Why Pakistan’s Technology Does Not Tick

Alternatively: Pakistan: Squandering its Technological Legacy

Technology Acquisition in Pakistan: Story of a Failed Privileged Class and a Successful Working Class, Ghulam Kibria, City Press, 1998.

Engineers and technologists are generally an inarticulate lot and have written little about the nature of their craft. Narratives of technology from within the discipline are therefore rare while the ones from outside abound. Ghulam Kibria’s book is a refreshing change, written as it is from the viewpoint of the practising technologist. Written from this perspective, it is not just an indictment of the failure of the Pakistani elite; it also provides the alternate path that was open to Pakistan by building on the work of the Pakistani mistris, whose role is generally lost sight of in discussions on technology.

The other interesting aspect of Kibria’s book is his view of the role of the state in developing technology. It is fashionable today to write off the Nehruvian state as a total failure. Currently emerging policy prescriptions – often projected as models we should have followed after independence — uphold a hands-off state with free flow of capital, goods and technology. Nehru’s insistence on developing the capital goods sector with state intervention was quite contrary to the views of various foreign experts, who wanted India to concentrate only on consumer goods. This was precisely the prescription that Pakistan was given by American experts and faithfully followed. The result, according to Kibria, was that from a state on the verge of take-off in 1947, Pakistan has now slid down to under-developed status. Kibria’s insistence on the need for an interventionist state, and his admiration for Nehru, must come as an unwelcome surprise for the economic orthodoxy of the day.

Underpinning Kibria’s account of Pakistan’s failure to acquire and develop technology is his view that no country or company ever transfers willingly. Technology is fundamentally about human beings acquiring skills of a certain kind; skills that are then turned into designs, drawings and artefacts. This view of technology is in sharp contrast to the current economic thinking that technology is, like any other commodity, open to trade. Kibria’s little anecdote about Zia ul Huq appealing to the Toyota management to transfer automobile technology to Pakistan and their gentle answer that Toyota would lose its market if it did, illustrates the confusion that exists among policy makers. Technology is intellectual capital and is never parted with gratis. Even when there is technology transfer, it is always partial. It allows companies to which technologies have been transferred to manufacture according to certain designs but never explains why these designs arose in the first place, thus precluding future development.

Schematically, Kibria divides his book in two parts. In the first six chapters, he details the history of technological development in various countries. The historical review of developments in Europe, the United States and Japan, merge into the more recent ones in China and Korea. The lessons drawn from the history of the advanced countries are used to analyse the strategies in China and South Korea, the two successful late developers. The second part of the book, consisting of nine chapters, recounts the experience of Pakistan in developing technology, or rather its failure in developing technology; and this account is set against the earlier backdrop. Though India comes off better than Pakistan, particularly in the contrast between Nehru and the rulers of Pakistan, Kibria is fully aware of India’s failures in developing a modern technological base, especially when compared to the success stories of China and South Korea.

Kibria points out the importance not only of entrepreneurs in promoting innovation but also of state support. Thus Eli Whitney received generous state support in his project of setting up a mass production factory for producing guns for the US Army. Kibria links this with the role of the state in South Korea and China in developing technology.

Not only did the state play an active role in promoting technology and innovation in these countries, but it also helped protect its markets and its monopoly over any technology developed there. Britain even banned the emigration of skilled workmen and routinely carried out searches and seizures to see that neither machinery nor designs left its shores. The development of textile machinery is the US took place when Sam Slatter carried the entire design of the Belper spinning mill plant in his head as he left Britain in secret. The Belper plant was set up in partnership with Arkright, the inventor of the water frame for the spinning jenny, and Slatter was its manager.  Even when Slatter recreated all the drawings of the spinning mill from memory, he had severe problems finding skilled workmen who could produce the required parts from these drawings. It was Eli Whitney’s difficulty with finding skilled workmen that drove him to set up the first modern mass production factory for engineering goods. Prior to this, a skilled workman used to make every part of any machine and put it together all by himself. Eli Whitney’s factory, set up to produce guns, broke down this process so that every workman produced only one part. As these parts were interchangeable, they could be assembled together later by other workmen, considerably speeding up the process of manufacture. This was also the first step in the eventual de-skilling of the worker: with advances in automated manufacture, he is transformed, from a skilled craftsman to a worker with fewer and fewer skills.

