The expertise gap - S Khalid Husain - Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Dr Asim Husain has been reappointed advisor on petroleum. He had resigned from the same position in August 2009 saying he wanted to go back to his medical business, a hospital, which needed his attention.

There must be something about the way the good doctor manages his businesses, because these begin to wilt no sooner than he departs. His hospital apparently began to wither when he left it to tend to the country’s petroleum affairs for his friend, the president. He dropped petroleum and politics, and rushed to revive the hospital, and the petroleum affairs went into doldrums. He’s back now to salvage the petroleum affairs of the country, and the hospital probably is already beginning to tilt.

Why Dr Asim Husain resigned the first time is in doubt. He says his hospital needed him. But his performance was under severe criticism by the opposition at that point, and his departure greatly lifted the pressure on the government over its handling of the petroleum crisis. There was an audible sigh of relief from all quarters, including government quarters. Even those working in the Presidency let out muted sighs. Probably the doctor himself could not stand the heat any longer, and, “if you cannot stand the heat stay out of the kitchen,” as they say, chose to leave the “kitchen.” Now he is back in the kitchen, with a wow to change all the chefs, and replace them with new ones from abroad. He feels new ones will better deliver whatever it is his friend, the president, wants delivered.

In arranging the en masse sacking of the present lot of chief executives in the oil sector, Dr Asim Husain may have done the right thing, if all those sacked are appointees of the present government. This government is known for appointing chiefs of public-sector companies – including PIA, Steel Mill, even the hapless Pakistan Cricket Board – for all reasons but merit and competence.

However, his saying that there is “no expertise” in the country in the oil the sector is like a poor craftsman quarrelling with his tools. There is a large pool of Pakistani managers who understand the oil trade and business as well as any manager anywhere else. These professional assets of the country can be valuable tools in the hands of a capable craftsman. Instead of seeking them out, assigning them responsibilities to match their expertise and facilitating them in their work so that they produce results, the doctor has opted to quarrel with the tools.

A valuable asset under ineffectual leadership, and whose objectives are more personal than business, will seldom produce results that are beyond the leadership’s own ability and narrow objectives. In the country’s oil sector there are managers who are world-class. Unfortunately for them, and even more for the country, they are used less for the advancement and growth of the oil sector in the country and more for personal advancement and growth of their political handlers’ interests and fortunes. Oil exploration, refining, distribution and marketing companies became playthings in the hands of politicians. These continue to be managed less by managers and manipulated more by politicians towards achieving their objectives.

Some chief executives and managers with courage who resist the onslaught of politicians become early casualties, and more pliable but less competent ones appointed to replace them. This has remained the most common pattern of what passes for management in companies in the public-sector under all political and military governments. The vast number of public-sector companies, hitched to the country’s economic engine remain one of the biggest drags, and the reason why Pakistan is floundering economically in the region and in the world.

This monster of a public-sector is a gift to the nation of the industrial policy of the first PPP government, when almost everything that moved was nationalised. The country continues to pay the cruel price of the folly.

It is for Dr Asim Husain to ponder how the oil-sector “experts” he will be bringing from abroad will perform any better, and in the environment in which they will have to work. The “experts” will undoubtedly be more “manageable” than the Pakistani manager who is brave enough to resist unethical pressures, preferring to be transferred or sacked, even killed. Shaukat Mirza was one manager of this kind, who was effectively turning PSO around. Rather than look away from gross and corrupt practices in PSO, he continued to resist pressure, paying with his life in the end. Shaukat Mirza may not be with us, but there are many like him who the good doctor could find, if he only cared to look for them.

Dr Asim Husain’s claim that there is “no expertise” in the oil sector in the country is shallow, and untenable. “Physician, heal thyself.”

The writer is a former corporate executive. Email:

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