Invisible violence

It’s quite intuitive to think that to fix problems of poverty and crime, the state’s structure must be reformed. However, academics and policy makers have taken seventy years since decolonisation to really come to this conclusion. “Structural violence”, as a characteristic of third world states, is only just gaining ground when it comes to theorising the nature of state bureaucracies.

At the time of the construction of new states after World War II, the skeleton of the modern nation state and democracy became embedded in all nation building exercises, yet most reconstituted states never got the model to really work as it did in the West, even with all the encouragement from the likes of Rostrow and Fukayama who predicted an eventual convergence of developing countries with developed countries. New states, like India or Pakistan, were agrarian, and on the path to capitalism and mass consumerism. Even Marx perceived nations to be on a historically determined path. The final word was that of Max Weber, who saw the bureaucratic states as the final form of the state that would have impersonal, merit-based, rational-legal state institutions. If we could set up a state based on rule of law, and embed democracy into it, things would work out eventually.

Well we proved them all wrong. Looking to the eventual success of democratic transition is a naïve position to take when faced with consistent mass literacy and poverty.

What we have in Pakistan was not an impersonal, rational-legal bureaucratic structure, but a structure that is mired in its own social dynamics. We have a bureaucracy that encourages a system of bribes and patronage based in kinship ties, and policy papers wrapped in so much red tape that poverty alleviation and social welfare is never the outcome of bureaucratic action, even with they are the intention.

Structural violence is the systematic ways in which people are hindered from equal access to opportunities, goods, and services that enable the fulfilment of basic human needs. These can be formal as in legal structures that enforce marginalization (such as Apartheid in South Africa) or they could be culturally functional but without legal mandate (such as limited access to education or health care for marginalised groups). Apart from direct and cultural violence, were are so poor today because the state structure unwittingly perpetuates violence on us.

How long have you ever-waited in line in at government institution with a ‘parchi’? Have you ever had a special parchi, with the name of a high-up, so the lower level clerk CAN help you jump the queue? Do you know anyone who has a driving licence without having given a driving test? Do you know anyone who was refused the same licence, when they know how to drive and gave the test but couldn’t satisfy the officer who insisted the sign you were described had to be described as it was in the “book”? Have you ever felt a sinking feeling when you realise you have to go to court, to LDA, to NADRA, to the local police station for a problem? How long have you waited for the operator at WAPDA to ask when the electricity will come back, and then heard the phone line disconnect? These are urban problems where the bureaucracy is best funded and well staffed. Imagine the Afghan refugee trying to get registered, or the IDP trying to get rations.

All little frustrations have combined in the last seventy years to create a society looking for an easy way out. A little palm grease here, and name dropping there… and a bureaucracy that has come to rely on the same practices. In all this, it is not that the bureaucratic structure is not well intentioned. When the Punjab government came up with the laptop scheme, or a youth festival, at the core was the well-intentioned idea to promote education and give students facilities (and get votes out of the programs of course). The outcome is arbitrary. A laptop going to a student that already has one, jobs being secured from contacts rather than merit, and so on.

Academics do not yet have well developed theories of interests and patronage to account for why those with more power are able to systematically siphon off development funds intended for the poorest and why some people receive welfare and others who are very similarly positioned do not. It is not that people vote for the wrong politicians, but that structures are in place to resist better redistribution, regardless of who we vote for. Structural violence happens despite the fact that the state is committed to the counting and classifying the population, and despite the fact that the rationality of bureaucratic process does not on the whole favour one recipient over another. Evidence from India suggests that even if corruption and bribery were taken out of the system, we would still not have the state resolving poverty because of the politics of “artifacts” i.e. the paperwork, parchis and procedural guidelines, and the politics of waiting. For example, in Nepal migrants leave the villages because of their redundancy in the rural-agrarian labor processes and because of the attraction that modernity of cities. They are constantly driven back to their village because of the time-bound nature of their mobility. It is not that jobs aren’t available, but that the bureaucratic wait to secure incomes is so long, that people fall back to their old vocations.

There are no easy solutions to this mass culture of bureaucratic delay and mismanagement because the problems come from everyday practices rather than major flaws in laws guiding official work. A lot of the force of reform is put on changing laws, for example, increasing the age of those applying for the CSS to cater to more aspirants, rather than changing the curriculum and the way the exam is checked. The state will try to reform welfare program so it benefits more women to cause their empowerment, but will still have issues of access, funds release, and biased geographic positioning. The term “structural violence” sounds terrible because its theory realises the invisible way in which the state aids poverty and marginalisation. Something about the everyday function of bureaucracy needs to change to solve these issues, because the way we are functioning right now is not conducive to innovative solutions nor does there exist any effective local government system where the people can punish a responsible representative for the lack of service delivery.

The writer is studying South Asian history and politics at the Oxford University and is the former Op-Ed Editor of The Nation.

What we have in Pakistan was not an impersonal, rational-legal bureaucratic structure, but a structure that is mired in its own social dynamics.

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