by Mian F. Hameed 1 December 2020
Pakistan has been consistently on the world forums and news for effective post-COVID-19 strategic responses. Pakistani local news outlets took to print, “the World Economic Forum (WEF) has announced November 25, 2020, as ‘Pakistan Strategy Day’ to commemorate Pakistan’s policies” against combating the novel coronavirus.
At the World Economic Forum, press release, Pakistan PM Khan Speaks with Global CEOs on Strategic Priorities in Post-Pandemic Era, published November 25, 2020, President Børge Brende of WEF said, “Pakistan’s economy has shown remarkable resilience to the pandemic, placing it in a strong position to rebound quickly from the shock.” The press release was about PM Khan’s account in a virtual session before a crowd of “70 business leaders from across the world” with ambitions to strongly recover from the pandemic. –WEF; November 25, 2020.
Pakistan a “country with over 212 million inhabitants, to date roughly 303,000 cases have been recorded and the curve of new infections has flattened since its peak in May and June.” Pakistan with the help of the WHO, on 23 April 2020, “was able to raise US $595 million from donors around the world […] to start its fight to stop the spread of COVID-19.” –World Health Organization (WHO); November 09, 2020.
To understand the success of Pakistan’s strategic response, I interviewed Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Planning of the ruling party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Mr. Asad Umar, to provide a first-hand look into the structure of organization behind Pakistan’s post-COVID-19 strategic priorities.
Before I elaborate on the key highlights of my interview with Mr. Umar, understanding the nature and organization of governance in Pakistan is necessary. The 18th Amendment of the Constitution of Pakistan rests administrative and financial powers within provinces. This amendment usually finds love in the Western corridors of the world, and among the proponents of the 18th Amendment in Pakistan who cite stronger federated units (Provinces); but for the many astute thinkers in Pakistan, it is a faulty amendment to the extent that it has the makings of miss-governance and tragic governance especially in those provinces that lack self-pride, and the amendment is considered to compromise the integrity of Pakistan by weakening the controlling power over a unitary State.
As a preamble to understanding the governance system of the provinces in Pakistan under the 18th Amendment, I will elaborate on the formal—the governance, the impact of good governance Vs. miss-governance. In the event the provincial governments admirably manage their affairs, their success does not necessarily attribute credit to the Center or boost the measure of “controlling power over a unitary State.” However, a provincial government’s incompetence adversely impacts the Center. It is so because of various reasons, including the country’s psyche and certain media outlets hold the Central Government to account for provincial governance incompetence.
A good example to support the preamble is the provincial government of Sindh that has miserably failed to address sanitation and waste management challenges under the previous two democratic stints because its polity lacked the qualities of The Nolan Principles. The current provincial government is also deprived of the same. Therefore, the Central Government under PTI in cooperation with the only institution in Pakistan, the Pakistan Army, has launched efforts to help the province and its democratically elected representatives to overcome the said challenges.
With the aforementioned understanding of constraints upon Central Governance, the remainder explanation of Pakistan’s COVID-19 operation is based on my visit with Mr. Umar. The Federal Minister began by addressing my first question, i.e., to provide an overview of the structure of the organization responsible for combating pandemic. Mr. Umar said that the Central Government had to take “into consideration the need for an integrated response and the devolved nature of the governance, as well as the weak capacity of the institutions.”
This meant, under the leadership of Prime Minister Imran Khan, the response was the creation of a National Coordination Committee (NCC) with cooperation between the Central Government and the only functioning institution, the Pakistan Army. Mr. Umar added a decision was made at the Central Government to place all elements of the State power into a “single integrated hold.” Mr. Umar said, “The big decisions take place here.”
For the operational coordination policy import, Mr. Umar said we have “the National Coordination and Operation Center (NCOC). All provinces (civil and the military side) both are represented here. NCOC Operational support is largely assigned to the military team.” All decisions and communications are carried out through NCOC.
At the NCOC, decision making is led “clearly” by the civilians, and depending on the topics, Mr. Umar may lead the team. In the beginning with an impact on the entire country, it was necessary for all ministries to participate regularly, even the Ministry of Economic Affairs, referred to as EAD, participated to secure foreign funding. NCOC used to meet daily.
NCOC has different components. A few highlighted by Mr. Umar are Contact Tracing, Hot Spot, and lockdowns. These components are managed by the subordinated organizational structure within the “the Apex down to grassroots.” An aspect of the smart lockdown is seen in the capital city Islamabad. Police cordons off a street for two weeks in the event of a reported COVID-19 case. The residents of the entire street resort to online shopping.
On the ground, at the district level (similar to counties in the U.S.) the Assistant Commissioner (AC) of the civil service or a district health officer overlooking the developing statistics are connected to the system at the top to transmit decisions, and information flows out to the grassroots’ end points.
The planners at the NCC were aware from the beginning that a lockdown of a country was unsustainable because the citizens or the State could not afford the economic cost of a lockdown in a country where two-thirds lived under $2 a day, and where a larger part of employment prevails in the informal sector without a social safety net.
