When in an earlier article I wrote that it is difficult to be a good politician and that it is often a thankless job, some readers reminded me that it can also be very rewarding, even lucrative. But the most direct objection came from a reader, who disagreed with my statement that ‘we get the politicians we deserve’. It was a foreign diplomat who wrote the email to me. But to avoid any diplomatic embarrassment, I shall not mention his country! 

Anyway, he felt that I was wrong and that people deserve better politicians than they often get. He made the statement in a general way, mainly with reference to developing countries, where the multiparty democracies are in their infancy. Politicians are nominated and chosen rather than elected, and the processes lack transparency and fairness. How can one then get the ‘right’ politicians?

Yet, I would argue that politicians, like other people and institutions, belong to the specific country’s culture and traditions. They are part of it all, and not very different from the voters either. For example, a country cannot have a judiciary which is independent from the state. Or, in the field of education, we don’t get a public education system which is above the state’s culture; not even the private schools are independent from the country they operate in, and the values and aspirations that the people have who run the private schools, also when they borrow foreign ideas. The madrassas, too, do that; they belong to the wider Islamic culture, yet, they are also indigenous and local.

My diplomatic reader thought that people in Pakistan and many other countries deserve better politicians. But he didn’t realize that the political culture is part of the land where it exists. True, the word ‘deserve’ was perhaps what he reacted to. The reader thought that poor Pakistanis ‘deserve’ to have a better life than they have, and therefore, the leaders should do more to improve their difficult lives. And I agree with that. But politicians and the rest of us are part of the culture we live in. Improvements must come from within and over time.

It can be illuminating to recall some of the world history in the last centuries. The colonial era was characterized by dictatorship and apartheid, to use the real terms. Now the British, the French and other colonial powers, and the West at large, point out faults with the rule in their former colonies. But it wasn’t better in their time, and the foundation was unjustifiable and unsustainable.

After independence, most young states staggered along and stumbled, and stood up again. One-party rule (de facto or de jure) was common, with strongmen and close cooperation between politicians and military men. That has also been Pakistan’s post-colonial history. A few decades ago, multi-party rule become common, often pushed on young states by the West and the donor countries. Although it is essential to have a political opposition (i.e. several parties or groups within a party), the multi-party system was probably introduced too fast in many countries. Often, political parties are not ideologically very different; they simply belong to different personalities and families, sometimes, with ethnic and geographic strongholds. Recently, I have come to understand that many people who plan to become politicians don’t chose parties based on whether they believe in the party manifesto and ideas, but they find a party where they have better chances to be elected.

All this said, I would maintain that the politicians that we have in Pakistan and other countries, especially in the young developing countries with unsteady democracies, are doing better than what could have been expected. And when there have been difficulties, such as there was in many fields in Pakistan’s last parliamentary term, the difficulties were also part of the culture of the country.

Even during the last spell of dictatorship, some of General Musharraf’s policies were positive and others were negative. Many actions were part of the country at the time; the media and ICT policies were positive, and so were the gender policies, belonging to the liberal Pakistan.

In the field of local government, policies have been left to be implemented by the current government. That field is difficult, partly because Pakistanis are used to accepting orders from above, and poor people are not being heard; loyalty can be bought and sold.

The worst blunder that was made by Musharraf was the close ties he established with American on the war on terror – and I don’t think that was quite part of Pakistan’s culture. A democratically elected government would probably have acted differently.

The current leaders seem to believe in a ‘business culture’. That is certainly indigenous to Pakistan - for good and for bad. Pakistanis are not only good in business and trade but are also good bureaucrats, with some authoritarian traits.

Generally, I believe that the bureaucrats, the civil servants, are competent people. The military, on its side, has close links with the bureaucratic culture. In the longer run, I believe that Pakistan must reduce markedly the military sector, and make use of the huge resources that it consumes in productive sectors.    

Politicians are better than their reputation; so are the civil servants. I have worked in Pakistan (mostly in the United Nations and as an independent consultant) for over a decade, and before that I was in another Commonwealth country, notably Kenya. In spite of widespread corruption, misuse of power and other wrongdoings, I have in Kenya and in Pakistan, often been impressed by how competent many civil servants are, how committed they are, and how patiently and tirelessly they work, often for low salaries and in difficult environments. Many civil servants work without losing sight of their ideals, feeling sorry for poor people affected by drought, conflicts, abject poverty, or just slow and poor public services. They also see that many private sector companies and individuals loot the country’s resources without paying enough back to society in taxes and in other ways.

Many civil servants are indeed good people – yes, and some are not, rather being interested in lining their own pockets. But today, I would like to mention those who do the right thing every day. They belong to the culture of the kind and considerate Pakistanis. As a visitor in the land, I am often heartened by the kindness shown by ordinary people.

When I worked in East Africa, in the UN, as a diplomat and a researcher, I asked myself if I would have been able to take all the hardship that the local civil servants had to endure, even the politicians. And I concluded that they were better than I would have been. I found excuses for myself; I was not part of the culture in the same way as they were; I was an outsider, staying temporarily in the land, and maybe even feeling I ‘deserved’ better working conditions than the locals. In the end, the locals were best!

Politicians and civil servants work closely together. Politicians should make the major decisions and put control systems in place, but they must also work with the implementers and managers, the civil servants. In Pakistan, the control systems of the civil service and the private sector must be improved. I believe the judiciary has done well in the recent decade. But in that field and others, we have not reached the final destination. We are just ‘en route’.

We realize that the systems and achievements are part of the land’s culture. That is also how it should be. External systems cannot work. Foreign political ways of operating in Pakistan would not work. And then, the politicians are after all as good (or bad) as is possible at any given time. Can we all get better? Yes, and that is what we all strive at, I hope, even my foreign diplomat, and the politicians. None of us should be complacent. 

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience from research, diplomacy and development aid.