Islands of excellence

By Zubeida Mustafa

In this age of cutthroat competition in the marketplace when excellence — at a price — appears to have become the exclusive preserve of the private sector, the impression has been created that everything in the public sector is destined to be shoddy, inefficient, inept and in a state of decay. A government bank, it is assumed, will not function satisfactorily. A government school will not impart any education to its students. A government hospital will not provide good treatment to an ill person.

This may be true partially. But the standards of institutions are determined not by their ownership but by the individuals who man (woman?) them. You may have visited an organization owned by the government but would have found its efficiency at par with any private institution in the same field. True it may not have the same expensive ambience as the office of a multinational but it may be rendering better service. And isn’t that what really matters?

How do you explain this seeming anomaly? The fact is that even in the public sector it is the individual worker, especially the head of the organization, who sets his own standards of efficiency and performance. In the good old days when government institutions performed as well as any other, the integrity and commitment of the staff were the norms. This doesn’t hold true anymore. Only one in a thousand turns out to be efficient, dedicated and honest at a time when everyone else has forgotten to raise the bar. That explains why some government institutions are unexpectedly so good.

Take the National Savings Centre DHA branch in the Khadda Market in Karachi. When I first went there I expected it to be like the other savings centres. Although it has the appearance of any government office — crowded and not exactly elegant — this centre actually works. True there is generally a long queue of people, mostly senior citizens, waiting to be served, they can at least sit comfortably and the wait is not all that intolerable. Hats off to Syed Ejaz Ali who manages this centre in his kind and affable but efficient style. He had been hoping for the National Savings Scheme to be converted into a corporation as had been promised by the finance minister not too long ago. He is still waiting, though last week he said it would be unkind of him to ask for computers at a time when the money was needed for earthquake relief. But all this has not affected the working of his centre.

Then there is the Sindh Education Foundation headed by the redoubtable Prof Anita Ghulam Ali. The foundation is sponsoring an adoption scheme for schools, publishes a magazine on education and is overseeing many other school projects. Above all, Ms Ghulam Ali monitors the happenings in education in the public sector.

Take the case of the Sindh Kachchi Abadi Authority (SKAA) headed until recently by the renowned Tasneem Siddiqi. Though housed in modest premises, the SKAA functioned as a model institution under the Magsaysay Award winning Siddiqi until his retirement.

After observing the state of our government hospitals, it is difficult to believe that any one of them would compare favourably with the best health institutions in the world. There is one and it performs the most expensive surgeries free of cost. That is the Sindh Institute of Urology and Transplantation (SIUT) headed by the legendary Dr Adib Rizvi, another Magsaysay Award laureate.

Recently, SIUT held three international conferences one after another, which set new standards for the medical academia. What is more it put Karachi firmly back on the world map as a city of professional conferences. The 200 or so foreign delegates — many of them renowned experts in the field of urology and transplantation — by gracing the long shunned Sindh capital by their presence — made a political statement: Karachi is as safe as any other city in the world.

We can well be proud of these institutions and their heads. How sad that the government itself which should be grateful to them for their reputation and their willingness to identify themselves with the public sector, should try to distance itself from its protégé. How else would one describe the prime minister’s decision not to attend the SIUT conference while putting in his appearance in the city at three other functions organized by private sector institutions. Is it what we say in Urdu, Ghar ki murghee daal barabar? (What is your own is taken for granted.)

It is time our rulers learnt to take pride in these individuals and the institutions they head. By mobilizing and motivating more such exemplary leaders in their fields, it is possible to create a large number of model institutions in the public sector. When these are linked up in a nationwide network, Pakistan will definitely become a better place to live in.

Source: Dawn