tag:blog.wyounas.com,2013:/posts Waqas Younas 2018-01-15T18:38:59Z Waqas Younas tag:blog.wyounas.com,2013:Post/1140784 2017-04-15T07:00:02Z 2017-04-15T07:00:02Z Our statesmen in Pakistan

I am not an expert on public policy or governance. Nor am I the epitome of virtue. However, the recent scuffle between two parliamentarians (and similar instances in the recent past) have made me think.  As someone who has his, and his descendants’, futures married to that of this country, this was painful. This use of force shows how our leaders deal with dissent. It really baffles me how those who cannot govern their tempers in the highest public political forum, knowing that events in this forum are captured permanently by the mass media, can expect to be able to govern cities, ministries, provinces or our country (which is already at a crossroads). Such behavior evoked certain thoughts.

Ask yourself, would you want people who use their arms and tongues freely in an arbitrary direction, to be a guardian of our children and be responsible for their upbringing? I don’t think any parent would want people exhibiting such behavior to guide their children, given the kind of negative influence they may have on them.

Let’s assume you own a business or manage a certain department. Would you give such people responsibility to run your business or your department? Running the affairs of a business involves situations in which your temper is tested almost on a daily basis. Would such behavior make a business profitable? Would it not affect the performance and morale of employees? How would this behavior impact a business when it’s already in trouble?

Moreover, would you like to learn an art or a sensitive craft from someone with a similar temper? Would you like to get yourself treated by a doctor, for a life threatening disease, who is trained by someone with such a temper? Similarly, would you like to be treated by a doctor with such a temper? I think the answer is “no”.

Ask yourself, would you really want someone with such a temper to be a mediator in a large and important dispute? Do you think he would be able to judiciously solve matters related to life, death and general social welfare? Would you confidently think that such a mediator would be able to impart justice to society at large?

Furthermore, can such a person truly offer his services to provide reasoned resistance against tyranny? Isn’t it doubtful that people would actually oblige his calls at the hour of need for an honest and just cause? The need for leaders who can act and unite us against tyranny has never been greater.

I believe, therefore, that if a person of such temperament cannot be very confidently assigned such jobs, we cannot confidently assign him the sensitive and arduous job of running a state, which involves dealing with all such affairs.

It is doubtful that  such people can craft policies and make regulations needed to turn around a troubled country. Dissent and discourse are inevitable in matters of monumental scale. Incisive insights are usually a result of discourse and dissent conducted with civility. When tongues, arms and legs move freely and forcefully to take each other down, it makes one wonder if our policies and regulations are well thought out.

Is it because of inherent patronage and clientelism that people with good morals and virtue don’t because part of the political machine? Political entrepreneurs take advantage of misplaced incentives; they who know how to exploit this political machine, by doling out favors and economic resources in exchange for votes, are given priority by those in power. The fact that political parties’ leadership doesn’t strongly condemn this behavior of their colleagues reinforces the importance of such political entrepreneurs.

This political machine is also an indication of how our politicians have been successful in making policies that have kept the majority poor and uneducated. According to American political scientist Francis Fukuyama, having a poor and uneducated majority enables patronage and clientelism. The most acute problem with patronage and clientelism is that both politicians and citizens sacrifice their long-term well-being for short-term gains. That is likely the reason that the majority of our population still doesn’t have access to clean drinking water, fair justice, quality health care and proper education.


This opinion was published in The News on 21st of March, 2017.


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Waqas Younas
tag:blog.wyounas.com,2013:Post/1108616 2017-02-28T07:00:08Z 2017-03-10T05:11:13Z Is National Action Plan (NAP) a plan?

ANDREW Grove, one of the founders of Intel, is considered the pioneer of the semiconductor industry and of modern management practices. In one of his books, High Output Management, he talks about “management by objectives” (MBO), a method of creating meaningful plans that disciplines thinking, focuses efforts and gives direction to those involved in their implementation.

This method had earlier been popularised by the founder of modern management, Peter Drucker, but Grove brought it to an even wider audience. Reportedly, Google, DuPont and Intel all use this method. MBO can be used to create and analyse the effectiveness of a plan, whether by a company, sports team, individual or country.

Our government came up with the National Action Plan (NAP) some time ago. It tries to address the important issues this country faces. The purpose of this article is not to analyse the plan from a political or public-policy standpoint but, rather, to evaluate it in the light of MBO.

Any meaningful plan needs to list not only its objectives, but also the milestones (or key results) that must be pursued along the way in order to achieve those objectives. According to Grove, MBO helps answer two questions: first, where does one want to go, ie the objective and; second, how to measure whether one is getting closer to one’s destination, ie milestones or key results. NAP, however, refers only to objectives and has no mention of key results that will help measure progress. For example, the objectives listed in NAP include revamping and reforming the criminal justice system but it does not state which milestones or key results need to be achieved in order to be able to do this.

The aforementioned objective also gives no indication of the duration in which this task is to be completed. Plans need to be time-bound. Grove gives a good example: “I want to go to the airport to catch a plane in an hour. This is my objective. I know that I must drive through towns A, B and C on my way there. My key results become reaching A, B and C in 10, 20 and 30 minutes respectively. If I have been driving for 20 minutes and haven’t yet made town A, I know I am lost.” Key results need to be time-limited so that they can be effectively tracked.

Neither does NAP give direction to those in the government’s machinery responsible for the execution of its objectives. It is important that objectives are further broken down across the government’s chain of command, down to the individual level, so that the relevant people in the national and provincial echelons know what their responsibilities are.

If objectives are clearly defined at all levels we then clearly see, as Grove notes, a “nesting hierarchy of objectives, so [that] if a subordinate’s objectives are met the supervisor’s will be as well”. Without this nesting hierarchy, everyone is unsure of their roles in the grand scheme of things and this may result in inaction and a lack of meaningful progress towards their goals. Even a partial implementation of the nesting hierarchy, in which most of the available resources are ineffectively and incompletely utilised, will fail to yield fruitful results.

NAP also contains no measures of success. Key results need to be measurable so that there is no ambiguity upon completion. If the objective of a waste management authority is to reduce waste in Karachi, for example, then one of its key results could be to increase the waste collection coverage by 10pc in south Karachi by May 2017. Similarly, merely stating the intention of revamping the criminal justice system is not enough — we ought to know what we are aiming for and how much of an improvement we expect.

Any plan or objective must have a mechanism for review, how frequ­ently one is conducted and by whom. There also must be in place a process whereby objec­tives and key results are periodically refined. While some degree of failure is reasonable, it is important to make correc­tions to a plan upon subsequent evaluations.

A plan is susceptible to vagueness and failure without specific objectives, key results, time limits, clear direction, measures of success and concrete criteria for monitoring. Good plans require a lot of thinking, something that, unfortunately, cannot be outsourced. Good plans also foster good communication, which in turn can expedite implementation and give a sense of purpose.

Of course, thorough planning is a daunting task, and it’s understandable that making progress on large national plans takes time, consensus and much coordination. With determination and seriousness of purpose, however, this can be achieved. The need has never been greater to make progress towards big and audacious national goals such as better education, expanded healthcare and increased national security.

This opinion was published in the Dawn on November 9th, 2016. 
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Waqas Younas
tag:blog.wyounas.com,2013:Post/1104444 2017-02-02T07:00:03Z 2017-02-02T07:00:03Z Delusional Development in Pakistan

Delays in the completion of mega-projects have become the norm in our country. Hydropower projects and construction of highways, sewage treatment plants and airports, for example, are being delayed, and delays cost money. Islamabad airport has seen a cost overrun of Rs 19.39 billion; the cost of the sewage treatment plant in Karachi jumped nearly five times. Delays and cost overruns in development projects are a concern for a debt-ridden developing country such as ours, because they lead to inefficient allocation of resources and the waste of scarce capital.

According to research conducted by Dr. Bent Flyvbjerg of Oxford University, cognitive biases, poor planning, political pressure, strategic misrepresentation and the lack of outside expertise best explain delays and cost overruns. These factors lead also to the building of inferior projects. The dream of pro-people development is shattered while our impoverished country has to bear these burdens.

Various studies have suggested that decision-makers (e.g. politicians) fall prey to cognitive biases, and have a tendency to exaggerate their talents. Overconfidence affects us all. In a 1981 study, Ola Svenson found that 93% of American drivers rated themselves as better than the average driver. According to Flyvbjerg, politicians are not immune to this over-optimism bias, or to the illusion of having control. They believe that things that go well are their own achievements, while things that don’t go well are others’ failures. They think they are in control and ignore the rare and worst-case scenarios. When project promoters become excited about a project, they focus solely on success scenarios and rarely talk about the associated risks. Sadly, we don’t have policies in place that take such biases into account. The Treasury of the UK instituted policies to ensure that funding is available only for projects that factor in cognitive biases. We need to take similar measures.

Poor planning and inaccurate cost-benefit forecasts also cause delays and cost overruns. Properly-planned projects depend on rational and thorough cost-benefit analyses (CBA), and the foundation of a good CBA is conservative and thoroughly-vetted forecasts. A CBA can easily be tainted due to improperly analyzed-forecasts, making unfit projects look good on paper. Incorrect forecasts project unrealistic revenue and erroneous payback estimates, as assumptions are never questioned. Sadly, the issue of incorrect forecasts isn’t currently part of the discussion in our planning and development process. We should discourage and even penalize incorrect forecasts, as their repercussions are so damaging for our developing country. Further, forecasts should be subject to public scrutiny, peer reviews, and citizen juries.

