Ten National Development Traps

by Ali Shah

The writer heads research and analysis at the NUST Global Think Tank Network



What is in a Comparison?

Brazil’s GDP is around USD 2 trillion or 2000 billion with a population of around 206 million. With a population of around 202 million which is not significantly less than that of Brazil, the GDP of Pakistan is around USD 284 billion. Granted that there are no easy equivalences in comparisons between countries or, for that matter, comparisons between any two entities, this comparison does point to the compounded problems of Pakistan. It is a condensed statement of the multiple problems that afflict the state, society, and nation in Pakistan. It reminds us in its harrowing brevity the distance that needs to be covered by the country and its people in the marathon of global development. This massive underperformance also brings to mind the question what spanners may have been stuck in the machinery of domestic development?

The current analysis postulates that these spanners or stumbling blocks exist in the form of traps that collectively prevent the speedy development of Pakistan. Each trap consists of a set of conditions or features that constitute that trap and make it operative. The fundamental mode of operation of these traps consists in a still-uninterrupted positive feedback loop-based interaction. These traps, if left unchecked, have the potential to completely expropriate all development, nay the very ground, on which development takes place so that while the trappings of development may seem to be put in place, no real improvement in the conditions of society results from the instalment of these trappings.


The Anatomy of Trap

Before we proceed further, let us think semantically about traps. The dictionary definition of the word “trap” is “something by which one is caught or stopped unawares” as well as “a position or situation from which it is difficult or impossible to escape.” This two-pronged definition points to two key dimensions of something that is a trap. One of these dimensions is direct and obvious; the second is implied and not readily visible. Together, these two dimensions ensure that a trap remains a trap. The first dimension is the lack of awareness of the existence of that which is a hindrance, obstacle, or impediment as a hindrance, obstacle or impediment. It means that a trap exists first to the extent that one is not conscious of it. This is the dimension of consciousness and knowledge of a trap.

The second dimension that makes a situation a trap is that it is either difficult or impossible to escape from it. Now this dimension is not as simple as it sounds because it is not simply an either-or matter. Rather, there is a ceaseless progression of a situation from being difficult to becoming impossible. This means that until a certain threshold is reached a trap is a situation that it is difficult to get out of but there comes a point when a certain threshold has been crossed in that situation making any escape from the situation impossible. So what was only difficult before has now become impossible. This threshold, for want of a better word, can be called crisis. A crisis separates the stage of difficulty from the stage of impossibility of a trap. This is the spatiotemporal dimension of a trap. Now bringing the two dimensions together, I propose that a situation becomes a trap due to the ignorance of when this threshold was reached and crossed in any sphere which itself stems from the lethal ignorance of the unceasing progression from difficulty to impossibility.

As long as we are not comprehensively aware of something that trammels progress, all our measures and remedial strategies to deal with it will either be half-baked or plain wrong. Therefore, the key is to know a trap as a trap, to perceive that there is a nonstop movement in it from one state to the other, to recognize that each of these two states has itself various levels that differ from situation to situation, to realize and identify with exactitude the moment of passing of the first into the second stage, to grasp that overcoming a trap does not only mean defusing the crisis but also preventing the slide into the stage where recovery becomes impossible, and, finally, to overcome the difficult stage altogether.

Below is given a summary of ten fundamental development traps of the country that may hold back its development if they are allowed to persist in the structure of its society, polity, and economy, and in the philosophy and practice of its planning for development. The author is aware of the fact that some important traps may have been overlooked by him. One omission is poverty. One reason the present article does not treat the poverty trap is that it is quite well-documented. The second reason is that while it is recognized that poverty is a vicious trap, the emphasis of this article is to think about certain critical conditions that have traditionally thwarted the country’s development and which also act as some of the major drivers of the perpetuation of poverty.


Ten Traps

Unbalanced Development

The first feature of this species of development is that it focuses on certain important things to the exclusion of certain other equally important things. The fact that developing countries cannot do all things related to development simultaneously is used as an argument ad infinitum to keep doing certain things and delaying other things.