The historical material that Kibria has put together allows him to comprehend the process of technology acquisition. It is clear to him, (though it is not to a number of policy planners in Pakistan and India) that technology transfers are never gifts given by one nation to another. Historically such transfers have taken place through people with technical expertise migrating to new countries; or technologists/workers learning skills abroad and returning home. The conundrum regarding technology transfer is that technology is transferred by a “donor” only when the recipient already has the capability to develop it himself. The choice before the donors then is either to face a new competitor or retain the other as an ally through appropriate licensing. Finally, Kibria identifies the support that is required by the state – different forms of state intervention – for the success of technology acquisition.

Kibria’s exposition of the history of technology in Europe, the US and Japan, however, will certainly offend the academic purist. The data for his conclusions are thin and presented using only a few references. He attempts to cover too large a canvas. For instance, in a book focusing on Pakistan’s failure to acquire and develop technology, there was little need to delve into the social and political history of Europe and America. Instead, Kibria could have concentrated on his strength — his insights into what is important in the landscape of technological change. His ability to identify the features that led to innovation, particularly in Britain and the US, is unfortunately obscured by extraneous details based, in turn, on questionable scholarship.

Kibria’s account of Pakistan’s technological abilities before independence is fascinating as it is a history that needs to be written for India too. He chronicles the three areas in which Pakistan had developed international-quality skills. At the time of independence, Pakistan had world-class skills in the design of infrastructure – railways, canals, bridges and roads. The Pakistani mistris had developed fairly advanced oil engines and machine tools using their knowledge and old machine tools discarded by the Mughalpura Railway Workshop. It is interesting that Kibria locates the development of Pakistan’s technological capabilities in the development of the railways, the first modern technology that entered the Indian subcontinent to meet British colonial needs. Marx had already pointed out the importance of the railways to India’s technological development; the history of technology clearly substantiates Marx’s remarkably prescient observation.

Kibria suggests that Pakistan’s ability to design infrastructure, particularly railways, canals, roads and bridges, could have been leveraged internationally, particularly in other third world countries. This would have led to further development of these skills and brought in valuable foreign exchange. Instead, Pakistan let these skills erode and today has to invite foreign consultants for this purpose. Perhaps Kibria does not take into account that quite often infrastructure was developed in third world countries with foreign aid, and that this was tied to the import of consultancy and equipment from the donor countries. In such a context, breaking into international markets would not have been that simple, even if Pakistan’s skills were world class.

While the infrastructure developments in the sub-continent were largely driven by British colonial needs, the indigenous developments in oil engines and machine tools had quite different origins. The Mughalpura Railway Workshop had ten thousand skilled workers, a critical mass for developing new technologies. Using machines that had been disposed off by the Workshop, some of the skilled workers that had retired set up companies that manufactured oil engines and simple machine tools. The Pakistani (and Indian) mistris were and are famous for jugad (there is no equivalent English word, but the closest would be a make-shift “fix”), and this was the creative source of their ability to manufacture engines and machine tools at much lower prices than similar imported equipment. Kibria traces the origin of the famous Batala lathe of Batala, Punjab, to the Lahore machine tools industry.

Not only were engines and machine tools developed using reverse engineering and the ingenious jugad of the mistris, but were also widely used during the second world war by the British and subsequently exported. However, instead of leveraging this legacy, Pakistan decided to bank on exclusively imported technology for its development. The Government followed the advice of the Harvard Group, who viewed Pakistan as a country with no technology whatsoever. Even though machine tools — a vital component of the capital goods sector — was already developed in and around Lahore, these economists advised that Pakistan should concentrate only on the consumer goods sector. Unfortunately, the political and the bureaucratic leadership of Pakistan also shared this view with the result that its technological legacy was squandered.

Kibria is also unsparing of his criticism of Pakistan’s business class. The business elite was more interested in cosy crony capitalism and collecting various forms of largesse. Kibria traces the lack of entrepreneurship and the servile attitude to foreign capital to the feudal nature of the Pakistani elite. While the Pakistani working class had the innovative flair to develop technology, the Pakistani feudal elite failed to take this forward due to their lack of entrepreneurship.

While Kibria’s book is a welcome addition to the poorly populated region of books on technology in the third world context, it would have been more useful if it had been subject to more stringent editing. Too often, Kibria wanders into areas he is relatively less familiar with; too often there is a lack of rigour, especially when dealing with source material. Too many anecdotal references weaken some of his conclusions. But in fairness to Kibria, he has acknowledged some of these limitations at the outset, pointing out the risks of working in Pakistan on this subject without adequate library and other support. In sum, despite its blemishes, Kibria’s account of Pakistani failures is important for policy planners on this side of the border as well, especially as we seem to be embarking on a journey similar to the one Pakistan began fifty 50 years back.