Political pressure to develop and finish projects within the political term and strategic misrepresentation further cause delays and cost overruns. Planners, who create forecasts, work for powerful politicians and bureaucrats, a group among which the cost of raising dissent is high. Planners actually find incentives for positively accentuating their forecasts, since, due to political pressure (as well as a lack of independent analysis and the ex post facto evaluation of projects), exaggerated forecasts are never questioned. This creates a culture in which tainted forecasts are considered fine. Eventually, we end up with piles of projects with incorrect estimates.

Additionally, Flyvbjerg notes the phenomenon of strategic misrepresentation, which best explains cost overruns. He cites studies in which planners admitted that they had to “cook” their estimates to make projects look good on paper so that they could secure funding. Due to political pressure, as well as to scarce funding, competition is stiff, so project promoters pressure forecasters to underestimate costs and overestimate benefits. More transparency in the planning process can help ease political pressure and prevent strategic misrepresentation.

The problems of cost overruns and delays are also aggravated by the lack of outside view. Getting objective outside feedback, keeping experiences and expectations in check and learning from the outcomes of similar projects in past are part of an approach termed outside view. For an outside view, Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman has recommended a method called “reference class forecasting”. It is used by governments in the UK, the Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland and elsewhere, and has been proven to curb cognitive biases and help reduce delays and cost overruns. As Kahneman notes, an outside view becomes even more important when a project has never been attempted before (like an urban rail project), because that’s when cognitive biases are greatest.  

I went through both the Manual for Development Projects and the Handbook of Planning Commission (both are published by the Planning Commission) and didn’t find any mention of “reference class forecasting”, or any method that deals with cognitive biases or the other problems in our planning and development process. This needs to change and it cannot happen without strong political determination and backing as rightly pointed out by Dr. Khalid Ikram in a podcast with Dr. Nadeem Haque (both are Planning Commission veterans and noted economists). We need to modernize our planning process to protect future public funding and to thwart the paradigm of delusional pro-people development.

This opinion was published in the The News on 31st October, 2016.






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Waqas Younas
tag:blog.wyounas.com,2013:Post/1122805 2017-01-15T07:00:05Z 2017-01-15T07:00:05Z The rise of post-truth

The internet bridges distances and has the potential to significantly improve our lives in many ways. Recently, however, the prevalence of a dangerous phenomenon called ‘post-truth’ – in which appeals to emotion shape public opinion more than objective facts – and the rise of ‘fake news’, particularly on social media, have raised various concerns. It is intriguing to see what might be causing them. 

The first possible cause is the absence of editorial scrutiny by social networks. Lots of people use these networks as their primary news source and the absence of editorial oversight is a major issue that fuels fake news. This is not an easy problem to solve. For one, how many editors would be required to help fix a product used by billions? What if the fake story has already reached thousands of users (including well-connected ones) before editorial scrutiny begins? How would editors undo the damage done? Regardless of these issues, editorial scrutiny and oversight are sorely needed. 

Another issue enabling post-truth is the low barriers to entry for starting a news business on social media. All you need is content on Facebook and a website with advertisements to generate revenue. For example, during the recent US election season, some people running politically-themed Facebook pages were basically just marketeers operating from their basements with low capital investment and without any formal training in ethical journalism. These marketeers post clever ‘linkbait’ headlines to entice users to click on them. The absence of ethical standards and motivation for profit make it possible to manufacture controversy. 

The aggressive collection of data and its manipulation in a cost-effective and precise manner by users and marketers on social networks further contribute to the rise of post-truth. Powerful computational algorithms make it possible to infer and predict a wide range of information about individuals using this collected data. Research studies conducted in 2013 by an assistant professor of organisational behaviour at  Stanford Graduate School of Business, Michal Kosinski, revealed that just by using Facebook “likes”, it is possible to accurately predict personal attributes such as “ethnicity, religious views, political views, personality and mood, age and even gender”. Once these predictions are in place, it is easy to target the profiled users with tailored, potentially fake, news. 

It’s also interesting to note that polarisation can make people voice extreme opinions online while totally ignoring facts. Cass Sunstein of Harvard University has shown that there is a great likelihood of acute polarisation on the internet due to the high degree of anonymity. We see this on social networks everyday – intensely polarised groups read and share news stories that appeal to emotion as opposed to relying on logic and fact-checking. This polarisation is further aggravated by algorithmic biases. For example, Facebook’s news feed algorithm shows us only what we want to see, exposing us to a narrow spectrum of opinion (tailored to our liking), exacerbating polarisation. 

The effects of social influence and information cascades further propel post-truth. Social influence theory suggests we do what we do by imitating what others do. For example, research suggests that to increase tax compliance, people should be informed about the high levels of voluntary tax compliance by others. Information cascades occur when we rely on information spread by others while ignoring our own personal knowledge. People often re-share a news story without fact-checking – to the exclusion of their own personal feelings and knowledge about the news item – when they see more (credible) people among them sharing it. 

So what do we do? One, social networks, like Facebook, should not deviate from their original mission – which is to connect people, not promote false information (and even hatred) among them. 

Social networks should also slightly raise the barrier to entry for upcoming businesses by adding more checks and balances. 

Furthermore, these networks must tweak their opaque algorithms so that they don’t just keep feeding one type of news to readers. Sunstein suggests that exposure to opposing views is important for groups to depolarise. 

Social networks need at least some human editors to check for the validity of both page content and its sources. In Pakistan, we see lots of Facebook pages with the names “Hate [insert politician name here]”. Compared to other communication media, the most ad-hominem attacks per paragraph appear on these pages. They don’t serve any useful purpose and need to be taken down. 

We should understand how much information we, as users, are feeding social networks and how much power this gives them to predict our personality traits, future views and actions. 

Lastly, we should realise that the internet is a medium where polarisation, social influence and information cascades are at play. We should always fact-check news (since others might rely on us) and try to expose ourselves to a wide range of opposing views, knowing that some social media companies are suppressing that exposure.

This opinion was published in The News on January 09, 2017.

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Waqas Younas
tag:blog.wyounas.com,2013:Post/1122803 2017-01-13T03:51:54Z 2017-03-10T05:12:08Z Fairy tale of a city, changing cities in Pakistan

Imagination is a powerful tool. Imagine you live in a metropolitan city plagued by violence, corruption and all the malice imaginable. Now imagine for a moment, that the local government has called on the community to band together and create a consensus on how to fix the city and transform it into a modern and an innovative metropolis. See yourself sitting in a room, surrounded by local politicians, everyone discussing future government projects to cater to the neighbourhood’s needs. Feel that sense of ownership when both parties walk out of that room having signed agreements detailing the roles and responsibilities of both parties.

What if the chief minister, in ensuring full disclosure and transparency, broadcasts the agreements and meetings to the entire city? Imagine the public participating in the budgeting process where the local communities decide the allocation of the portion of the city budget. Also imagine that the government opens up library parks, libraries with ample green space around them for public use, in the city’s slums that offers education to low-income individuals. Envision the underprivileged youth’s exposure to book clubs, theatre groups and other healthy activities. Visualise the government emphasising public education, building schools and libraries in poor cities.

What if the city dedicates space for local and foreign companies to set up their offices? Envision an international cooperation agency that creates international ties to increase the flow of capital, products, services and knowledge. Imagine the city provides funding, space and mentorship to small and medium companies to help create businesses, proposals, financial plans and marketing strategies. Envision a large state-owned company being run by the municipal government that contributes 30 per cent of its revenue to the city. The company funds huge projects such as botanical gardens, planetarium, children’s interactive museums, libraries, large urban parks and even a 16,000 hectare park right outside the city. Not only that, but the company even funds 3,000 students annually and also has a fund to spur innovation and new businesses.

Now, this may sound like a fairy tale but it is the true story of Medellin, Columbia. The city was heralded as the “Innovative city of the year” by both Citibank and The Wall Street Journal. The local government changed Medellin from a drug capital into a modern and innovative city. The lessons learned from this city’s success story can be applied to any city in Pakistan, given that we have the determination and resolve to see the changes through. Some important goals guided and prioritised Medellin’s development projects. Those were as follows: a) indicators of human development and quality of life will guide public investment, focusing on first serving the ones in most need; b) public space and infrastructure must become the framework where education and culture are cultivated in places of encounter and coexistence; c) urban projects must simultaneously integrate physical, cultural and social components, improving not only places but also the life and interactions of people in the communities; d) the integrated metropolitan transport system must be used as the organising axis of mobility and projects in the city. All projects must be directly linked to the main transport system; e) the decision to make Medellín an educated city, with education and culture as priorities that guide programmes and projects.

All these were not mere words eloquently crafted by an expensive speech-writer to win an election, but goals that are meaningful. Their usefulness was proven by the mayor of Medellin, and our policymakers can make use of these ideas. Meaningful infrastructure development is good, but haphazard infrastructure development is not. It is said that if we plan cities for cars, traffic and noise, we will get more cars, traffic and noise. However, if cities are planned for healthy people and places, we will get more healthy people and places. Moreover, local governments rarely take local opinion or input before making decisions, which weakens the sense of ownership and pride that locals may feel about the decisions made by those in charge.

