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Vehicles of power

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In his latest column, published in The News, Amir Hussain dislodges the myth of development practitioners and poverty alleviation careerists that “grassroots institutions of the poor” have any.transformative role beyond poverty management. He poses a question ‘whether public funds be spent on such initiatives?


We all talk about the importance of strong institutions as drivers of social progress, economic development, and political stability as prerequisites of a prosperous society.

The fundamental premise upon which an institutional edifice is built may vary from one context to another but the underlying formative principles of an institution are more a less the same. For instance, establishing an academic institution may have different objectives in different societies, ranging from creating a skilled workforce to raising responsible and well-informed citizens, but its constituent parts do not vary much. As its constituent parts, an academic institution must have a minimum requirement of teaching staff, administrative and financial systems, adequate physical space and an induction policy, etc across all contexts.

However, who runs an institution matters more than its constituent parts in terms of its impact on society. A privately-owned elite academic institution can be more exclusionary with commercial intent than a public university with the objective to educate common citizens. A strong elite institution in an unequal society will contribute to promoting further disparity in society rather than ensuring prosperity.

Other institutions like political parties, big corporations, and even states cannot guarantee social progress, economic development, and inclusive growth unless they are bound by public accountability. Public accountability is not what NAB does in Pakistan; it is instead a broader concept of citizens’ collective action to safeguard their interest by coercing institutions to perform in the larger interest of society.

According to Max Weber, ‘institutions have [the] inherent tendency to become more bureaucratic and complex as they grow stronger’ and they become more exclusionary and less effective in terms of their role in social progress and prosperity. Thus the stronger an institution becomes, the less effective it turns out to be in meeting its societal objectives. It would be misleading to believe that a strong institution will always lead to equality, prosperity, and inclusivity in society.

The myth of strong institutions being the forerunner of progress and prosperity stems from elite discourse more than the desire of poor and marginalized people. In poverty alleviation and social development programmes, billions of rupees have been spent in Pakistan and other developing countries to form grassroots institutions of the poor during the last four decades. The institutions thus created started to wither away in the course of time as they lacked the ownership of the poor despite their participatory ethos. The elite discourse of participatory development was far removed from the imagination of the poor and there existed an asymmetrical material relationship between the architects of these institutions and their beneficiaries – the poor and marginalized.

In our modern conception, an institution is a well-defined mechanism of rules, principles, and policies to govern society for collective good by limiting the discretion of individuals in public and private spaces. Every institution – from family to tribe and from interest-based modern entities like professional associations, civil society organizations to the state – has evolved from within a society. No institution is above society; even the state has historically evolved as human societies progressed towards interest-based supra culture political arrangements for expressing collective political will.

Institutions are, therefore, amalgamated forms of the human will to collective expression and aggregation of transactional relationships to be governed by some agreed principles and policies. Traditional kinship-based institutions like family and tribe were driven by the material necessity of procreation, protection, and coexistence in a hostile environment while the modern institutions are governed by predefined rules of business.

In the case of traditional institutions, individuals had freedom of expression and recognition while modern institutions are founded on cooption or diffusion of individualistic agendas as subservient to the defined rules. Modern entities like professional associations, universities, civil society organizations, political parties, and even states are formal structures where individuals have to comply with procedures and universal rules.

This is an instrumental definition of the role of an institution which puts it diametrically opposed to the individual choices of self-expression and intellectual assertions. Human societies have evolved as heterogeneous structures on the basis of class, creed, and creativity and their functions are governed by some given principles and tacit regulations. There is no human society that operates in a vacuum but the given principles and tacit regulations are not formulated to restrict creativity, individual expressions and freedom of association.

All traditional societies have had some forms of collective arrangements for coexistence and survival against external threats. The history of institution formation is, therefore, as old as human evolution into a social animal. However in our modern societies with increasing social stratification and heterogeneity institutions have become complex, stronger and exclusionary – driven by the interests of certain social groups. The poor and excluded segments of society have always been at the receiving end of the discourse and imagination of stronger institutions because they are objectified as instruments to be managed and controlled.

In a nutshell, with the onset of the discourse and practice of building the institutions of the poor, tyranny has been unleashed in more organized ways against the poor in our modern era than ever before. Poverty is here to stay as long as we continue to believe and practice poverty management through remotely designed grassroots institutions of the poor. The poor have enormous potential of transformation which becomes neutralized as we, self-proclaimed development practitioners, make a career out of poverty alleviation.

Beneath the commonsense understanding of an institution and its functions, there is a complex phenomenon of control and domination exerted through policies and regulations to co-opt or subjugate the dissent. Institutions are, therefore, the most important vehicles of powerful groups to transform dissenting voices into manageable instruments of a society of docile. If development is about freedom, as Amartya Sen has asserted, then it is important that we rethink the role of strong institutions rather than subscribe to a given perspective of elite discourse.

Amir Hussain is a social development and policy adviser, and a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.

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