Archive for the ‘Foreign Aid’ Category

Mind the Money

April 1, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

Leafing through the Sunday Careers section of Dawn I came across a quarter-page Position Vacant advertisement by the U.S. Pakistan Center for Advanced Studies in Energy (USPCAS-E) at the University of Engineering and Technology, Peshawar. I am wondering if readers will find the experience as surreal as I did.

The advertised position is for a driver on a contract basis with a high-school degree and a valid license. A long job description includes the following: application of knowledge of commercial driving and skills in maneuvering a vehicle at varying speeds in difficult situations, such as heavy traffic and inclement weather; the ability to sit and remain alert while driving for an aggregate period of up to 11 hours; and the ability to operate equipment in all types of weather and conditions which include going forward and backing up long distances, around corners, and in and around very tight areas.

An online application form is to be requested; only shortlisted candidates will be called for an interview; and no TA/DA will be admissible.

Is this the most efficient and cost-effective way of recruiting a driver? Do all public sector institutions follow this process? Or is this the outcome of the fact that, going by the name of the organization, this is a USAID funded initiative in which the donor’s procurement rules are to be followed without exception and there is more money floating around than anyone knows what to do with?

To me it seems that a call to a local employment bureau or agency would have yielded half a dozen candidates for selection at minimal cost instead of a quarter-page placement in a national English language newspaper, an online application process, in-house shortlisting of candidates, followed by interviews, etc.

Frankly, I found this mindless and immensely wasteful. The most ironic part of the absurd exercise for me was the fact that an organization ready to throw away money in this manner was not prepared to offer any TA/DA to the few shortlisted low-income applicants that it intended to invite from cities across the nation.

I tried to put this use of funds and rule-bound procedure, which makes eminent sense for large procurements or recruitment to senior positions, in the context of three other phenomena that have been on my mind.

First, how do we square it with the super-cavalier attitude being demonstrated towards procurement of billions of dollars worth of equipment and services related to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor? Almost every project seems to be sole-sourced to Chinese firms. How can these contradictory practices exist at the same time? And, if they do, should we be ultra-careful in the purchase of power plants or in the recruitment of drivers on a contract basis? We seem to be living in an Alice-in-Wonderland world in which anything goes and no questions can be asked.

Second, I keep thinking of things for which we really need money and to which little attention is being paid. As an economist, I keep worrying about the quality of education in the subject and fail to understand how many of the public sector universities in secondary cities have come to be accredited. One can visit the websites of many and find departments with one or two assistant professors with MA degrees responsible for programs offering BA, MA and MPhil degrees and announcing the launch of PhD programs in the near future. Quite a few of these websites have not been updated for years.

This is an act of immense cruelty being inflicted on the students enrolled in these programs which should either be funded appropriately or shut down. Till such time as enough qualified faculty is not available, it would make a lot more sense to pool resources into provincial centres of excellence where graduate training of an acceptable quality can be imparted. As it is, the discipline is in a stage of transition and even the best institutions in the country are having a hard time keeping up with the changes.

Third, there is the question of the very model of centres of excellence that was in vogue in the country years ago and has now resurfaced with new funding from USAID. Is there any evaluation of the centres funded in the previous cycle? Has there been any meaningful output commensurate with the amount of money spent? Could that money have been spent in a more useful manner?

Without such an evaluation, the infusion of dollars into new programs like USPCAS-E can only be expected to result in quarter-page advertisements for contract drivers capable of going forward and backing up long distances, around corners, and in and around very tight areas without really arriving anywhere.

This opinion appeared in Dawn on March 31, 2017 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

Note: The ad appeared in the Dawn Careers supplement on 12.3.2017 on page 10. A copy can be seen at: http://pkjobvacancy.com/us-pakistan-center-advanced-studies-uet-peshawar-energy-driver-job-2017/

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Trump, USAID and Funding for Pakistan

January 26, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

The election of Donald Trump has generated much uncertainty. In Pakistan, among other things, concern has been expressed that USAID funding might be affected by the transition. The concern stems from a delay by the incoming administration in meeting the aid agency to discuss the continuity of future disbursements.

The reason for the concern is that USAID disburses millions of dollars in Pakistan every year through NGOs and any disruption of the pipeline would affect their sustainability, the livelihood of thousands of their employees, and the welfare of the intended beneficiaries.