There is this powerful idea of the ‘Power of 10’ — the number can vary. But the idea is, basically, that if we can do 10 things to attract people to one place (such as a place to sit and play, art to touch, music to hear, food to eat, history to experience and people to meet), then we may have designed a good place. We can then further it by creating 10 such places. We can then create 10 such places in 10 other neighbourhoods. This will snowball into a massive project that will drastically improve the life of every citizen.

As a nation, and as individuals, we need to take a step back and evaluate our current developments. Are they truly what we need to improve the lives of everyone involved? Or does the answer to that question lie in the fairy tale of Medellin?   

This opinion was published in the Express Tribune on May 01, 2016.

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Waqas Younas
tag:blog.wyounas.com,2013:Post/1098843 2017-01-10T07:00:01Z 2017-01-10T07:00:01Z Unjust Authority (Milgram's experiment in Pakistani context)

One cannot imagine inflicting pain on innocent people. However, empirical evidence shows that we have the tendency to let authority define our actions, however destructive they may be. This has implications for society, particularly one like ours. Knowing why that happens and what to do about it can help minimise such regrettable mistakes.

In 1961, at Yale University, Stanley Milgram began an experiment that changed the outlook of modern psychology. The experiment involved three individuals who played three roles – the experimenter, the teacher and the learner. The teacher was supposed to teach some words to the learner. On each incorrect answer the learner would receive an electrical shock which would increase by 15 volts on each subsequent wrong answer. The teacher also received a real electrical shock before the experiment began to experience the pain the learner would feel.

Although teachers believed that real electrical shocks were being given, in reality no real electrical shocks were involved. Instead pre-recorded sounds were played and the learners acted as if they were in real pain. Both the learner and the experimenter knew that no real electrical shocks were involved. Milgram himself played the role of the experimenter (with the authority to run the experiment).

When the experiment ran, some teachers did question the motives of the experiment. However, most of them continued when they were assured they would not be held responsible. Furthermore, when some of the teachers wanted to stop they were told by the experimenter authoritatively that they should continue. But after four verbal prods if the teacher still wanted to stop, the experiment would then stop.

The results were shocking because round 65 percent of the participants issued the maximum shock of 450-volts to the learners while interestingly all participants continued giving shocks of 300 volts. Subjects of the experiment showed signs of tension and stress but they continued inflicting pain on otherwise innocent individuals. It was evident that people, being obedient to authority, inflicted pain and even increased it manifold on the insistence of the one with authority.

In our society too, we see people inflicting pain on others (and increasing the pain) at the behest of an unjust authority; in our schools, hospitals, police stations, mobs protesting or taking justice in their hands, companies, violent groups and state-run institutions.

One example would be the way the police deal with citizens. Provincial governments (the experimenters) may engage forces for their own protection or they may order police forces (the teachers) to ensure they do not serve a particular portion of society (the learner) for some reason or serve them in a way that favours their interests.

Simply imagine an innocent citizen in need of timely justice who is denied access to investigation by the police, and even if the police want to help they are reprimanded by their seniors to follow arbitrary orders. Unfortunately, it seems that the public is the poor learner in all cases.

The experiment’s reality is best explained through the way politics work here. Is it not odd that no one in our political parties strongly comes forward and questions the leadership? Further, it seems that the political party heads are the experimenters whereas the role of the teacher is being played by the politicians reporting to those leaders – and, yet again, the citizens are the poor learners. This also explains why people at the policy level are ready and willing to inflict pain, and continuously increase it, on fellow citizens.

Put in another way, Milgram’s experiment explains why political party heads ask politicians to follow commands and then, in turn, those politicians, even those with Ivy League credentials, follow them blindly.

It is evident that we possess this powerful tendency to obey painful orders and not question decisions issued by an arbitrary authority. Can we not change our behaviour and be able to stand up against unjust authority? Learning from Milgram’s experiment we can take preventive actions to question an unjust authority.

First, we should question the legitimacy of the authority. Second, we should ask ourselves if we should really do something even if a legitimate authority has asked us to do it. Third, we should not comply with commands that make us uncomfortable to begin with. Because the more we do destructive acts the more difficult it becomes to distance ourselves from the authority figure.

Finally, if somehow we land ourselves in a group that is supposed to carry out immoral actions and we cannot get out then as a last resort we should find an ally in the group.

Understanding this phenomenon can equip us to stand up for what is right and correct ourselves when we find ourselves facing an unjust authority.


This opinion was published in The News on 15th October, 2016. 

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Waqas Younas
tag:blog.wyounas.com,2013:Post/1098845 2017-01-03T07:00:00Z 2017-06-11T08:03:44Z Providing Effective Digital Services in Pakistan

Hundreds of thousands of people were unable to collect their pensions and suffered as a result when the National Bank of Pakistan’s online computer system broke down right before Eid.

The exact reason for this technical glitch is unknown; it is realistic, however, to think that our government’s digital services are not developed using modern practices. The elderly had to wait in long queues while they were fasting, and it must have been very painful for people not to be able to collect their pensions before Eid.

The online pension fiasco is a testament to how broken our digital services are, and to the dire need to provide better digital services not only within government departments, but also to citizens.

There are many areas in which better digital services can improve governmental services in general, including the health, education, law enforcement, and judicial sectors. Imagine, for example, if doctor availability, prescription records or scheduling appointments could be done online? Imagine, also, if we could search through all past judicial decisions and look at the detailed schedule of court cases online?

Better digital systems would have brought relief and convenience to elders collecting their pensions at the critical time of Eid. Pakistan ranks down at the bottom when it comes to ease of doing business, according to the World Bank’s 2016 Doing Business report. Smart use of digital services could speed up the process of setting up and running a business.

The UN’s e-government survey 2014 ranked us 158 out of 193 countries in its e-government development index, so there is definitely a lot we can improve upon.

Improving digital services can bring us benefits, especially as internet and smartphone penetration will increase. (According to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), there were 103 percent more 3G/4G subscribers in May 2016 than there were in July 2015. According to Wikipedia, there are 30 million internet users in Pakistan, and this number is forecast to grow to 100 million active users by 2020.)

These benefits include saving citizens time and money. For example, with information technology we do not need to stand in long queues or go through laborious (and often corrupt) bureaucratic procedures to process a bill or payment – thus reducing time and money spent.

Second, if people get things when they need them most, they realise that their government is responsive, and that will inspire greater trust in it. Citizens would be able to talk to their government more freely. Third, improved digital services result in huge cost savings if implemented correctly.

Fourth, digital services can reduce our carbon footprint, as they eliminate redundant office visits and, not insignificantly, unnecessary paper use. Fifth, thanks to efficiencies and cost reductions, a leaner and simpler form of government would emerge. Last, even though most of our population is illiterate, the success of well-designed digital products (eg financial products like quick money transfer using a mobile phone) shows that people can benefit from technology.

So what to do about it? One example to follow is that of the Obama government’s multi-layered technology initiative. To begin with, the US has appointed a chief technology officer (CTO). This person is responsible for creating jobs, reducing the cost of healthcare, helping keep the nation secure and increasing access to the internet.

The United States Digital Service (USDS) was also created, staffed by technologists who provide overall strategy and technological vision. The USDS created a Digital Service Playbook that outlines 13 modern best practices that government agencies can use. (Following this playbook alone could improve our government agencies manifold.)

The ‘18F’ agency, composed of designers and technologists, was also formed. 18F is a ‘services arm’ which helps any government agency that needs to improve its digital services delivery.

The creation of the USDS and 18F resulted in huge cost savings and the quick provision of digital services to masses of people. Previously, the Obama administration had spent roughly $800 million on launching www.healthcare.gov. The project became a disaster due to various factors like communication problems, contractor issues and the neglect of modern software development tools and practices.

This gave the Obama administration impetus to form an agile and fast-moving USDS. It hired people from the private sector – people left high-paying jobs at Google and Amazon to work for the government – and within the next few months a small team people fixed www.healthcare.gov. Not only did delivering quality digital services result in cost saving, it also showed that it’s possible to deliver digital services worth millions of dollars with small teams that move fast.

We can replicate this technology initiative here. To begin with, at the very least, we need a CTO and an agency like the USDS (comprising a small team of engineers and technologists). Both the CTO and this agency should provide a coherent national ICT vision, and evaluate, prioritise and monitor federal and provincial IT projects (taken up by provincial IT boards).

Second, this agency must use modern engineering practices and tools and setup guidelines (like the USDS Playbook); it must ensure that provincial IT boards and IT departments of state-owned enterprises strictly follow those guidelines.

Use of modern technologies can also ensure maintainability, scalability and reusability across different IT departments. For example, as for reusability, if Punjab’s IT Board has developed something useful, then Balochistan’s IT Board could tailor it to also meet its needs.

Third, this agency should create processes whereby competent employees of provincial IT boards and civil servants are paired together to find potential process improvements and implement fixes using modern technology.

Fourth, the CTO’s job description should also include increasing broadband access, better IT curriculum and more IT awareness. This would enable a wider group of citizens to benefit from improved digital and government services.

Fifth, we need to create innovative attraction and retention programnes for information technologists. For one, they can lure competent private-sector employees by creating programmes like ‘innovation fellows’, whereby people can work on government projects for six months and then leave. For another, we can create flexible work environments to attract even the Pakistani diaspora. It may prove to be very beneficial since many competent Pakistani engineers work in the Silicon Valley.

