Reaching a state of habitual mindlessness

By Anjum Altaf

I write this article to question the value of research, a seemingly contradictory position for one trained as a researcher. Nevertheless, I shall argue the case because I feel many of our problems stem not from a lack of new knowledge but from an inability to translate existing knowledge into action. We are unable to convince decision-makers to act or voters to mobilise on the basis of available knowledge. To put my training to some use I shall explore the reasons for this failure which is both important and imperfectly understood. Take poverty as an example. If we pile up all the reports that have been compiled on the causes of poverty in the country we would be well on the way to reaching the top of Minar-e-Pakistan. Yet agencies continue commissioning new studies year after year. I heard recently of a planned study on the drivers of rural poverty in Pakistan. The only variation I could fathom was the replacement of the word ‘causes’ by the more trendy ‘drivers’. On the other side, there is not a single study on why all the knowledge accumulated through previous studies has not been translated into action while poverty continues to increase. Nor is there interest in any such study. So, what’s going on? First of all this supply of research is in response to demands that originate primarily outside Pakistan. International agencies rightly require every new loan or project to be based on current information, the gathering of which becomes the core of new research studies. Their purpose is served when the new loans or projects are signed off. It is not really the mandate of the international agencies to see to it that the research findings feed into policymaking within Pakistan. That should be the responsibility of the citizens of the country. But there is much less demand for research from within Pakistan. The problems confronting the majority of the citizens are so basic that their solutions do not call for new knowledge. It is silly to determine yet again that x per cent of the population lack clean water and y per cent do not have access to safe sanitation. These facts have been known for years. What is more relevant is to determine why these problems remain unresolved when their solutions do not require any kind of rocket science. Five thousand years ago there was a higher standard of service in Mohenjodaro. The same argument can be made for problems of education, housing and health. At the same time decision-makers, barring the odd exception, are not used to making policy on the basis of systematic research nor are there institutional mechanisms that would call for discussion on the research underlying policy making. In fact, the need for research is hardly felt. Decision-makers seem to believe that they know all that is necessary to know and what they don’t know is not worth knowing. To go back to poverty again, it is revealing how often eminent dignitaries inaugurate conferences by vehemently asserting that overpopulation is the cause of our poverty. It does not need any new research, only an observant eye to see China galloping ahead at over seven per cent year after year with a population over one billion and India beginning to accelerate with an equally large population. At the same time there are numerous countries with very low populations and population densities mired in worse poverty than Pakistan. Much available research shows no obvious correlation between poverty and population or population density which would be a much more sensible indicator to use. If decision-makers are so impervious to available knowledge what is the point of carrying out new research? The question we have to ask is why does research have so little impact and what do we have to do to change the situation? This would be the kind of indigenous research driven by our own concrete realities and much more relevant to our future. We face a two-sided problem. On one side we have the majority of our population which is unfamiliar with the language in which most research questions are posed and findings reported. On the other side we have decision-makers who feel they already know what there is to know. In our oral culture, lukewarm to the written word, the worldview of both is shaped by popular wisdom which is renewed very, very slowly. That poverty is caused by overpopulation was the popular wisdom of almost fifty years ago. It still pervades the thinking of influential people today who have not come across all the subsequent research or opened their eyes to observations that prove the theory false. What researchers have to do is to allocate more effort to ensuring that available knowledge permeates popular wisdom much more effectively and helps update it much more rapidly. This is a challenge unique to our situation and it would not be met by setting up research and policy institutes, publishing journals and holding conferences that are a pale imitation of the research culture of countries where the concrete realities are very different. I am exaggerating somewhat to make the point that academic research is a particularly blunt instrument for social change in Pakistan. Interested individuals should continue to research to satisfy their curiosities or to prepare for careers in countries where such endeavours yield professional satisfaction. Research is also needed where clear knowledge gaps exist and more so in areas of the hard sciences. Thus, for example, the impacts of new types of chemical pollutants and the breeding of disease-resistant crops remain areas where continuous research is warranted. But in the social sciences we may have gone beyond the point of diminishing returns and reached a state of habitual mindlessness in researching because that is what we have been trained to do. There needs to be an equal focus on getting the most out of existing knowledge and in making that knowledge matter. This article was written when the author was a Visiting Fellow at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in Islamabad. It appeared in the Daily Times, Lahore, in January 2004 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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