This much is easy to grasp. At the same time, however, analysts have highlighted other, conflicting, dimensions of the assistance. These question the objectives and the consequences of the funding. They suggest that the primary purpose of the aid is to promote US influence in recipient countries, that aid-based development is not sustainable, and that national pride is dented by continued dependence – references to the begging-bowl syndrome abound.

There is thus an obvious dilemma to consider: Which aspect is more important and ought to influence national policy regarding bilateral assistance in general and USAID in particular, the latter because the US has the most obvious security interests in the region? In theory, most analysts prefer development that is financed from local resources with a concomitant winding down of external assistance. In practice, however, they resign themselves to continuation of the status quo. They claim there is no alternative because Pakistan’s population does not wish to pay taxes and believes in getting something for nothing.

Is this claim fair to the population of Pakistan and does it provide a plausible explanation of the present predicament? Start with the fact that the distribution of income and wealth is highly skewed in Pakistan – it can’t be very different from India where the 57 richest individuals are reported to hold as much wealth as the poorest 70 percent of the population. Clearly, any move to tighten the tax net would also impact those at the top of the wealth pyramid many of whom are networked in the ruling establishment. Is it realistic to expect the wealthiest to voluntarily tax themselves? Would they move the country to a model of self-reliance in which they would have to contribute their share or would they rather continue the dependence on external money from which they have something to gain by way of rents and nothing to lose?

At the same time, is it correct to say that the population does not pay taxes when it is burdened with all kinds of indirect withholdings? Taxes are withheld from everyone who uses a mobile phone, has a bank account, or owns a motorcycle including those whose incomes are below the minimum taxable limit. The injustice is compounded because many of them do not even know how to reclaim the withholdings. Equitable and progressive taxation from above is avoided while oppressive and regressive extortion from below is promoted much as what one would expect from an abuse of power.

The bottom line is that the existing arrangement of development assistance persists because it is in the interest of all the key players – the donor country that uses aid to buy influence, the establishment that does not want to tax itself, the foreign consultants and contractors who feed off inflated charges, and the NGOs that flourish on easy money for which the donors do not demand accountability – the circle thereby completing itself. Each one of these players is happy with the outcome and least bothered by the begging-bowl syndrome that gnaws away at the pride of analysts.

Such is the eagerness to make the good times last that a blind eye is turned to easily available evidence pertaining to the result of billions of dollars of assistance received over the past decades. Major recipients like public health and education are in a state of shambles and people continue to die from lack of access to clean water and sanitation. What is there to show for the thousands of teachers and health workers that have been trained again and again, each training costing millions of dollars?

Why in the face of such clear evidence are the decisionmakers not clamoring for change in the model of development? Is it because all the key parties involved are benefiting while those who will have to pay the future liabilities have no say in the matter?

The only way this gravy train can come to a halt is if President Trump does one of the bizarre things people expect of him. It might well happen in Africa but it is more likely he will be convinced to appreciate what the money is buying in return in a high-stake zone like Pakistan. At most, he will demand a higher price from the establishment which the latter would accept as the new reality.

This opinion appeared in Dawn on January 25, 2016 and is reproduced here with permission of the author. The writer’s evaluation of foreign assistance can be accessed at https://thesouthasianidea.wordpress.com/#Foreign

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Aid as Religion

August 16, 2012

By Anjum Altaf

Aid has become the new religion. That is the only conclusion to be drawn from the authors’ summary of a new report on aid to Pakistan from the Center for Global Development (Making KLB Effective, Dawn, August 12, 2012). There are certain fundamental presumptions to be accepted on faith followed by exhortations to be more faithful and to work harder. Inshallah everything will work out fine since God (in this case the US) helps those who help themselves. Conspicuous by its absence is any semblance of doubt or uncertainty, there is no challenging the assumptions, there is no assessment of experience, there is no asking of questions. Just a few regrets before Muslim and Christian soldiers march happily onwards hand in hand.

The authors are quite candid about the central premise of their report: “one of its underlying assumptions is that US-Pakistan development cooperation should continue.”  (more…)

US Aid to Pakistan: Response to CGD

June 25, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

My critique of the Center for Global Development’s report on US aid to Pakistan has elicited a comment from the authors. I appreciate their willingness to engage in a discussion and reproduce their comment in full before offering my own reactions to explain why I remain unconvinced by their arguments.

The most scathing review so far of our recent report Beyond Bullets and Bombs: Fixing the U.S. Approach to Development in Pakistan, comes from Anjum Altaf, a Pakistani academic who represents this viewpoint well. (more…)

Aid to Pakistan: Advocacy or Analysis?