The practice of ‘delight the customer’ should not be foreign to our government agencies, and using digital services effectively can help achieve it. A coherent vision supported by diligent execution will ensure that our citizens can use government services with ease, trust, and peace of mind, all without a great cost.


This opinion was published in The News on 22nd August, 2016. 

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Waqas Younas
tag:blog.wyounas.com,2013:Post/1098847 2016-11-15T07:00:02Z 2017-02-03T08:13:23Z Health-care and Census (Pakistani context)

We are a developing country whose healthcare system is in a deplorable condition; and the lack of updated census data makes it even worse. For accurate data we need to conduct a census – something that is also mandated by the constitution.

The last census in Pakistan was conducted in 1998. As most of our resource allocations are being made using 18-year-old data, suffice it to say we must be solving the wrong problems in the wrong places. Healthcare decisions are directly proportional to the wellbeing of citizens and decisions based on guesstimates are going to affect them. Making critical decisions on unreliable data surely implies that the government is willingly adding to the suffering of its citizens.

We need to conduct a census so as to allocate resources effectively, make significant progress towards the Social Development Goals (universal set of goals, targets and indicators that nations have to pursue to make progress on poverty, health, education, hunger and the environment), report healthcare indicators more accurately, forecast healthcare trends, create better health-centred policies and also fairly distribute resources among provinces.

First, better resource allocation would efficiently address public healthcare needs in three prevention stages – primary, secondary and tertiary. Primary prevention is concerned with overall human wellbeing and health promotion activities. For example, if we know that people living in a certain region have a tendency toward diabetes, then funds can be allocated to educate people from that region on that condition.

Secondary prevention is about early detection and treatment of a disease so as to prevent its spread. For example, timely identification of high-risk groups can help us take measures to prevent it from spreading.

Tertiary prevention concerns itself with minimising the damage caused by a disease. For example, if we know that a certain demographic is affected by a disease then corrective measures can be taken to help minimise the damage.

All reliable remedies for these three prevention stages are only possible if we have access to updated data. How can we allocate resources efficiently when we do not know what sort of prevention resources a certain population needs most?

Second, in terms of the SDGs, no meaningful planning can be done without updated census data. This means that we cannot make significant progress towards health-related SDGs such as lowering mortality rates, ending preventable deaths of newborns, etc. Whatever progress we do make will definitely be slower in comparison to nations that have access to updated data.

Third, the health performance indicators currently presented by the authorities do not reflect the exact situation on the ground. Current performance indicators use outdated population data, and using up-to-date information can reflect a decline in otherwise satisfactory-looking performance indicators (potentially because updated data would yield a bigger number in the denominator).

So coverage levels reported in the Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey (PDHS), Multiple Indicator and Cluster Survey (MICS), and Pakistan Social and Living Standards Measurement (PSLM) are not significant because they are based on outdated data. Without a census, correct and transparent progress on health cannot be reported.

Fourth, an updated stream of data can help us predict trends. Forecasting helps us identify future trends and prepare for them in advance. That becomes difficult without data, not least because the baseline data changes due to growth in the population. So we need updated data to facilitate forecasting.

Fifth, health-centred policies cannot be made without current data. Let us assume a city has a lot of people suffering from partial achromatopsia, a cognitive vision disorder; people with this disorder usually cannot drive. Without access to data, how can we then reserve funds for alternatives in the city infrastructure that could help such people?

Lastly, the National Finance Commission is responsible for allocating resources based on a few factors. One of them is population and another is development indicators. Without access to updated data, allocations in the health sector cannot be accurately made.

It is unreasonable for any country to deprive people of access to basic healthcare due to reasons within its control. The government must allocate funds and resources for a timely census so that these problems can be addressed. Our healthcare is definitely poorer if there is uncertainty around actual performance indicators, resources are allocated inefficiently and no meaningful planning towards SDG goals is being done.

The writer gratefully acknowledges a conversation with Dr Shehla Zaidi of Aga Khan University Hospital.

This opinion was published in The News on 23rd July, 2016.

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Waqas Younas
tag:blog.wyounas.com,2013:Post/1098846 2016-11-15T07:00:00Z 2016-11-25T07:00:02Z Anatomy of a ban

A government puts regulatory authorities in place so that activities can be regulated to benefit the public, protect the environment, and prevent market failure. Some of our regulatory authorities have been banning things right and left. It is important to note that banning things, without thinking through their repercussions, can have harmful economic and psychological consequences.

There are five things to consider in terms of the economic consequences of bans. First, though regulatory authorities are sometimes put in place to prevent market failure, ill-planned regulations can actually cause such failure. Assume there is a certain problem (eg, overpopulation) that a government wants to address, and entrepreneurs come up with products (eg, contraceptives) to tackle the problem. A ban on advertisement of such products will discourage future entrepreneurs from making those products in the long run.

Now, although the government admits that there is a problem, and there is also ample demand for the product which will solve it, putting a ban will, in the long term, reduce the number of suppliers of that product – thus eventually causing market failure, or at least defeating the policy of the government.

We should also reflect on whether an advertising ban restricts promotion on all media. Even if regulators ban advertisements on media over which they have control, entrepreneurs will find alternative media through which to advertise their products. For example, if a product is banned on all TV channels, an entrepreneur can still advertise a product (globally) on the internet, which regulators do not control. Hence, not only will people within the restricted locality still be able to see those advertisements, but more people around the world can see them as well.

Second, it is important to question if, since regulators are so entrenched in the problem to which they are a solution, they unwittingly perpetuate the problem? This observation comes from ‘Shirky’s principle’, which states that “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution”. Further, regulatory economics tells us about ‘regulatory capture’, which happens when instead of protecting public interest the regulator is more keen to protect the commercial or political concerns of special interest groups. When the interests of a special group take priority over public interest, society is harmed and the purpose of having a regulator is defeated. So the government needs to put in place mechanisms to check if regulatory authorities are falling prey to ‘regulatory capture’.

Third, bans sometimes disrupt the economic activity of a nation. For instance, in March 2015, when India placed a ban on beef, it led to a loss of income for many people. Farmers found it difficult to find buyers for their cattle. Most of the farmers resorted to taking loans to cover their major expenses. It was also reported that many related industries were also severely affected due to this ban. Bans that are imposed without addressing the real social taboo or any due cost-benefit analysis can lead to losses than benefits.

Fourth, bans may also increase the cost of doing business and the cost of products in a country.

Bans have psychological repercussions as well, as described by Adam Grant (organisational psychologist and a professor at Wharton School of University of Pennsylvania), that can cause them to backfire. First, there is the issue of ‘reactance’. According to Grant, “When someone discourages you from doing something, you often feel that your freedom is being threatened, which motivates you to regain choice and control by doing exactly the opposite.”

Bans have an inbuilt self-destructive mechanism. Simply, if something is not allowed to an individual, it becomes all the more appealing to him or her. Hence, this then provokes people to doing it even more than before. For example, banning a book or a product can tremendously generate a great deal of free publicity.

Second, there is the issue of ‘rebound’, the idea that when someone warns you not to think of something or if your thoughts are being suppressed, your mind has a tricky way of thinking more about it. For instance, if someone asks a person particularly not to think about a certain term or an idea they tend to think more about it. A very simple daily life example of rebound effect is that of dieting. When a person is on a strict diet and try to suppress thoughts of sugary products like chocolates and candies, they end up consuming it even more. So ‘rebound’ actually makes a person more prone to thinking about that very thought which is prohibited.

Last, we may encounter a problem of ‘curiosity’. This is the principle of reverse psychology whereby people become intrigued when something is not allowed and therefore investigate. Adam Grant notes in one study, “psychologists asked 159 people if they had ever deliberately tried to get people to do something by recommending the opposite. More than two thirds generated a convincing example, and reported using reverse psychology an average of 1-2 times a month, with relatively little difficulty and high effectiveness.”

Most people react differently when bans and regulatory bans are enacted, and bans hardly fulfil their purpose. We saw an example of this when Indian films and TV shoes were banned in Pakistan . People could not resist the temptation and started watching shows and movies online, and piracy became even more rampant.

Bans are a growth industry in Pakistan; they give an illusion of power to people. Behind this illusion of power, regulators think that bans are going to solve problems. However, it is important that both economic and psychological effects are taken into account for bans to be productive. It is ill-planned bans that wreak havoc.


This opinion was published in The News on 07th August, 2016. 

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Waqas Younas
tag:blog.wyounas.com,2013:Post/1098848 2016-11-07T07:00:00Z 2017-02-03T08:13:42Z Urban Sprawl and Pakistan


(co-authored with Dr. Nadeem Ul Haque)

Cities are often a reflection of their zoning codes. Unfortunately, in Pakistan citizens never have any say in how their cities and towns are designed. The width of our streets, height of our homes, size of building lots, amount of space reserved for pedestrians, even the reason we cannot operate a donut store in our garage are all dictated by zoning regulations.

Bad zoning codes result in sprawl – and sprawl make societies worse off. According to urbanist Charles Montgomery, sprawls result in bad health, little trust and low social capital. Moreover, people living in sprawls are less likely to volunteer, vote and even join political parties. Therefore bad zoning codes result in miserable communities and they are affecting our cities too. But how do our zoning codes and misuse of land result in sprawl?

