Feisal Naqvi

The Ink Spot strategy

In Uncategorized on December 14, 2010 at 3:57 am

In military jargon, the Ink Spot strategy is an approach to fighting popular insurgencies, like the one in Afghanistan. The idea is that you start small with a particular town, secure it and build it up as a safe haven for the part of the population that supports you. Then like an ink spot spreading out on the blotting paper, you reach out to secure the countryside around that city. Repeat this till you control the whole country.

I mention the Ink Spot strategy not because I have bright ideas about how to fight the Taliban, but because a variation of the Ink Spot strategy has recently become one of the hotter items in development theory. Like the military version, the idea here is to concentrate on building up a particular city and turning it into a beacon of excellence with top class infrastructure and social services. And once you have a top-class city, the surrounding countryside follows suit.

Taken by itself there is nothing new about the city-centric approach to development. Jane Jacobs, for one, spent all of her life pushing that idea. What is new these days is the argument that the development of cities should be outsourced to outsiders. For example, one could take a 1000 acre chunk of land and just hand it over to the Singaporeans to run it properly. Or the Germans. Probably not the Italians, but I think you get the picture.

To continue, the idea is that the Germans/Singaporeans/whatever would then be responsible for all civic services within their 1000 acre slice of paradise. They would collect taxes, provide functional utility services, employ honest policemen, the works (for details, check out http://www.chartercities.org). It would be like a little slice of Singapore in Pindi Bhattian. Or Sialkot. Or whatever.

At first blush, there is much to recommend the idea. Speaking for myself, I would be thrilled if somebody, or anybody, could run Lahore like a First World city. I have no real connection to my local government as it is. Frankly, I couldn’t care less whether my local overlord was a local chap or visiting from Mars so long as the city worked. More pertinently, I would happily pay more in taxes to live in a clean and safe environment. And you don’t just have to take my word for it: every Pakistani businessman who has relocated his business or his family to Dubai has already made that same decision.

In fact, some of the Gulf countries have already started outsourcing government functions. Both Dubai and Qatar have set up special business districts in which adjudication services are provided by judges imported from common law countries and in which the commercial laws are based on English law. This allows Dubai and Qatar to offer very high quality, extremely sophisticated dispute resolution forums as an amenity to investors.

For example, the Chief Justice of the Courts of the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) is Michael Hwang, universally recognised as one of the top international commercial arbitrators in the world. And in the case of the Qatar Financial Centre, I recently argued a case before a panel of three judges consisting of the former Chief Justice of Scotland, a former judge of the High Court of Australia and a lady recognised as one of the top 50 commercial lawyers in London.

Does that mean that we should brace ourselves for a new wave of Singaporean-run cities filled with Australian and English judges? As much as I like the idea, I don’t think so. Any Pakistan prime minister who actually approved the outsourcing of his government’s functions would most likely be lynched the next day.

The more interesting question though is this: why do we need Singaporeans or Germans to run our cities? Why can’t we run them properly ourselves?

Logically speaking, there are only two possible answers. The first is that we are either physically or mentally unable to make the right decisions. The second is that we are unwilling to make the right decisions. In other words, we are either stupid or born crooks.

Actually, that analysis is incorrect. The secret to the Ink Spot strategy lies in the realisation that some things are worth paying for. Once you decide to pay the extra money, Pakistanis are just as capable as others of taking the right decisions.

For example, it is a recognised fact that the Motorway Police officials who operate between Islamabad and Lahore are honest, decent and competent professionals. But we have honest, decent and competent Motorway policemen because the Motorway represents a limited, geographically defined problem which has been attacked in part by paying the Motorway Police top of the line salaries. In short, the Motorway Police is an example of the Ink Spot strategy in operation.

The final question then is this: is it worth having First World cities if they are going to be surrounded by a sea of Third World poverty? I’m not sure. But it is certainly preferable to having Third World cities surrounded by a sea of Third World poverty.

This column appeared first in the daily Pakistan Today on 14 December 2010


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  1. Interesting, I had a similar discussion with my mother yesterday. You have raised some interesting questions. I like the part where you ask why can’t we do it ourselves? Either we are stupid or inherently corrupt. I think like everything else that only works when you believe, ‘lack of faith’ contributes heavily to the fact that we can’t make it work.

  2. Actually, I don’t think that lack of faith is our problem. Our problem is a lack of logic.

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