An obvious example is the perennial state focus of many developing countries on infrastructure development understood in the narrow sense of transportation infrastructure. The development of social infrastructures, including educational, health, and community infrastructures, is inevitably delayed or staggered to follow the first type of infrastructure development. Now it is clear as daylight that no country has been able to develop without networked transportation, communication, connectivity, and energy infrastructures but it is also true that no country can develop without the comprehensive development of social infrastructures. The priority of the first kind of infrastructure and the delay in the development of the second kind must be time-bound and time-lined. If not so, then it is a ready indicator of the fact that the country is caught in the trap of unbalanced development and all the roads may eventually lead nowhere.

The second feature of this trap is that certain regions of the country are initially and historically preferred as hubs of modern development because of their relatively higher rates of growth and their historical status as regional economic or administrative hubs characterized by greater levels of development and prosperity as compared to other regions in the country. The rationale behind this choice is that investment tends to be attracted to these advanced regions leading to their speedy and concentrated development, and the accumulated capital and wealth created in these development hubs can then be transferred later to less developed regions of the country. If the transfer fails to take place or is constantly deferred under one pretext or the other, then the pattern of disparity becomes hardened and inscribed into the logic of development in the country and becomes naturalized, supported with pseudo-scientific arguments which elicit general acquiescence to development imbalance. Incidentally, such arguments typically assume sociological or anthropological forms.

Absence of transfer leads to a situation in which development and prosperity is locked in certain pockets and fails to circulate. The disparity that exists between regions also comes to stay within advanced regions. The failure of development to circulate is the success of the circulation of disparity. This immanence of disparity then functions like a fifth column for forces of development frustrating planned reconstruction and regeneration drives from within. A balanced city-cluster approach that harnesses all regions of the country in a mutually beneficial grid of urban-urban, rural-rural, and urban-rural interdependence fails to appear in the country leading to the ossification of inequality between regions and social groups alike.

The third feature of this trap is the inefficient and messy utilization of the territory of the country and the people inhabiting that territory. This inefficient utilization appears in a careless attitude to the country’s land and its different forms and features leading to environmental degradation and a careless attitude to the people leading to the degradation of their physical, social and spiritual conditions. In fact, the failure to properly utilize the total human resources of a country will automatically lead to the cultivation of an irresponsible relation of people to land and environment. Smart, equalitarian, and adaptive regional planning provides a possible way out of the trap of unbalanced underdevelopment.


Skewed Economic Structure

Skewed economic structure is different from but related to unbalanced development. The difference exists in the scale and scope of the two. While the first trap was socio-spatial in nature, the second trap becomes visible in the structure of the national economy. Its key features, amongst other things, are inhibitive GDP composition by sector, negative trade balance, inordinately high debt-to-GDP ratio, an unsynchronized labor force occupation by sector and GDP composition by sector, low levels of secondary-educated labor force, low manufacturing, high primary exports, and very low high-tech exports. This appears, for Pakistan, in a strangely enlarged services sector (around 56 percent) followed by relatively smaller and more or less equal sectors of agriculture (25 percent) and industry (around 20 percent). While the biggest chunk of GDP comes from services, a small share of exports is contributed by services. The country also does not exhibit concrete signs of advancement or global leadership in the high-end service industries so it is a moot question if the majority of these services are low-end informal skills rather than medium- to high-end services in ICTs, finance, banking, and higher education.

On the contrary, in emerging economies like China, Russia, India, Brazil, South Africa, South Korea, Mexico, Turkey, Malaysia, and Iran, invariably the largest sector is services with second place occupied by industry and agriculture bringing up the rear. The existing composition of the GDP of these countries reflects and telescopes the completed graduation of these countries from the factor-driven stage to the efficiency-driven stage and the ongoing gradual to rapid transition from the efficiency-driven stage to innovation-driven stage of development, as these stages are outlined in the Global Competitiveness Index framework. Pakistan’s economic structure is in plain contradistinction to the norm of development that emerges from an analysis of these emerging economies. While such norms are never irrevocable principles of growth, they do reflect certain constants of development in the contemporary world.

