SAPM is a buzzword in today’s local political scenario – often, there is a news flash around it; more names are added to this league or some dropped off, an initiative launched or a press brief given by one of them. Buzzword, it may be, but not one without criticism.
Let’s deconstruct to see what does SAPM, an acronym for Special Assistant to the Prime Minister, actually refer to. A concept not confined to Pakistan, it has been in play in the West – including the UK and the US – for well over six decades; hence, the role around it has been tested, experimented with and refined over these years globally. I say ‘concept’ and not a position because there is an idea behind creation of the post of a Special Assistant or Special Advisor, as it is referred to in the UK.
Take the example of a national sports side – a sports board is in place to oversee strategy and implementation for infrastructure development, team selection, inter-board relations and so on. Despite having a skill development mechanism in place, including a national side coach, at times the sports board decides to on-board an area-specific trainer or counselor. For example, in cricket, services of a fielding coach may be hired in addition to a full-time coach as that is an identified development area. The fielding coach has a skill-set, experience and track record above par in fielding in specific. Similarly, SAPM is that fielding coach in the political scenario. SAPM, unlike politicians, are essentially technocrats who in addition to having strong knowledge of local context, have technical expertise advanced by considerable global exposure. It is this combination of three aspects that makes the addition of SAPM truly valuable.
In Pakistan’s case, under the current regime led by Prime Minister Imran Khan, some of the notable SAPMs include the likes of Dr. Sania Nishtar (Social Protection and Poverty Alleviation), Dr. Faisal Sultan (National Health Services, Regulations & Coordination), Usman Dar (Youth Affairs and overseeing Kamyab Jawan), Dr. Moeed Yusuf (National Security Division and Strategic Policy Planning) and Malik Amin Aslam (Climate Change). Before taking a macro perspective on the mere adoption of special assistance, it is important to see what value addition has been created till now.
Nominated for the position of World Health Organisation (WHO) Director General in 2017, Dr. Sania Nishtar is a physician cardiologist with representation at leading global medical bodies, and brings with her an extensive experience (stretched over a period of three decades) of engagement in multilateral organisations including the UN and WHO, international NGOs, high-level policy research and the public sector. In the past, she has played a role in re-establishing Pakistan’s Ministry of Health and is the author of Pakistan’s first health reform plan, Pakistan’s first compendium of health statistics, and the country’s first national public health plan for non-communicable diseases.
As the SAPM on Social Protection and Poverty Alleviation, she has engineered Ehsaas, a multidimensional poverty alleviation program that forms the largest social safety-net in Pakistan’s history. It's measures include but not limited to Emergency Cash during the pandemic, interest-free loans to over 1.2 Million households, cash transfer worth PKR 47 Billion among 4 Million beneficiaries, and scholarships to 50,000 students from 117 universities. The Program presents a global development case of good governance, marked by transparency and efficiency.
Dr. Faisal Sultan, best known for his contribution towards making Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital (SKMCH) a world-class institution, was appointed as the SAPM in August 2020, amidst the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic. With Dr. Sultan as the CEO for over 15 years, SKMCH has set a standard of institutionalization on the governance side, quality at the medical services front, and outreach and access pertaining to service delivery. From 54,000 outpatient visits, 3500 new patient registrations and some 3600 admissions in 2003, under his leadership, SKMCH has served 3.1 Million outpatients, attended to 10,000 new registrations and over 12,000 patients admitted in 2020. Since Dr. Sultan assumed the office, SKMCH has now expanded from one hospital in Lahore to a new hospital in Peshawar, an under construction site in Karachi and a nationwide network of 93 laboratory collection centres.
As the SAPM, Dr. Faisal Sultan is accredited with spearheading the National Health Services, Regulations & Coordination, presenting data-driven measures including smart lockdowns to curb the spread of COVID-19 , executing public-vaccination measures and creating public awareness of the disease.
Similarly, the Clean Green Movement, emblem of Pakistan’s commitment to climate change is being led by Malik Amin Aslam. An environmentalist, Aslam has been engaged in global climate change strategy through the UN, World Bank and IUCN, and is accredited with leading the globally acclaimed Billion Tree Tsunami in KP. It is this same campaign that laid the design foundation for the nation-wide Ten Billion Tree Tsunami and achievement of the UN Climate Action Sustainable Development Goal (SDG-13) a decade ahead of the 2030 deadline.
Another example that resonates strongly with the Prime Minister’s vision for youth is the Kamyab Jawan Program. Providing entrepreneurial and employment opportunities at a mass scale, it is being led by Usman Dar. His strong desire to bring about a change and deep understanding of the local landscape is what makes him execute the program at a national level effectively.