First of all, our zoning codes discourage mixed-use and high-rise development. There are no apartment buildings with shops and offices near even within such buildings. Most well-designed cities that we appreciate are based on mixed use.

Our zoning codes also mandate that for new housing projects developers buy land in hundreds of acres. This results in sprawl primarily because hundreds of acres are usually not available within a city. It also encourages big investors who can afford that much land, thus reducing competition. An aside, it reduces the availability of fertile agricultural land.

The fact that the government owns large chunks of prime urban land reduces the supply of available land within cities, which in turn also leads to sprawl. There is a huge opportunity cost of the inner city land that government holds to provide its officials with plush housing and unnecessary offices. A Planning Commission study showed that investment could increase by 50 percent of GDP over 10 years – if this land were made available for mixed-use, high-rise development.

Our traffic management focuses on building roads and corridors for cars. The use of cars has been facilitated at the expense of other forms of transport such as bicycles, walking, taxis and even buses. With cars so subsidised, it is not hard to see why the sprawl is spreading.

In most cities, the planning process often has no zoning for the poor. Apartment buildings are seriously discouraged through planning permissions and high fees for commercialization. For some reason our planners think of apartments as commercialisation, and so poor housing is taxed heavily.

Rich housing – single family homes with highways leading to them – are encouraged. Planners even forget to cost the infrastructure required by such housing. Pipes, electricity roads etc – eventually all this expense is borne by the poor of the city.

Excessive focus on form over function has incentivised inefficient use of land to attract customers, and inefficient use of land leads to sprawl. As consumers we have to pay more attention to form than aesthetically appealing architectures because empirical evidence shows that though we place more weight on physical features, eventually we might be less happier in physically appealing buildings. A study at Harvard by Elizabeth Dunn had students select their houses for their subsequent school years; there was a forecast among students that they would be happier in beautiful houses than less appealing ones.

However, after students settled in these houses their happiness was determined more by social features and the quality of relationships they developed in those houses. Students ended up being happier in architecturally miserable houses because they had better social features. Dunn noted: “Participants overestimated how happy they would be in desirable houses and how miserable they would be in undesirable houses. Our results suggest that forecasters may have erred by focusing on physical features such as location while virtually ignoring the quality of social life in the houses.”

We can try to fix our land use and zoning laws to discourage sprawl and thereby construct more equitable, vibrant and productive cities.

We need to tweak our zoning codes so we can build high-rise and mixed-use property to create more spaces for people in a more concentrated area. We need to think more about building vertically rather than horizontally.

Zoning laws should encourage competition and also mandate socially-responsible housing. Large investors who buy the hundreds of kanals mandated are keen to maximise their profits, so their plans price out low-income households. This results in illegal housing and housing schemes deprived of the basic necessities of life. Zoning codes in some developed countries mandate social housing that accommodates people from low-income background. This helps mitigate sprawl and fosters tolerance, trust, equality and care.

Our zoning codes should encourage urban development with high FARs (Floor Area Ratio). According to a study, on urban land and housing markets in Punjab by David Dowall and Peter Ellis, restrictive FARs are constraining urban density in Punjab. The study also notes that low FARs result in high land prices, a reduction in agglomeration benefits, lengthier commutes, limits formal housing (thus pricing out poor), and affects low-income most.

Zoning codes shouldn’t incentivise parking. Currently developers are mandated by law to provide parking spaces – no matter the type of building. Incentivising parking means we are encouraging developers to create commercial and housing projects farther away from urban centres and encouraging people to shop farther away from home.

Both of these lead to sprawl. In addition, according to economist Donald Shoup, “minimum parking requirements subsidize cars, increase traffic congestion and carbon emissions, pollute the air and water, raise housing costs, exclude poor people, degrade urban design, reduce walkability and damage the economy.” More land for parking also means less land for housing, shops, libraries, schools and hospitals.

It is important to understand where we are headed. All major cities like Karachi and Lahore have master plans. Though inhabitants should have the largest say in shaping cities, their input is never incorporated in these master plans. Our zoning codes should address senior citizens, persons with disabilities, as well as matters of public bike sharing, low-income households and the fact that real-estate developers should be mandated to give back to society in the of schools, libraries and hospitals.

Whenever we move into a particular housing society there is only one zoning law available; there have to be alternatives that prevent or repair sprawl. We need to correct our zoning codes by looking at other poorly-designed modern cities are and not repeating their mistakes.


This opinion was published in The News on 19th July, 2016. 

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Waqas Younas
tag:blog.wyounas.com,2013:Post/1098850 2016-11-02T07:00:04Z 2017-02-03T08:14:17Z Case against privatisation in Pakistan

Feisal Naqvi concluded in The News that state-owned enterprises (SOEs) fail primarily because of speed and accountability. If this argument is applied to our SOEs, then almost all of them – given their performance – should be privatised to increase speed and accountability, but this would not be very realistic.

Also, the case is weak for a new private buyer to purchase a public asset, because that buyer would have to deal with public departments that are slow and rarely held accountable, which would impede growth.

SOEs have thrived in some economies; one cannot dismiss SOEs altogether. According to a report by PricewaterhouseCoopers, the share of SOEs among the Fortune Global 500 has grown from 9 percent in 2005 to 23 percent in 2014. Furthermore, the top eight countries with the highest SOE shares accounted for more than 20 percent of the world’s trade.

A major proportion of the SOE growth worldwide is due to the Chinese SOEs. Three Chinese SOEs consistently made the top ten since 2010. Chinese SOEs have roughly $17 trillion in assets and employ more than 35 million people. Factors like attracting top talent, foreign investment, linking executive’s compensation to performance, globalisation and choosing a hybrid structure of corporate governance contributed to their success.

Chinese SOEs have established a hybrid structure through independent management akin to a private corporations, while deriving their financial power from the government. Like the SOEs here, Chinese SOEs face challenges from both the bureaucracy and political interference. The Financial Times reported that in 2004, the CEOs of several Chinese telecom companies were shifted overnight without any prior notice. Even in face of these challenges, Chinese SOEs have posted amazing results.

Another amazing example can be found in Singapore. Singapore manages a portfolio of SOEs through an investment company called Temasek Holdings, whose sole shareholder is Singapore’s Ministry of Finance. Temasek has managed a net portfolio of $177 billion, as of March 2015. Temasek’s companies are managed without government involvement; instead, Temasek provides flexibility by allowing each board to dictate its own terms for each portfolio company. This method of management has proven so successful that even China wants to imitate Singapore’s strategy on a larger scale by 2020.

Both Chinese and Singapore SOEs have handled the issues of incentive and reinvention. Though privatisation is a prudent way to eliminate budget deficit, reduce the size of government and increase public service delivery, it has not worked everywhere. PTCL’s example supports this assertion, because its profits and service delivery did not significantly improve after privatisation. Many academics have provided helpful critiques of privatisation. Some of the issues that Paul Starr, professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton, has raised should be considered.

First, the message that privatisation sends is demoralising. This message is that whenever we face a problem, we should sell an asset instead of fixing it with good intent. This tends to discourage citizens by showing them that the government is either incompetent and cannot fix its own institutions or lacks the initiative to fix them. Moreover, when the government consistently chooses to sell its assets to the private sector, it is essentially making a ‘buy vs make’ decision. If buying were the way to go in the face of trouble, then no large corporations would exist.

Additionally, the continuous sale of our assets may make us less of a nation. Starr has argued that the sale of SOEs would decrease accountability and reduce public debate, ultimately reducing the public’s interest in the country’s businesses. Starr compares the suggested treatment of the government’s assets to a family’s consideration of their food as the nourishment necessary for survival; in other words, instead of thinking about its institutions as a subsidy, the government should consider the success of its institutions as integral to the country’s survival.

Some supporters of privatisation argue that it will decrease the size of the government. However, lobbyists in the private sector aggressively lobby for increased public spending because that is how they make money. With more resources, private companies use their influence to secure government contracts. With increased public spending still an issue, the size of the government is unlikely to be reduced.

Furthermore, there is a cost to the citizens when the government does not fix the issues with its institutions. Both our education and health systems are examples of the government’s lackadaisical attitude toward problems in the public sector. Instead, the private sector has created a wealth gap. Since the private sector can charge whatever it wants for the services it provides, only the wealthy are able to benefit from them and those who do not have sufficient income cannot obtain quality care. This gap has diminished the access of the poor to quality services. The focus cannot merely be on privatisation; we must focus efforts on improving public services in order to increase public access to quality services.

Proponents of privatisation also argue that converting public sector services to private ownership will give the private sector the freedom to perform more efficiently and force companies to provide better customer service. Despite the benefits, it is important to note that the private sector is driven by its own interests and may not consider public interest when making decisions.

Moreover, it is assumed that buyers will pay more for an entity than what it is actually worth because the private sector buyer expects greater revenues from the sale. We should remember that potential buyers usually pay less than the asking price, when the entity needs restructuring. At times, it makes more sense to sell an entity after doing some restructuring than it does to sell it haphazardly.

We must make an attempt, with good intent, to improve an organisation before throwing in the towel. As business author Guy Kawasaki said in ‘Rules for Revolutionaries’, “create like a god, command like a king and work like a slave.” It seems we believe in the first two, but we fall short of the third. In order to truly improve our institutions, we need to put in the work. If we put in the necessary work, we wouldn’t need the private sector to rescue our institutions; we could rescue them on our own.

