AND the collective:

Unfortunately, the solution proposed in the movie is slightly incorrect because Russell Crowe is not John Nash himself and only John Nash can explain his theory. No, I’m kidding. The solution is wrong because the Hollywood version doesn’t, unfortunately, have a Nash equilibrium after all.

In any case the implications of game theory are very interesting for this topic…there are many situations in which being selfless (versus being selfish) pays off – such as the classic prisoner’s dilemma. Personally, game theory is largely too complicated and technical for me..

Any opinions on this out there?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. October 23, 2009 1:50 pm

    I responded to your comment on the Barca thing. Check it out.

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