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The taxi driver with advice for presidents and prime ministers

Kamran is a taxi driver in Dubai. I met him on a recent trip and found him a little different from the norm. Despite doing a difficult and demanding job, and one that does not offer the best reward, he stays upbeat and positive. So much so that I engaged him exclusively on a daily basis.

We had quite a few chats, about the UAE and his native Pakistan, and the differences in the two societies.

Kamran does not hold Pakistan’s politicians in high regard. He knows that his country’s post-independence history has been a long procession of flawed elections, coups and counter-coups, and misplaced priorities.

As we drove around, he pointed out that politicians in poor countries often go for the grandiose: military spending, highways, bridges, railways, stadia and other headline-grabbing projects that can be named after them and involve lucrative tenders and hidden commissions.

I asked Kamran what he would prioritize if he were in charge of a poor country. He had no hesitation in his answer: just three priorities. Drinking water in every home; education for all up to the age of sixteen; and universal essential healthcare. Everything else could wait.

His broader point is this: you begin with the basics, and move on to more ambitious things later. You ensure that the fundamentals are taken care of first, and those fundamentals involve giving everyone in your society the opportunity to survive – and then succeed.

I told him I wished he could ascend to power, in his country and mine, because that common sense is exactly what is missing in the upper echelons. Presidents and prime ministers ignore it; policy wonks over-complicate it; institutions fail to enforce it.

I have been writing it for years and years on this page: accomplished societies do not deprive their most needy people of the most needed basics: health, hygiene and education. They pay for those things first, not last. They allow their people to have their eyes and minds opened by education, so that they can make discerning choices and know proper leaders from knaves and charlatans; and they don’t let them get wiped out by preventable diseases.

No nation has developed on this planet without engaging its poor people and improving their lot. This does not mean government largesse and freebies, mind. It is about giving the poor the incentives and freedoms to develop themselves, by getting a fair shot at bettering themselves by using market mechanisms as far as possible.

Amartya Sen, a Nobel laureate in economics, would agree with Kamran. He put it best when he summarized the many freedoms that drive economic development. Development requires, first and foremost, political freedom. It demands that people are free to choose their governments, free to scrutinise and criticise them, and free to reject them.

Secondly, development demands economic freedom. This means that individuals should have access to finance on suitable terms, that they should be free to trade, and that they can participate in markets that are open to all on equal terms.

In addition to these two fundamental freedoms, Sen pointed out that individuals must have social freedoms: access to education and healthcare, so that we all have the freedom to live better. And governments must must provide protective freedoms: security to the populace that gives the freedom to function without threat to life and limb, and the guarantee of safety nets by the government when disaster strikes.

That’s it. Give everyone the basics, and guarantee everyone’s freedoms. Then watch development happen all by itself, without the need for ridiculous debt-fuelled spending sprees.

As I have written before, the problem with collective failure is that it often has images of flashy cars and glamorous skyscrapers, and looks like success. But individual lucre is not common gain. Fortunes made in immature economies are too often made from patronage, cronyism and outright fraud. There’s nothing to clap for there.

A society that wants to advance quickly allows the market to work properly, by giving opportunity and freedom to as many as possible. It builds proper institutions to protect rights and property. It outlaws villainy and punishes chicanery. Then, those who deserve to succeed – the industrious, the innovative, the generous – get a genuine chance to do so and take their people with them rather than retarding them.

I’ll say it again: if we keep clapping for ill-gotten gains and keep looking away from the essentials of development, all our countries will keep emerging and never arriving. Even taxi drivers know this. Why do the rest of us fall for fake development agendas?

(Sunday Nation, 29 July 2018)

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