Part of the problem has to do with the fact that so many previously independent researchers are now relying more and more on donor monies to do research
For all of Pakistan’s problems, meaningful information required to address these problems — about the nature of changes in society and the fragmentation of the state — remains conspicuous by its absence. I have flagged this lack on numerous occasions in the past, along with the related tendency of progressives to reinforce old stereotypes that actually hinder the emergence of new political alternatives.
I was, therefore, pleasantly surprised to come across an announcement this past week advertising the launch of a report on the ‘illegal economy’ at a prominent Islamabad hotel. A well-established policy think-tank was commissioned to undertake research on this most important of subjects by the United Nations Office of Drug Control (UNODC), with a 100-odd page report the outcome after fieldwork and writing over a 9-month period.
In an environment featuring so little socially relevant research, the fact that a critical mass of information will now be in circulation constitutes a major value-added in and of itself. Yet, I cannot help but wonder about the utility of ‘policy’ reports that tend to remain completely silent on matters and actors of enormous significance. And then, there is the related question mark over just how limited the sphere of circulation is given that the policy ‘community’ seems scarcely inclined to rock the boat.
The ‘illegal economy’, at least in its current manifestation, is a direct correlate of the Afghan war, which started back in the late 1970s. Drugs and guns became commonplace and over the decades the entire region — including parts of Iran and Afghanistan — have been transformed by the political economy of war. It is fashionable these days to express moral indignation about ‘terrorists’ and the ‘illegal economy’ but the fact is that governments — both within the region and their western patrons — were and remain heavily implicated in the political economy of war.
The afore-mentioned report was predictably silent on this wider historical and political context. Challenges were framed in terms of a lack of capacity of the Pakistani state to deal with smuggling and the like. There was no mention of the debacle in Afghanistan, NATO patronage of certain warlord factions, the livelihood requirements of subsistence farming households in Afghan society, the Pakistani military’s corporate activities, and a host of other issues that constitute nothing less than central aspects of the ‘illegal economy’. Indeed, without acknowledgment of these issues, a ‘policy’ report becomes nothing more than an expensive exercise in self-indulgence.
In fact, many of the broader concerns articulated in this report were flagged almost three decades ago by academics such as Eqbal Ahmad and Ikramul Haq. These academics were not constrained by the imperatives of power politics in anything like the same way as the policy buffs that regularly sit together in comfortable hotels trying to sound more important than one another (although many academics do, to be sure, do a lot of useless pontificating themselves). Haq wrote in 1984 about the role of the National Logistics Cell (NLC) in transporting contraband and arms to and from Pak-Afghan border check posts. The writers of the afore-mentioned report may have noted that the drugs and guns trade continues, but are silent on whether or not military-run companies still do what they were doing when the political economy of war took shape.
As I have already suggested, big question marks hang over the policy community in the sense that the (mostly Western) donors funding policy research are hardly innocent bystanders with no vested interest in the processes that they purport to understand. Some donors are far less willing to take on the more difficult questions which speaks to the objectives of the political forces — either government or private — that are pursuing an ‘international development’ agenda.
Part of the problem has to do with the fact that so many previously independent researchers are now relying more and more on donor monies to do research. In the era of the Welfare State — even in countries such as ours in which the state’s welfare function is nominal — public funding for research was far less constrained in terms of what was considered worthy of research and the particular theoretical framework framing the research. These days donors tend to dictate what is researched and how.
Of course, the contradictions that have intensified over time between states, non-state actors and even within state institutions make it difficult to gloss around issues that have long remained underspecified, and in particular the question of the ‘illegal economy’ (which is generally considered a subset of the ‘informal economy’). This is because the binary of legal and illegal, for instance, is to a large extent misleading, and there is increasing recognition of the dubious links between those who occupy official positions and those demonized as the antithesis of freedom and democracy. If nothing else, it has become difficult to abstract from historical facts that make conceptualizations of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ increasingly untenable.
This is not to take away from the fact, as I have already pointed out, that even the writing and distribution of relatively ahistorical and apolitical policy reports on subjects that are of great significance to society represents forward progress. Of course, it is up to those with clarity of purpose to take advantage of the space that is created by shifts in mainstream policy discourse and bring history and politics back into the mix. It takes courage to call a spade a spade, but if more people in this society start to do so there is hope yet that the complex nexus of power that keeps ordinary people physically and mentally enslaved can be exposed and, eventually, undone.
This article was originally published at: The News
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint or stance of SDPI.