A truly mixed economy, combining the best of planning and free market, instantiated by multiple public-private partnerships and powered by rapid high-end industrialization, can begin to provide the way out of the trap of skewed economic structure. Concomitant creation of empowered forums for participatory planning and citizens’ policymaking can complement the establishment of a dynamic mixed economy.



The key features of de-industrialization are: widespread de-electrification caused by insufficient supply of energy; low levels of trained industrial workforce; low labor productivity; small, inadequate or zero domestic production of capital goods like industrial machinery and equipment; small, inadequate or zero domestic production, combined with high demand, of the complete range of defense goods; greater emphasis on production of fast-moving consumer goods; and insufficient or zero capability of producing dual-use technologies.

This trap creates and maintains dependence on foreign technologies and imported goods. De-industrialization is worsened by poor knowledge of global industrial trends and shifts not only in terms of sunrise and sunset industries but also in terms of transformations of manufacturing and industrial techniques, practices, and processes resulting in the overall poor planning for industrial and manufacturing upgradation and relocation from core to semi-peripheral or peripheral economies or from semi-peripheral to peripheral countries. The absence of a dynamic and versatile entrepreneurial and innovation promotion ecosystem, populated by active and burgeoning industry-academia linkages, multiple science parks, and numerous technology and business incubators, also contributes to a long-term unavailability of talent and skills required for a veritable industrial revolution in the country.

De-industrialization leads to the distortion of job market, ballooning of the informal sector, growth of dead-end occupations not contributing to value creation in the country, and de-pegging of economic planning from market, and of both from training policies of the whole range of educational institutions, including universities, colleges, and vocational and technical training institutes. One symptom of de-industrialization is the overproduction of graduates in certain disciplines and the scarcity of graduates in other disciplines. Relying on developing country markets to redress the imbalance between skills requirements of the economy and the dearth of manpower embodying those skills leads to market failure and sub-optimal performance of whole sectors of industry. One psychological symptom of this trap is the lack of collective self-confidence found in societies that are used to eking out as price-takers and technology-takers instead of being price-makers and technology-makers.

Bad Urbanization

This trap consists in an urbanization that is de-linked from any significant domestic industrialization drive. It consists in wave upon wave of migration from rural regions and smaller cities to a few developed urban centers of the country. This form of urbanization is symptomatic of the absence of economic opportunities in the rural countryside and the smaller cities rather than of the abundance or growth of such opportunities in the big cities. It relieves but temporarily the social pressures in some regions, areas, and parts of the country only in order to increase those pressures in other regions, areas, and parts of the country.

It typically leads to an urban sprawl that invades the rural hinterland or peri-urban regions on which the big city depends for its services and resources. It jams the functionality of a big-city region by overloading the urban metabolism through producing more social waste than can be recycled by the urban system. Bad urbanization leads to law-and-order breakdown, the destruction of cityscape, overstretched urban services, non-renewal of urban infrastructure, the unchecked growth of informal economy and black market networks, and the development of crime-politics nexus. Continuous flows of migrants from different social and ethnic backgrounds lead to further diminution of economic opportunities, income compartmentalization, ethnic ghettoization of whole districts and neighborhoods, and intensification of ethnic differences. The outcome is a particularly intense competition for resources which are always scarce in situations of bad urbanization. The phenomenon of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and the question of their relief and rehabilitation strain the carrying capacity of urban systems.

Two polar movements of conspicuous affluence, visible in urban gated communities, and squalid deprivation, typified by slum dwellings, start existing simultaneously and conspiring against the very idea of horizontal and peaceful cities. Whatever peace seems to be present feels more like the peace of the victors thrust on the vanquished in the social competition for resources. While the awareness does dawn here and there that resources available to urban systems are scarce in the final instance, nowhere does one find the individual and collective courage and self-restraint to curtail the insane drive for consumption of these resources except in cases of poverty which tends to be a case of coercive, forced, or involuntary reduction in consumption.

