Friday, September 05, 2008

Aid to Pakistan: Prerequisites

Aid to Pakistan
By Samia Altaf, Dawn, September 5, 2008

IF the Obama-Biden ticket succeeds in November the prospects of a significant jump in American development assistance to Pakistan would grow considerably. This would ignore the evidence that much past aid to Pakistan has been wasted.

Between 1950 and 2000, donor assistance to Pakistan has been of the order of $60bn. Yet, the country’s social indicators are languishing at the bottom end of the list of countries. The health system is sick; the infant mortality rate per 1,000 live births in 2007 was 80 compared to 12 in Sri Lanka. Education is in a shambles with half the population still illiterate, an increasing number having to turn to madressahs, and the rest receiving indoctrination instead of an education. No wonder, religious and social intolerance is rising rapidly.

Hopes that new aid would be used wisely are misplaced without explaining what has changed that would lead to better utilisation. Its poor use is often blamed on rampant corruption and weak governance. These have deteriorated over the years, not improved. Even otherwise, these are lame explanations that reflect poorly on the donors.

These conditions are well-known before the assistance is programmed and should be built into the design of aid-assisted projects. The fact that they are not suggests that either the donors are really naïve or they have a hidden agenda. Unfortunately, the average citizen in Pakistan has by now become convinced of the latter.

The remedy is not to stop all development assistance to Pakistan but to design it in a way that good outcomes become possible. The Pakistani situation seems immensely complex from afar causing well-intentioned people to think they could never understand its workings. There is, however, a simple way to understand why outcomes of development assistance are so poor in Pakistan.

A useful analogy is with the subprime mortgage crisis in the US. It is possible at times for the interests of various players to be aligned in such a way that no one has an incentive to call a halt to the madness at the same time as the regulatory mechanism fails to do its job. Unlike the US, public response mechanisms are so weak in Pakistan that even failures of huge magnitude go unquestioned; people just adapt to their fate.

Take the example of the health system in Pakistan that I have been researching. US governments are interested in moving money to Pakistan when they believe their strategic interests are at stake, Pakistani governments are more than happy to receive it, the US Agency for International Development is rewarded for disbursing funds quickly through the pipeline, and private US contractors have an easy source of income.Pakistani NGOs that are supposed to watch out for the citizens are unable to resist the lure of big money; most of them end up as subcontractors on the major projects. Despite the lack of results, not one of these players has shown an interest in stopping to take a second look.

The only parties who gain nothing out of this cycling of money are unable to exert any meaningful influence on the process. The US taxpayer is not well served by the Government Accountability Office whose primary concern seems only to ensure that the disbursement of funds follows proper procedures. And the Pakistani citizen is not consulted at all; it would be hard to find one who knows what is being done in his or her name. There is not even an easily understood term for Millennium Development Goals in the local languages.

For aid to become effective a number of design changes are needed. First, nationwide programmes need to be replaced by geographically delimited projects whose deliverables are clearly specified. Second, different donors should be placed in a competitive framework executing similar projects in different locations. Third, beneficiary populations have to be involved and represented by citizens’ committees that are provided information about budgets and key milestones. Fourth, media representatives need to become engaged to keep a scorecard and to regularly disseminate information about the progress so that corrective actions can be taken in time.

Some of these elements, consciously or by happenstance, were part of the design of the immensely successful Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) that have contributed so much talent to Silicon Valley and are now fuelling the software boom in India. In the 1950s different donors were assigned the tasks of funding, implementing and nurturing each of the various IITs and the resultant competition for prestige contributed greatly to the success of the outcomes.

Intelligent design and credible accountability are the keys to effective utilisation of aid to Pakistan. Without these US taxpayer money would continue to be poured down a dark and bottomless hole furthering even more corruption, cynicism and hostility in Pakistan.

The writer, a public health physician, is the 2007-2008 Pakistan scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in Washington, DC.

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