Feisal Naqvi

Archive for April, 2009|Monthly archive page

“Because you are stupid!”

In Uncategorized on April 13, 2009 at 4:05 pm

The venue was an international businessman’s lunch in Lahore. My interlocutor was a genial Englishman, several drinks down. And my question was very simple: “If Pakistan does have enough coal to generate all of its electricity for the next 500 years, why do we have load-shedding?”

His undiplomatic answer: “Because you are stupid!”

This is not a column about coal policy. This is a column about stupidity.

I don’t think we are a stupid people. But the harsh fact is that we do act consistently in asinine ways. So, what gives?

One answer to this paradox comes from Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, “Outliers” in which he discusses the mystifying number of Korean Air crashes.

During the 1990s, Korean Airways was consistently one of the most unsafe airlines in the world, so much so that Canada actually banned KAL planes from flying over its territory for a while. Given the normal care with which Koreans make things, and their hard-won reputation for discipline and diligence, this was indeed mystifying.

According to Gladwell, one very important reason for the crashes was the excessive deference in Korea given to elders. The Korean language, for example, is extremely status sensitive with any number of opportunities for subordinates to signal deference to seniors. In terms of cockpit conversations, this meant that co-captains would not tell their captains that they were about to crash but would instead politely suggest that the current rate of decline was somewhat undesirable. When captains ignored their juniors, the result was catastrophe.

Interestingly enough, the cure for KAL’s safety record was both social and linguistic. Korean Air Lines pilots were thus taught to express themselves clearly and bluntly in critical situations. At the same time, all pilots were made to stop talking in Korean and instead speak in English, a more direct and less hierarchical language.

So, will Pakistan be fixed if we all start speaking English? Not quite.

Gladwell’s arguments drew inspiration from Dutch social scientist Geert Hofstede’s theory of cultural dimensions which ranks different countries and societies on the basis of five cultural dimensions.

One of these dimensions is the “Power Distance Indicator” which shows the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organisations expect and accept that power is distributed unequally. Another dimension is the “Uncertainty Avoidance Index,” which reflects the extent to which members of a society attempt to cope with anxiety by minimising uncertainty through strict adherence to rules.

Not surprisingly, Pakistan scores high on both indicators. The result, according to Hofstede, is as follows:

“The combination of these two high scores . . . create societies that are highly rule-oriented with laws, rules, regulations, and controls in order to reduce the amount of uncertainty, while inequalities of power and wealth have been allowed to grow within the society. These cultures are more likely to follow a caste system that does not allow significant upward mobility of its citizens.

When these two dimensions are combined, it creates a situation where leaders have virtually ultimate power and authority, and the rules, laws and regulations developed by those in power, reinforce their own leadership and control. It is not unusual for new leadership to arise from armed insurrection – the ultimate power, rather than from diplomatic or democratic change.”

What Hofstede’s theory says about Pakistan then is that we are a society pre-programmed to worship Big Brothers. We are a nation which has reacted to adversity by developing a pathological dependence on rules and rulers. We are a nation obsessed with status.

The scary part of Hofstede’s analysis of Pakistan, though, is not the two factors I just noted: so far as those are concerned, we are in the distinguished company of much of the Muslim world. Instead, the one dimension in which Pakistan really sticks out is what Hofstede calls “Long Term Orientation” or LTO.

According to Hofstede, this dimension reflects a culture’s “time horizon”, or the importance attached to the future versus the past and the present. Countries with a high LTO value thrift, perseverance and a sense of shame. Countries with low LTO place an emphasis on respect for tradition, fulfilling social obligations, and protecting one’s ‘face’.

In his study of 23 countries, Hofstede found that the countries with the highest LTO scores were Asian countries such as China, which had a score of 118, and Taiwan, which had a score of 87. Pakistan had a score of zero, which is also the lowest score ever recorded.

Let us now return to my lunch-mate’s brutal analysis of the reason for our current plight. Are we really, truly stupid?

Well, it depends upon how you define “stupid”. If you take the average Pakistani and subject him or her to an IQ test, I have no doubt that we would fare reasonably well. However, the point is that society is not just a collection of individuals but rather a collection of individuals whose interaction is determined by their culture. And our culture of power, put bluntly, is toxic.

We are a people inclined to worship our leaders and to trust blindly their diktats. We are a people more worried about saving face than what the future might bring. We are a people so worried by the spectre of corruption that we have barricaded ourselves into a labyrinth of rules. And that may or not be stupid, but it is certainly short-sighted.

The point of this column though is not to bemoan our fate. At the end of the day, culture is not destiny. Ultimately, all it took to fix Korean Airlines was a recognition of the problem. If we can recognise our cultural biases and try to counteract them, there is much that can be done.

This is still a country which is run by bureaucrats. More specifically, this is a country designed to be run by smart, independent and capable bureaucrats. If we can train our bureaucrats to think, we can overcome a lot of our cultural baggage. If we don’t, we will reap the consequences of being governed by myopic, rule-bound, status-obsessed petty tyrants.

What do you think we’ll do?