The state fails to play its self-proclaimed role of balancer between different classes, groups, and segments of society. Differential access to opportunities and politically-motivated channeling of resources reinforce patterns of unemployment and seasonal employment caused by de-industrialization. One consequence of the closure of legitimate economic opportunities is the accommodation of economic aspirants into informal and illegal trade and exchange networks that mutates and vitiates the overall entrepreneurial energies of the urban population. Unchecked bad urbanization, after a certain period of time has elapsed, becomes a major national security challenge so that what was a local issue before now becomes a burning national question impinging on other regions of the country by virtue of the convergence in its murky underbelly of multiple forces of disintegration. It would be instructive to think of bad urbanization as both an end-state and a process.


Social Fragmentation

Social fragmentation, related to bad urbanization, is defined here as a combination of high physical mobility and low social mobility. While the geographic area available to economic migrants remains extensive, the occupational profile of these migrants remains more or less uniform. A highly physically mobile but socially static population is highly aware and highly dissatisfied. This situation promotes populism in society making people vulnerable to demagoguery, political adventurism and emotionally charged political slogans. This phenomenon is found with particular severity in lower-middle to low income backgrounds.

Due to social fragmentation, social unrest remains a permanently alive possibility. Social fragmentation reinforces bad urbanization and de-industrialization and is strengthened by them in turn. Social cohesion in such circumstances remains a distant objective. Rare moments in which social fragmentation has been seen to have become temporarily suspended are when there arises some existential threat to the nation-state. In such moments, it is usually a belated but effective state-led mobilization that provisionally slows down the motor of fragmentation.


3.6. Political Fragmentation

Political fragmentation has been viewed elsewhere in terms of the multiplicity of levels of government with especial reference to urban and suburban regions. This view of political fragmentation, having arisen in fully urbanized developed countries, falls short of capturing a different form of fragmentation related to political representation in developing countries. This form exists in terms of the multiplicity of political parties and divisions within them on the basis of business interests, ethnicity, caste, sectarianism, localism, and provincialism. Such fragmentation prevents the emergence of a truly broad-based political movement capable of leading the country decisively and constructively. Two effects of such fragmentation are the tension that normally exists between the federal government and the provincial governments, and the never-ending coming-together and coming-apart amongst multiple political factions. This tension is not necessarily antagonistic but does impede any genuine political reform initiative.

Sociopolitical Instability

Political instability is different from social instability but both can coexist. One can serve as the cause for the other. History, past and present, yields instances when political instability led to social instability as well as instances where social disorder led to political disorder. It is interesting to note that there may be cases where stability in one sphere can exist side by side with instability in the other. Whatever the case may be, social fragmentation and political fragmentation contribute to the emergence of social instability and political instability.

In a four-quadrant diagram, four sociopolitical orders will emerge if the horizontal or X axis represents the social dimension and if the vertical or Y axis represents the political dimension. In such a diagram, in the first quadrant, we would have a dispensation consisting of social and political stability; in the second quadrant, we would have social instability and political stability; in the third quadrant, we would have an order based on social and political instability; and, in the fourth quadrant, the order would comprise social stability and political instability.

While the first and third quadrants represent harmonious and disturbed social orders respectively and may denote end-states of sociopolitical orders, the second and fourth quadrants represent emergent orders which are dynamic combinations of conflicting trends, are more relevant to emerging and developing economies, and form transitional stages of sociopolitical orders. This does not mean that the first and third quadrant orders as end-states are static. They constantly evolve too. In so far as the second quadrant is concerned, it includes situations in which mature political institutions can coexist with the absence or poor development of social institutions and channels of socioeconomic justice and welfare. It points to socially unequal but stable political orders. The fourth quadrant refers to situations in which social stability can coexist with evolving or insufficiently developed institutions of political representation. It points to socially equal but unstable political orders. A developing country can be undone by either of these two possibilities. Normally, low trust between institutional spheres, underwritten by income inequality and weak redistributive mechanisms, leads to these situations.