This opinion was published in The News on 13th March, 2016. 

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Waqas Younas
tag:blog.wyounas.com,2013:Post/1098851 2016-10-27T07:00:01Z 2017-03-10T05:13:17Z Real cost of car-centric cities (in Pakistan and elsewhere)

(co-authored with Dr. Nadeem Ul Haque)


DRIVING a car takes a personal, societal, financial and environmental toll. Since the cost of cars is high, we should not support development projects (roads, flyovers and bypasses) and policies (misuse of urban land and poor zoning) that subsidise and necessitate their use. Too many automobiles make us unsafe, unhealthy, unhappy, unfriendly, and, in general, miserable as a society.

Among the costs that cars exact is that on our personal health and safety. Excessive driving causes stress and ill health. Gallup and Healthways surveys have determined that longer commutes lead to more chronic pain, higher cholesterol and general unhappiness in drivers. Moreover, driving everywhere leads to obesity; in the US alone, the cost of obesity in 2008 was $147 billion.

Secondly, cars have a societal cost: increased traffic decreases social capital. Donald Appleyard, in his now famous 1972 study, found that residents of high-traffic areas have fewer friends and acquaintances than residents of light-traffic locations. Traffic also causes noise pollution, which makes us more intolerant of each other.

Thirdly, cars cost us a great deal financially. There is the initial, upfront payment. Then we have to pay for financing (and hidden fees), car maintenance, parking, and fuel. According to some back-of-the-envelope calculations, people in Lahore pay Rs24bn per year for fuel and oil changes. In addition, there is the expected cost of treating accidents and injuries that inevitably occur when we drive.

There is what we would call an opportunity cost as well. That is, with the money tied up in their cars, individuals could instead have invested in activities with greater returns or of higher value to their families (like holidays). Also, the overuse of cars costs us in terms of productivity when we are injured and cannot work, or are stuck in traffic.

Fourthly, an excess of cars adversely affects the environment. According to an online environment-cost calculator, we emit 1.2 pounds (0.54kg) of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide by driving 1.5 miles (2.4km). Cars in Karachi alone are releasing roughly one million pounds of carbon every day, and 126m pounds of carbon every month.

Current policies enabling sprawl and subsidising high-speed traffic mean that people must own and use cars excessively. So what can we do?

As a guiding principle, we should keep everyone, not just the rich or people with higher incomes, in mind when we plan and zone our cities. As Mayor Enrique Peñalosa of Bogota noted, “Mobility is a right for all”. Peñalosa also noted that the modes of transport of the poor —walking, bicycling, and public transportation — need to be prioritised, as the bulk of the population uses them. We thus need to create more space for these modes.

First, we need to slow down cars and create more spaces for people. After the Second World War, Copenhagen had so many cars it came to a standstill. They prohibited cars in some areas, and the city thrived. Restricting the use of the car and slowing down the speed of vehicles is required to create space for people.

We can also charge a congestion tax, like Singapore and London, during peak hours in busier areas of cities. In addition, we can tax high-speed lanes and charge parking fees on a per-hour basis. These taxes can help reduce congestion. We also need to re-evaluate our zoning policies to discourage sprawl, and build mixed-use development, creating combined residential, office, commercial, and entertainment spaces within walking distance of each other.

Next we need to make more room for biking and walking, both currently hazardous activities. In cities around the world, separate bike lanes are being created; bike-sharing programmes are encouraged and sponsored by the corporate sector. We should also hold events to celebrate walking and biking like Ciclovía. Held in cities like Bogota and Medellin, Ciclovía is an event in which main roads are blocked on Sundays and public holidays and reserved for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Finally, we need to improve public transportation. Thanks to the emphasis our cities place on the use of cars, our public transport system has been allowed to erode. If we tax and regulate cars, we will have the funds and space required for public transport.

The famous Danish architect Jan Gehl said that if we make more roads, we get more cars; and if we make more space for people, we get more people, which in turn give us more vital and productive cities. When planning new development projects and designing urban policies, we should factor in the real cost of cars to an average citizen’s personal, social, and financial well-being, and to our environment. We should not repeat the mistakes that developed countries made in the last century in building their cities around cars.


This opinion was published in The Dawn on 16th May, 2016. 

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Waqas Younas
tag:blog.wyounas.com,2013:Post/1098854 2016-10-23T07:00:01Z 2016-10-23T07:00:01Z Unreliable numbers in Pakistan's health-care data

FINALLY, after some ado, we have a document in the form of the National Health Vision (NHV), which identifies major problems in, and challenges to, our healthcare system. It also outlines our vision of how we plan to address those issues and challenges. One thing that will hamper, even damage, its execution is the unavailability of critical and reliable data. It is hard to believe that we will be able to do any serious planning or resource allocation to fix our healthcare issues without access to the correct data.

During an analysis, this author found data discrepancies in major government publications for healthcare data, namely the Pakistan Social and Living Standard Measurement (PSLM), the Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey (PDHS) and the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS). It was found that, for certain healthcare indicators, data in one government publication differed for the same indicator in the same year from the data in another publication.

First, I found data discrepancies for an indicator named “deliveries with skilled birth attendants” between the PSLM and PDHS for the year 2012-2013. As per the PSLM, the deliveries with skilled birth attendants were 53pc in Sindh; as per the PDHS, however, they totalled 61pc in that province. In Balochistan, as per the PSLM, the proportion of births with skilled birth attendants was 35pc, but according to the PDHS it was 18pc in the same province.

According to a study by Jhpiego (an international non-profit health organisation affiliated with the Johns Hopkins University), skilled birth attendants can reduce newborn deaths by 43pc and prevent two-thirds of all maternal deaths. We can save more mothers and children if we allocate skilled birth attendants efficiently (which becomes even more important when resources are already scarce) based on correct and updated data.

Second, for the indicator “children (aged 12-23 months) fully immunised”, we again found discrepancies between the PSLM and PDHS, this time for the year 2006-2007 and for almost all provinces. For Sindh, the PSLM states that 65pc children were fully immunised, whereas the PDHS reports only 37pc children were fully immunised there. For Balochistan, as per the PSLM, the same indicator was 54pc, while the PDHS records it as being 35pc. According to the PSLM, 76pc of children in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa were fully immunised, while in the PDHS the figure was 47pc.

These differences are huge and baffling. It is inevitably low-income groups that suffer most when policymakers have inaccurate data for such important performance indicators. How can we ensure that our child immunisation rate is high in all provinces, in both rural and urban areas, when the data in major surveys does not match?

Third, for the indicator named “postnatal consultation”, for KP we found a discrepancy between the PSLM and MICS for 2008-2009. In MICS, the percentage of births followed by postnatal consultation was reported as 13, whereas in the PSLM survey, the figure was given as 23pc. Again, the difference is not small.

In our society, postnatal care is usually provided at home, and the idea of postnatal consultation is to ensure that new parents are given guidance according to evidence-based healthcare practices. The lack of good postnatal consultation can result in a higher mortality rate for both mother and child. The risk decreases as time passes, but it is imperative to receive timely consultation. Ineffective postnatal consultation may not promote, or may even discourage, breastfeeding, the absence of which can contribute to infections and malnutrition. It is unclear how any meaningful planning can be done to improve this indicator without access to the correct data.

These discrepancies are alarming. First, inconsistent data perpetuates confusion — which figure do we believe? This confusion can result in a misplanned policy, and even that one misplanned policy may have an undesired effect. The collectively dismal result of several such policies can take us many steps backward.

Second, these inconsistencies reflect a lack of rigour on the part of our government. If it is not careful about data acquisition, one is forced to infer that it is not serious about data-driven and evidence-based decision-making.

Third, incorrect data in government publications shows we still have a long way to go when it comes to competent data acquisition, so, sadly, we cannot yet turn our focus to the ‘analysis’ part and proceed to policy.

Fourth, most of the tall performance claims by the government are rendered insignificant when the underlying data is unreliable.

Such important healthcare indicators should not vary so much. Any researcher or policymaker who intends to carry out research or planning will use these government publications. Even the NHV cites the PSLM. Our expenditure on healthcare is already depressingly small, and it is going to hurt us if that small expenditure is used to plan and allocate resources using unreliable data.

This opinion was published in The Dawn on 29th September, 2016. 

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Waqas Younas
tag:blog.wyounas.com,2013:Post/1018820 2016-03-24T03:49:56Z 2016-04-01T06:29:48Z Closer look at the Corruption Perception Index (CPI)

Few weeks back I published an OpEd in the Express Tribune. Transparency International publishes a corruption index named "Corruption Perception Index" and I just tried to highlight how it is calculated and what should people keep in mind before taking it into account. 

An excerpt:


In recent times, numerous corruption indices have been developed to measure corruption. One of the most widely used indices is the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) developed by Transparency International (TI). It recently reported that Pakistan has performed well in its CPI rankings. This certainly is good news and we must congratulate the people in power. But we need to question whether the CPI is a truly credible measure. Does it measure corruption correctly? We need to understand how such indices work.


Complete article can be read at http://tribune.com.pk/story/1048824/a-closer-look-at-perceptions-of-corruption/.]]>
Waqas Younas
tag:blog.wyounas.com,2013:Post/993579 2016-02-15T06:30:13Z 2018-01-15T18:38:59Z Deriving Y-Combinator in Scheme

Few weeks back I finished an amazing book called "Little Schemer". It is a very short book but it probably has the most profound effect on me when it comes to programming.