With social and economic costs in mind from the first day of planning, the planners’ focus was on the essential question of the basic design, which was how to open up the economy while trying to minimize the spread of the disease. For Mr. Umar and the team, this essential question was “relatively the unusual” aspect of the strategic response, and “everything flowed from the basic design.”
Per Mr. Umar, the first step in the “basic design” towards the strategic preparedness and response took shape in mid-April 2020, and the last step was taken on 1st October, and he added, “We are now reversing those steps.” However, a new set of challenges have evolved by examining the past six weeks.
In a remark to my comment that Pakistan has done a decent job, Mr. Umar added, but only up till recently. What Mr. Umar meant was, this morning “we were looking at six weeks back at the complete breakdown of the behavioral changes that have taken place. This is going to extract a price and that is what we are seeing now.”
Addressing the 18th Amendment, which in my view scores a negative net-sum gain for Pakistan; I had a follow-up question on the amendment’s implications to containing the coronavirus pandemic. Mr. Umar responded, “Health is a devolved subject, so is law and order. So provinces are free to whatever they want.” Though on the crises at hand, the provinces “voluntarily ceded their authority and they realized, we need to have common and centralized decision making. For these decisions, the NCOC became the platform, [which carried out] the ultimate decisions of the National Coordination Committee (NCC). Otherwise, if we had gone strictly by the law, we would have had six different COVID response strategies pursued in Pakistan. The fact that provinces ceded legal authority voluntarily, I think was a major reason why we were successful in putting in a reasonable effective response.”
Mr. Umar summarizing the impact on the Central Government from the provinces’ ability to field crises noted, “The success on the ground is determined by the quality of the provincial response.” Ground troops are all provincial and make the central pillars of the response, which are the health chain of command and the administrative side, as stated by Mr. Umar. The health chain begins with the district health officer up to secretary health, and the administrative organization is headed by the provincial Chief Minister, which includes Home Secretary down to Deputy Commissioner and AC on the ground. These are all provincial resources. In addition, the Central Government has loaned District Management Group (DMG) officers at the disposal of the provincial administration, who are vital to the implementation of the program.
Aside from the management of the coronavirus pandemic, my speaking to the former provincial Minister, Mr. Aminullah Gandapur of the KPK province, praised Imran Khan Government’ Ehsass Program, which is a privately funded “Pakistan Humanitarian Response Plan for COVID Pandemic-19 2020.” The Ehsaas Program is managed by the Federal Minister Dr. Sania Nishter, who is also the PM’s Special Assistant on Poverty Alleviation and Social Protection.
Programs like Ehsaas are possible to launch in Pakistan because of a native to Pakistan phenomenon I call micro-manifestations’ philanthropic culture, with a benefit as one would gain from the intellect that would create organizational culture. Micro-manifestations make a character of a person emerging from the whole, collectively contributing proportions in abundance seized by velocity. Micro-manifestations have a religious origin, must have been selectively instilled by the divine in these people or by cultural forces in Pakistan.
Leveraging this organizational culture, the government and the private sector like a ‘samurai locked in the battle with his fellow artisans,’ are engaged in a “donor-beneficiary linking system” via PM Khan’s sponsored Ehsaas (realization) Program. Ehsaas Program has numerous subprograms. Here, I will touch upon two of the Ehsaas coronavirus relief programs—the Ehsaas Emergency Cash Program, and the Ehsaas Rashan (ration) Program.
The Emergency Cash Program provides financial assistance to daily wage workers and the labor class and is funded by the donors of the public and the private sectors. The government portal’s dashboard per my last visit has provided in Pakistani currency rupees 12,000 to each of the 14.8 million families.
The Ehsaas Rashan (ration) effort, in which the government validates “beneficiaries’ information […] and eligibility determined using Ehsaas data,” has partnered with the private sector, which has the responsibility “for establishing a mechanism for sourcing and disbursement of Rashan [rations] or cash equivalent for beneficiaries.” –pass.gov.pk.
The needy in the Rashan Program receive monthly ration packs in all the Divisions, Districts, and Tehsils (sub-districts) in the provinces of Pakistan. Mr. Aminullah Gandapur mentioned, for instance in the district of D.I.Khan and its tehsils, approximately 200,000 monthly ration packages were distributed for the three months smart lockdown via Ehsaas Rashan portal’s donor to beneficiaries match.
Mr. Aminullah Gandapur praised the private sector contributions from various industries. For instance, the textile industry contributed relief packages against not laying off textile workers, which has reduced the burden on Ehsaas payments, and the industry has fulfilled a record number of export orders by instantly engaging standby resources on the pay roll.
Mr. Gandapur senior, reiterated the high benefit of the ration packs in the remote “far-flung Union Council villages,” which he thought “was the greatest work done by the government otherwise the lockdown could prove catastrophic.”