Administrative Drag

Administrative drag is defined here as the tendency of administrative cadres and procedures to slow things down rather than speed them up. This, however, does not detract from the solid competence of a handful of honest and hardworking civil servants who silently peg away at their jobs, turning the wheels of state administration. Administrative drag is a characteristic of bureaucracy as an interest group in state apparatuses and not necessarily a personal trait of individual civil servants. It is the opposite of administrative dispatch which is the ability to work with competent promptness. What is interesting is that civil service is routinely capable of both drag and dispatch. If dispatch is like an arrow that goes straight and inexorably towards its target, drag is like a cycle that keeps going round and round in never-ending circles.

Owing to conditions of sociopolitical instability and the challenges arising to bureaucracy from this instability combined with the universal fear related to self-preservation, civil service that is fully capable of executing work with dispatch opts for drag. The arrow is, henceforth, bent and reversed. It comes back to hit itself. The goal is lost in the process. The process remains visible alone in all its bustle like the engine of a parked car without wheels that keeps whirring without moving the vehicle forward by even an inch. This creates circumstances where it is easy to confuse circularity with continuity. Once this confusion becomes settled, it becomes extremely difficult to unbend the arrow back into straightness. It, then, is seen that not unlike justice, implementation delayed is development denied. It must be mentioned here that, perhaps, not all forms of drag are negative, especially when drag is pitched against policies based on narrow vested interests.


Low National Human Resource Development

This trap manifests itself in the curse of mediocrity that unfortunately seems to have swept over our land. The key features of this trap are low levels of educational enrolment, poor specialization and non-synthesized concepts, poor command of professional skills, low moral resources based on courage, and the lack of proficiency in dynamic competencies. The first key feature of this trap consists of the chasm-like gap between the total age-group populations for secondary and tertiary levels of education and the actual enrolment in these levels. The second key feature comprises the quality of instruction at different levels and the non-appearance of national institutions of higher learning in the top 200 universities in any global rankings. The third key feature of this low state of development appears in the poor command of graduates of their areas of specialization existing as the dual inability to synthesize key concepts in their disciplines properly and form game-changing new concepts and ideas in those disciplines. The fourth key feature is the general lack of moral compunction and courage coupled with timid and escapist responses to multiple forms of unfairness.

The fifth feature of this situation consists in the serious and ubiquitous lack of dynamic and transferable skills consisting of clear thinking, eloquent written and spoken expression and social competencies of reciprocity, trust-building, cooperation, fair play, and pleasant positive conversation. These skills are termed transferable because like ICTs they are applicable in and across all domains of modern civilization. The cultivation of these skills is fundamental to the very enterprise of modern education. Possession of high levels in the area of transferable skills ensures success and transformative excellence in all disciplines and areas of specialization. This trait of transferable skills can be called meta-specialization. The cultivation of meta-skills is seriously challenged in the country which, in the estimation of this author, becomes a big reason for our lack of global leadership in knowledge, science, and technology.

The outcome of this state of affairs is mass production of partially educated and trained graduates and professionals and the devaluation of each preceding level of education with regard to the next level. No matter how many of such graduates and professionals are churned out by our education system, they will fail to become the critical mass of human resource required for national development. Production of quantity must follow the institutionalization of quality. In so far as the de-valorization of educational levels is concerned, it is a situation in which the next advanced degree level is sought not because of its intrinsic value but because of the social reduction in value of the preceding degree level. Low levels of development of these five features collectively create negative conditions for the cultivation of innovation capabilities which are founded on a freely promoted spirit of inquiry channeled into the positive direction of exploring, discovering, and meeting societal, institutional, market and community needs and problems.

One instance of the low level of human resource development is the inability of Pakistani academia, in so far as one is aware, to introduce a globally recognized, established, taught and researched new subject area in either natural sciences, social sciences, arts, or humanities except, perhaps, the automatic incorporation of Pakistan Studies under the rubric of Area Studies as part of the global trend to study different regions and areas of the world in a multidisciplinary manner in university schools, departments, think tanks, and policy centers. An area proposed here as “CPEC Studies” may, perhaps, offer us a golden opportunity to consciously create such a national subject area. If it ever comes into being, then the excellence with which this area will be researched and taught would determine if it is taken up globally.