The authors took the Socratic style question/answer approach. It starts from the basics and slowly gears up to concepts like Y-Combinator and even the last chapter is about writing an interpreter.

Honestly, I had to go back and forth on understanding the Y-Combinator derivation but I really had an "Aha" moment when I finally got it. After reading up this book, I also read and understood Lambda Calculus e.g. the idea of using functions to represent arithmetic operations is really cool. 

Let's say we are using a programming language that doesn't support numbers or booleans. All that language provides is lambda. Because of church numerals, we can count, add, subtract, divide and even multiply just by using lambdas. Cool, no? Here is a paper in case you are interested in learning more about Church numerals.

So after reading the "Little Schemer", I set out on deriving Y-Combinator in Scheme and I made a PDF which is available below. I hope you enjoy it. Please feel free to let me know corrections or comments.


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Waqas Younas
tag:blog.wyounas.com,2013:Post/993572 2016-02-15T06:02:48Z 2016-02-15T06:02:48Z What causes violence?

I have been interested in economics and I read few papers on what causes mass violence. Recently, I wrote an Op-Ed in an English daily which can be read here: http://www.thenews.com.pk/print/97927-What-causes-terrorism.

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Waqas Younas
tag:blog.wyounas.com,2013:Post/866253 2015-06-09T15:20:12Z 2016-02-15T05:59:58Z Property Descriptor in JavaScript

JavaScript gives us control to define, modify, and configure properties. This is made possible using a property descriptor object, which has the following attributes:

- value 

- writable 

- configurable 

- enumerable 

When we define a property on an object as follows:

var car = {

_doors: 4

};

The property descriptor's value attribute is set to 4, writable (which controls if we can write values to an object property) is set to true, configurable (which controls if we can delete a property) is set to true, and enumerable (which controls if property can be enumerated) is also set to true. We can check these attributes as follows:

var desc = Object.getOwnPropertyDescriptor (car, '_doors');

alert(desc.writable); // true

alert(desc.configurable); // true

alert(desc.value); // 4

alert(desc.enumerable); // true

Another important thing to keep in mind that Object.getOwnPropertyDescriptor works only on 'own' properties and not on 'prototype' properties. Furthermore, we can set all these property descriptor attributes using the Object.defineProperty() as follows:

Object.defineProperty (car, 'name', {

value: 'Audi',

writable: true

});

var desc = Object.getOwnPropertyDescriptor (car, 'name');

alert(car.name);

alert(desc.writable);

alert(desc.enumerable); // If you don't specify it, it defaults to false

alert(desc.configurable); // Didn't specify, so defaults to false

If we don't specify the value of attributes in Object.defineProperty(), they default to false, and that's one important thing to keep in mind. Complete code is given below:

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Waqas Younas
tag:blog.wyounas.com,2013:Post/866252 2015-06-09T15:19:47Z 2016-02-15T06:00:46Z Getter and Setter in JavaScript

We can define properties on an object as follows:

var car = {

_name: 'Audi'

};

We can also configure those properties. I will soon write about how to configure the properties (e.g., whether the property should be writable or if it should be configurable, and etc.), but we can also define "getter" and "setter" on object's properties. For example, "setter" could be useful in a scenario where we would want to do some processing on the property before setting its value to something and same goes for the "getter". So, there are two ways to go about it. One way is to define "getter" and "setter" in an object itself, e.g.

Another way is to define "getter" and "setter" by using/calling the built-in Object.defineProperty (object, property, descriptor_object). Object.defineProperty method takes three parameters:

  • Object: The object whose property we want to define or configure. 
  • Property: The property on the object that we want to define or change. 
  • Descriptor object: Descriptor object allows us to configure the property and it has following attributes, namely; writable, value, get, set, configurable, and enumerable. I am going to write more about it a little later. 


 So, we can define both "getter" and "setter" using Object.defineProperty like the following:

So that's about it, for now. Let me know what do you think. Please let me know if there are any other ways to achieve the above (or, even, please feel free to suggest corrections in this post--thanks in advance).


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Waqas Younas
tag:blog.wyounas.com,2013:Post/866254 2015-06-06T06:03:37Z 2015-06-19T07:47:12Z Defining and Configuring Object Properties in JavaScript

So JavaScript has made it possible for us to interact with property attributes. Now we can make an object property enumerable, set it to read only and even make it configurable. This is possible because of property attributes. 

Object properties and property descriptor

So object has properties and we can set the state of those properties using fields (e.g. value, writable, enumerable, get, set, and configurable) of property descriptor object. We can see how we can access fields of property descriptor object below:

So here is an object:

Let's say we wouldn't anyone to delete the chasis_no property or may be we would want engine_no as just a read-only property. By the way, all properties of an object are both enumerable and configurable by default. JavaScript allows us to interact with object properties and we can do that by calling Object.defineProperty method which takes an object, property name we want to interact with and property descriptor object as parameters. 

Data and accessor properties

There are data properties and accessor properties. Data property is a value which can be read, written to, configured and and even enumerated. Whereas accessor properties define get and set functions that are called when property is read or written to, respectively. If we look at the following code:

'wife_enabled' is the data property whereas 'name' is being used as the accessor property. 

So there are two kinds of property attributes, namely; data properties and accessor property attributes. JavaScript allows us to configure properties, let's consider few scenarios:

  • A JavaScript programmer may want to control whether a property of a certain object should be deleted or not. For example, he may not want to allow deletion of a certain property. 
  • Let's say a User class is defined with two properties; username and password. Furthermore, let's say I don't want to make the password property enumerable, that is, I don't want the password property to appear when someone is enumerating User properties.
  • Let's say a Car class has a property named chassis number and we want to make it a read only property, i.e., no one can write it. How do we go about it?

Using property attributes to change state of properties

We can make all this happen using property attributes (and they can be set using property descriptor object and we will shortly see an example), and those are:

  • [[Enumerable]]: Allows us to make a property enumerable, i.e., if it's false, then this property won't show up when the object's properties are enumerated using a for-in loop. Its default value is set to false.
  • [[Configurable]]: It defines whether the property can be deleted or if it can be changed to accessor property . If it's set to false, then property cannot be deleted and it cannot be changed to accessor property. Default value of this attribute is set to false.
  • [[Value]]: The actual value of property is stored in this. Default value of this attribute is set to undefined.
  • [[Writable]]: Allows us to configure whether we can write to a property. If it's set to false we cannot alter the property's [[Value]] attribute. So, for example, if we want to create a read only property we should set writable attribute to false. Default value of this attribute is false.
  • [[Get]]: This contains the Getter function which you can define to do some processing while reading the value. [[Get]] is exclusively used for accessor properties. Default value of this attribute is undefined.
  • [[Set]]: As the name suggests, this contains the Setter function which you can define to do some processing while setting the value. [[Set]] is exclusively used for accessor properties. Default value of this attribute is undefined.

So, both [[Enumerable]] and [[Configurable]] are common to both data and accessor properties, whereas, data properties have two additional attributes, namely; [[Value]] and [[Writable]]. Accessor properties have two more attributes and those are [[Get]] and [[Set]].

Interesting, JavaScript allows us to configure all these property attributes using a method named Object.definedProperty(object, property_name, property_descriptor). So the first parameter is the object, second is the name of the property we want to configure and third is the property descriptor that contains the values of enumerable (configures the internal property [[Enumerable]]), configurable (configures the internal property [[Configurable]]), value (configures the internal property [[Value]]), writable (configures the internal property [[Writable]]), get (configures the internal property [[Get]]) and set (configures the internal property [[Set]]) as shown below.

Hopefully, the following code will clear things up:

There, however, is one caveat we should keep in mind. If we don't specify the value of property attributes when we are trying to configure a property then they default to false. So let's look at some code.

In the above example, we have not given the values of writable, and configurable attributes when we called Object.defineProperty() so they will default to false. So this is something important which needs to be kept in mind while configuring property attributes.

References:


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    Waqas Younas
    tag:blog.wyounas.com,2013:Post/863113 2015-05-30T12:21:03Z 2015-05-31T15:48:15Z Specifying prototypes using object literals in JavaScript

    In JavaScript, there are different ways to create an object. Once the object is created we can check its type by:

    our_inst instanceof InstType


    If we want to know about the function that created the instance we can do following:

    our_inst.constructor == FunctionThatCreatedIt

    So "constructor" is a property defined on the Property object and it always points back to the function that created the instance. If the object is created using object literal then following will return true because the literals (i.e. var our_inst = {}; ) point back to Object.

    our_inst.constructor == Object; 

    If the object is created using a constructor function e.g.

    function Browser(name, version){
      this.name = name;
      this.version = version;

    }

    Then following will return true (as chrome.constructor should point back to the Browser):

    var chrome = new Browser("Chrome", "1.0.3");

    alert(chrome.constructor==Browser);


    So far so good. Now inheritance in JavaScript works using a "prototype" property, which in itself is an interesting topic. If you add properties to the "prototype" then it will be accessible to all instances of that type. We can add multiple "prototypes" to our type like following (and whatever we add to the prototype, it will be available to all instances of Browser type):


    Browser.prototype = {

      renderText: function(){

        return alert('Rendering Text...');

      },

      renderCSS:function(){

        return alert("Rendering CSS...");

      }

    }; 


    But now if I do the following, it will return 'false':

    alert(chrome.constructor==Browser);


    Which looks quite strange, no? When I came across this I was not sure what happened there. So there are few things at play here, let's look at them one by one.