Kamyab Jawan targets all segments and social classes of the youth - loans for small businesses and farmers enable to take a risk, grow and make an economic contribution; skill development is filling the employment gap by making beneficiaries more hireable, and the Tiger Force is one way where young people are being mobilized and sensitized to lead a responsible and effective life. Youth centered initiatives reflect directly on what the current government envisions for its citizens and with the entrepreneurial and innovative plans of Kamyab Jawan, it is working towards a promising future.
The above-referred examples of impact reiterate the three angles SAPMs bring to the table – deep local knowledge, domain-specific expertise and global exposure. Where these factors lay the foundation for on-ground work, there are common characteristics that build on these, resulting in wide-scale effectiveness.
First, with self-actualization in place (the degree of which may vary, sure), the ‘desire’ to invest one’s time and utilize experience is based on a higher purpose to benefit the society at large. The opportunity cost with respect to investing time elsewhere is tipped in the favour of special assistance by the drive to ‘do more’ and ‘do more at a larger scale’. Secondly, ‘empathy’ forms a core factor – here, empathy is towards the society at large; the strategy or decisions made by a SAPM affect the public, both directly and indirectly. Therefore, any action is to be grounded in the larger long-term benefit of the stakeholders. Any idea is as good as its execution – the third factor, then, is ‘execution’; where will and desire forms the first factor, without effective execution, it loses its value. And all three examples mentioned – Ehsaas Program, efforts to control COVID-19 and Billion Tree Tsunami reflect that.
If the buzzword has all these elements – willingness, empathy and execution, why the criticism around it?
Problem arises when the basis of onboarding SAPMs is debatable. Some of the questions asked are: Has the need identification for the sector (for which a SAPM is to be appointed) been thorough and a diligent process? How much of the process has been marked by meritocracy as opposed to nepotism? How clear and transparent are the objectives behind onboarding an SAPM? Is the same eligibility criteria being fulfilled by all those appointed?
If the answers to these are in black and white, criticism on SAPM is mere political and must be taken as the opposition's tool to distract and be simply overlooked. If not, comments such as ‘political appointment’, ‘SAPM runs the show, not the minister’, and ‘Prime Minister’s “blue-eyed”’ will continue to surface. In the UK, for example, Special Advisors, more commonly referred to as ‘SpAds’, are political appointees hired either directly by Number 10 or by respective cabinet ministers. The appointments became questionable particularly around the increasing number of SpAds and the subsequent financial cost; by December 2020, PM Boris Johnson increased the number of advisors to 51 (116 overall) up from 49 in 2019. A second point of concern has been vesting power and authority in some advisers, Dominic Cumming and David Frost being two examples; this was seen as disempowering ministers and undermining the quality of government decision making.
Pakistan cannot afford this disharmony.
The current government under Prime Minister Imran Khan has appointed SAPMs and Advisors, given additional portfolio of Federal Minister or Minister of State, and reshuffled portfolios. Some of those who were appointed left - Tania Aidrus, Dr. Zafar Mirza and Lt. Gen (Retd) Asim Bajwa being among the high profile ones. Where this does hamper smooth execution of policy, it has better equipped the incumbent government to make decisions about future appointments. It depends, however, on the political willingness to implement this learning. Kaptaan, as the Prime Minister is referred to by his political aides, certainly has the willingness and the keen eye to put his vision for a stronger Pakistan into action.
In the recent past, concerns around constitutional legitimacy of SAPMs have resurfaced amidst legal debate about executive power being extended to advisors and special assistants. However, there is an opportunity for Pakistan to streamline its governance system. As they say, strength lies not in highlighting restrictions but working for sustainable solutions to extend limits. Why? To gain effectiveness. Remember the sportsmen for whose training the fielding coach was on-boarded? The sports board could have either justified the unsatisfactory performance by insisting on lack of skill or hired a fielding coach to train the team with the hope of better, competitive performance in the future fixtures. Similarly, Pakistan can either highlight legal limitations as an impediment to the potential SAPMs promise or can come together to make it happen for the bigger good of the country. The choice is for those in power.
The onset of the pandemic has left the world in a socioeconomic challenging situation – the impact of Ehsaas Program, timely decision-making by NHSRC and opportunity created by green initiatives and Kamyab Jawan steered by SAPMs such as Dr. Sania Nishtar, Dr. Faisal Sultan, Malik Amin Aslam and Usman Dar, reflect the potential of Pakistan.
Prime Minister Imran Khan has an empathetic vision to build the esteem of the nation. For its execution, balanced measures have to be taken in multiple domains as varied as security, economy, health, and education. The underlying factors are, however, innovation and calculated risk. A blend of SAPMs, with their technical knowledge and global exposure, and parliamentary representatives who have the support of the public, put forth a feasible combination to make it happen – for a stronger Pakistan.
SAPM – a buzzword, sure; it is time to make it count.
The article was published on Global Village Space on 20th April, 2021