Ideological Mystification

This is one of the thorniest of all traps because identifying it involves candid introspection and discovering what is wrong with us. If human beings are the agents and drivers of change, then their thinking habits and the state of their cognitive capabilities will eventually come to inflect any course of development for the worse or the better according as their thinking is healthy and correct or diseased and wrong. Ideological mystification is people’s ignorance of why they hold the views that they do. A general inability to reason successfully and logically from premise to conclusion without falling prey to an inordinately large number of fallacies is a key feature of what is termed ideological mystification. This philosophic and cognitive inability is worsened by a general lack of awareness of the origin and history of ideas and concepts related to the workings of state, market, and society.

A cult of relativism, widely promoted in the modern teaching of social sciences, allies itself with this mass ignorance to generate the inability to distinguish right from wrong and truth from falsehood to the extent that the very notion of truth is denied and made to look suspect. A corollary of this cult is the dual process of levelling and elevation of public opinion. Levelling refers to giving equal weight to everyone’s opinion and elevation refers to considering this equality of opinion as one of the highest values of modern civilization. This situation apparently looks very appealing and seems to be the very embodiment of democratic ethos but a situation in which everyone’s opinion is equal is in reality a situation in which no one’s opinion is more valid than the rest. A society in which people believe they know as well as anyone is a society which has become ripe for the tyranny of ignorance in the form of glorification of charlatanism and the widespread Dionysian display of personal views packaged as wisdom.

An accompanying divorce of practice from theory and forgetfulness of the organic relationship between the two domains leads to the creation of the two ideological camps of theoreticians and practitioners. The resulting contentions between the two are costly and useless like all sectarian struggles and lead to loss of time, effort, and opportunity. The outcome is endless discussions, abundance of tacks, and frequent reversals in policymaking. No sector of society and state remains immune from this levelling, this elevation, and this divorce. In such a society consultations lead, for everyone involved, to the vindication of their own views and non-acceptance of views other than one’s own. This forestalls any meaningful attempt at genuine collective action. Hierarchical relations of power and authority then step in, in the absence of an enabling consensus, to enforce compliance and achieve results. These results, because they have been arbitrarily achieved, do not neutralize the ideological mystification but only provide a stop-gap solution.



The foregoing enumeration is by no means exhaustive nor does the analysis claim any finality to it. It has tried to identify and discuss key features of these traps but has chosen not to pinpoint the moment of crisis in them because the determination of such a moment in each of them is something that should only be done with broad-based consensus and dedicated specialized rounds of consultations with representatives from various sections of society, apparatuses of state, sectors of economy, and organs of government. On a hopeful note, it is felt incumbent to share that at least, in this author’s opinion, none of these traps have yet entered the stage of impossibility. They are considerably difficult to escape from but an escape in the sense of overcoming them is not only possible but also highly awaited. The purpose of this article has been to encourage deeper, wider, and more comprehensive policy thinking about development problems in Pakistan, especially in the age of the development of CPEC, to ensure that the country’s development takes place on a sound and sustainable basis free from the reproduction of traps into its future.

This material is shared by Global Think Tank Network (GTTN), a key national policy research, analysis, and advocacy initiative, based in the National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST), Islamabad. The fundamental objective of GTTN is to develop solutions and recommend multi-partisan public policies for social, economic, ethical, and equitable development of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, as envisioned by Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, by associating scholars, professionals, and academicians, not only from Pakistan – particularly from NUST – but, wherever possible, from all over the world. The Board of Directors of GTTN comprises: Rector NUST, Lieutenant General Naweed Zaman (retd.) as Co-Chair; Professor Emeritus (Senior Advisor) NUST & Former Deputy Chairman, Planning Commission, Dr. Akram Sheikh as Co-Chair; Advisor NUST & President GTTN, Mr. Amer Hashmi; Former Governor, Balochistan & KP, Mr. Owais Ghani; Editor-in-Chief, Blue Chip Magazine, Mr. Humayun Gauhar; Former Member Infrastructure, Planning Commission, Dr. Asad Ali Shah; and, NUST Pro-Rector, Mr. Irfan Akhtar as Board Secretary/Treasurer.

Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of NUST or GTTN.

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