    1- Every function in JavaScript has a property named 'prototype' which points to the Prototype object. The Prototype object has a property named "constructor" which always points back to the constructor function that created the instance. 

    2- Now if you try to define the prototype like 

    Browser.prototype = {};

    Then, what happens is that we have assigned an object literal to Browser's prototype. So the "constructor" is defined on the Prototype object but now we have assigned an object literal to Browser's prototype and object literal's "constructor" point backs to "Object". Since the object literal we assigned doesn't have any 'constructor' property so it defaults back to the Object. So that's why following outputs "Object" as opposed to "Browser".


    alert(chrome.constructor==Browser);


    To remedy this situation we can explicitly set the 'constructor' property inside the object literal like:

    Browser.prototype = {

      constructor: Browser,

      renderText: function(){

        return alert('Rendering Text...');

      },

      renderCSS:function(){

        return alert("Rendering CSS...");

      }

    }; 

    I am no JavaScript czar, I just love learning about it. If you find any mistakes or errors, please reach out to me so I can correct those. Following Gist contains all the corrected code.



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    Waqas Younas
    tag:blog.wyounas.com,2013:Post/859603 2015-05-23T02:54:54Z 2015-05-27T13:41:28Z Book Review: Truth Always Prevails: A Memoir (by Sadruddin Hashwani)

    So I just finished reading this book, which is written by Sadruddin Haswani who is a prominent businessman in Pakistan. Reason I read this book was to learn from a successful businessman. Here is the summary of things I learned from the book:

    • His first business was to help his brother in law in one of his businesses. That was his first business and he worked really hard at it. Profit margins were low and there was a lot of inter-province travel involved. He was working on this relentlessly, even then he had this "growth" mindset as he wanted to grow even more and never settled whenever he reached a certain milestone. He setup goals and he wanted to achieve those no matter what. He always he had this desire to improve his performance. Unfortunately because of some personal issues he had to quit this business and leave everything he built. That was kind of sad. 
    • His next business was to sell bailing hoops. Very soon in this business he realized that he needed to do something unique to stand out from the rest. He improved the payment cycles and also focussed on quality. He, then, diversified into different other products. He always wanted to know more about this business. He also worked on accumulating cash. Then, a very big order came knocking his door to export cotton to Russia. Banks weren't willing to finance so in order to fulfill the order he partnered with a company. 

             Also, he realized that he needed to build his business on few foundations e.g. a)- low profit b)- fast delivery and c)- low expenses. For his customers his reputation and price were important to him. He worked very hard at this business e.g. he would start as early as a 8 am and stay till night. 

    • He became the number 1 exporter of cotton. There was a point when he needed to pay a big amount and he felt totally helpless but then a manager of a Bank of China helped him with the payment. Probably that is a true reflection of "where there is a will, there is a way". 
    • Then because of his reputation Louis Dreyfus Group started buying rice and it proved really profitable for his other businesses. Later, he ventured into building hotels all over Pakistan. He even bought a hotel in US at some point. Rest is history.


    From what I can tell after reading this book, as a business man I find him hard working, intelligent, determined and a smart guy. He also faced a lot of political pressure but he stood his ground. He didn't have a degree in business administration yet he bootstrapped multiple businesses in multiple industries which I find really amazing. 

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    Waqas Younas
    tag:blog.wyounas.com,2013:Post/826255 2015-05-04T06:11:17Z 2015-05-27T13:41:37Z Cars with an Information Dashboard (to help other drivers)


    Driving is something I really used to enjoy. Not sure what happened but I find it little stressful now. I live in Lahore and traffic here is not easy. It gets particularly hard around noon (time when schools or offices are closing). 

    At times, people need to turn right but they switch on the left indicator. Other times, people will come all the way from left to suddenly turn to right. You may also find people suddenly slowly down on a quite road when it's not really needed (when you overtake them you see that the driver was using cell phone, hence the slowing down). I have also seen people frequently changing lanes and that's very dangerous if you do that without giving any indication to people already in the lane. You also see come across impatient overtakers who start showing you headlights as soon as they are behind you. People also overtake from left. Not only that it really hurts when you park the car in parking only to come back and see that someone has parked a car right behind you and he's not in the car. Bummer!

    So I was driving today and a thought came across my mind. What if we have a dashboard which is visible on mirrors (may be on a rare window) and other people can see some useful data in there? So may be a dashboard can contain the following:

    • It states that the data represents snapshot of last 30 days.
    • It can show some graphs and things like
    • 5 wrong overtakes
    • 5 Overspeed tickets
    • Parked wrong 2 times this month

    Of course we can write more there but probably the most critical items show up at the top. Arguably, this help in following ways:

    • It may help other drivers to make better decisions.
    • So when drivers start making better decisions it may help the flow of traffic.
    • So when drivers take better decisions and flow of traffic is improved then we can hope that we see less traffic accidents on the road.

    There is a chance that too much information can increase the cognitive load on the drivers' mind. So one way to reduce the cognitive load is that the system only makes the dashboard visible when it senses that driver is trying to do something which is closely related to some of the mistakes he did recently. e.g.

    • If driver has been getting speed tickets then whenever a driver crosses the limit the dashboard should appear. 
    • If driver takes too many wrong turns then whenever driver gives a right indicator and if car is going on right then may be it's time to show the dashboard. Trick will be to show it as soon as possible.

    I am not sure about how practical this is but it was just a thought when I was driving back home. 


    Note:

    Thanks to some friends for reading the drafts of this article.

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    Waqas Younas
    tag:blog.wyounas.com,2013:Post/819272 2015-03-11T11:40:13Z 2015-05-27T13:44:05Z Book Review: Daily Rituals: How Artists Work

    So after a long time I have finally been able to finish a book. I really want to read more books this year. So "Daily Rituals: How Artists Work" is a great book. I really enjoyed reading it. Highly recommended.

    It contains some details on the daily routines of various famous writers, music composers, painters, scientists, poets, filmmakers, sculptors and etc. Here are the key takeaways from the book (off the top of my head):

    • Almost everyone famous had set aside a solid chunk of time in a day totally devoted to work. So much so that some people didn't like any interventions around that time. I recall, from the book, that many people used to work without any breaks from 7 am to 1 pm. For example, Francis Bacon woke up very early and worked continuously till noon and that was his daily routine. Some preferred to work at night, for example, Thomas Wolfe liked to work all night. Some wanted no interruptions at all it's written about Thomas Mann; "Then, at 9:00, Mann closed the door to his study, making himself unavailable for visitors, telephone calls, or family. The children were strictly forbidden to make any noise between 9:00 and noon, Mann's prime writing hours. "

             And another one is Gustav Mahler (and Alma was his wife):  "Then he shut himself inside to work. Meanwhile, Alma's job was to make sure that no sound carried to the hut during Mahler's working hours. She refrained from playing the piano, and promised the neighbors opera tickets if they would keep their dogs locked up. "

    • Some famous people even had a social life. I had this perception that probably they worked all the time, which isn't true. They focused and worked in a solid chunk of time without any interventions but some of them also left time for family and other social duties.
    • Some even carved out time daily for walk or nap (or even a swim). It sounds like a good idea to take break from work and let your work do some work in the background within your brain. Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard always did two things daily; walking and writing. He always had his best ideas on a long walk. Gustav Miller used to go for a swim daily. Richard Strauss would go on a long walk after having tea at 4 pm until 6 pm daily. Carl Jung would go on for long walks daily in the hills. 
    • I was relived to know that some of the great minds also fought procrastination. But I think most of them fought it with discipline. For example, Thomas Mann made a point to work from 9 am to noon on daily basis without any interruptions. Gustav Mahler worked from early morning to midday on daily basis. 
    • For some people external conditions were important too. Some people ate same lunch every single day. Beethoven wanted exactly sixty coffee beans per cup in the morning. Morton Feldman wanted the right pen, and a good chair. 
    • Almost all of them really liked working. They were passionate about their work. Gustave Flaubert noted (as given on pages 32 and 33 of the book) "Sometimes I don't understand why my arms don't drop from my body with fatigue, why my brain doesn't melt away. I am leading an austere life, stripped of all external pressure, and am sustained only by a kind of permanent frenzy, which sometimes makes me weep tears of impotence but never abates. I love my work with a love that is frantic and perverted, as an ascetic loves the hair shirt that scratches his belly. Sometimes, when I am empty, when words don't come, when I find I haven't written a single sentence after scribbling whole pages, I collapse on my couch and lie there dazed, bogged down in a swamp of despair, hating myself and blaming myself for this demented pride that makes me pant after a chimera. A quarter of an hour later, everything has changed; my heart is pounding with joy.

             He also wrote, "work is still the best way of escaping from life!"

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    Waqas Younas
    tag:blog.wyounas.com,2013:Post/724454 2014-08-07T19:19:42Z 2014-12-19T14:47:48Z Hello world ;)

    Hello, everyone. This is your host Waqas. I am based in beautiful city of Lahore, Pakistan. I will be writing my thoughts on quite a few things. I am sure I will make friends and learn from people around the world ;)


    Stay tuned ;)

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    Waqas Younas