June 9, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

Beyond Bullets and Bombs is the title of the latest report on aid to Pakistan from the Center for Global Development in Washington, DC. In light of the increasingly anti-Pakistan sentiment in the U.S., the report, addressed to decision and policy makers in Washington, takes on the brief to make the best possible case for the continuation of aid. Hence the subtitle: Fixing the U.S. Approach to Development in Pakistan. The report is a revealing illustration of advocacy over analysis; a more open examination would have begun by questioning the impacts of U.S. aid to Pakistan, before deciding if the total benefits of “fixing” it exceeded the total cost to both sides.

It is to the report’s credit that it is forthright and includes all the relevant pieces of information, but the way it uses that information is determined by the choice it makes. (more…)

A Primer on Foreign Aid – 3: Real Issues

May 31, 2011

We are now in a position, having described the evidence (A Primer on Foreign Aid – 2), to discuss the less obvious dimensions of foreign aid which address issues of whether aid can be effective and under what kinds of conditions. (more…)

A Primer on Foreign Aid – 2: Rationale and Results

May 30, 2011

With the basic definitions out of the way (A Primer on Foreign Aid – 1) we can move on to the rationale of foreign aid and its results and consequences. (more…)

“Helping the Poor”: The Idea, the Reality and the Shadow

February 22, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

Between the idea and the reality, Eliot wrote, falls the shadow. The phrase is so well known as to be almost cliché, but as with many clichés, there is truth to it. There is universality, too – the metaphor could extend to many areas; there are shadows everywhere. Foreign aid, for example: there is the idea and the reality, the theory and the practice, the intent and the execution.

The theory of foreign aid is simple enough: If those lacking capital and technology and ideas were provided with such, they could be launched on the path of progress. In practice it has rarely ever worked like that – there is more to the equation than capital and technology and ideas.

There is the shadow that falls between the theory and the results, a shadow full of objectives stated and unstated, incentives of this party and that (and, of course, their representatives, who develop in the end their own interests, their own goals, their own shadows) – all this, more often than not, causing enough distortions for the reality to mock the idea.

This happens not only in foreign aid, but in any transaction where one party has advice or help or assistance that the other desperately needs, when negotiations are not equal, when representatives of each come with their own axes to grind. Consider the shadow now visible between the idea and the reality of sub-prime mortgage lending: the unstated objectives, the incentive distortions, the regulatory winks and nods, the quick fix to keep the game going for at least one more round. In 1961, Jane Jacobs, who had little to do with foreign aid, was astute enough to realize the pitfalls. Based solely on her observations of how federal assistance was implemented in low-income areas of American cities, she remarked in her seminal book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities: “I hope we disburse foreign aid abroad more intelligently than we disburse it at home.”

Much of this has been obvious for years to those in the aid and lending communities who have kept their eyes and ears open; what has eluded us is that blinding insight that lays it all bare, the kind of insight that comes most often from literature. As literature identified the existence of the shadow, it was literature again that unraveled its nature. Theodore Dalrymple has written an account of the writer Rhys Davies (1901-1978) whom he has called the Welsh Chekhov. I can’t vouch for that since I haven’t yet read Davies but I intend to, especially the story that illuminated for me the shadow of foreign aid – “I Will Keep Her Company,” published in The New Yorker in January 1964.

The story, in Dalrymple’s words, concerns a couple in their eighties, living in an isolated farmhouse in the Welsh hills and snowed in. The old woman has died and the husband, refusing to acknowledge her death, is staying by her bedside. There is in the story a district nurse assigned to the care of the couple:

Meanwhile, Nurse Baldock has geared up a rescue operation involving a snowplow, a van, and a helicopter. She is, as her name seems to suggest, conscientious and bossy and, having completed a diploma in social studies in her spare time, believes herself entitled to a promotion. She had visited Evans a few days previously, when his wife had just died, and was prevented from removing the body by the snow. Now she is returning, determined to get his agreement to leave for the old-age home. When she finds him dead, she utters a bitter yet self-satisfied recrimination:

“This needn’t have happened if he had come with me, as I wanted six days ago! Did he sit there all night deliberately? . . . Old people won’t listen. When I said to him, “Come with me, there’s nothing you can do for her now,” he answered, “Not yet. I will keep her company.” I could have taken him at once to Pistyll Manor Home. It was plain he couldn’t look after himself. One of those unwise men who let themselves be spoilt by their wives.”

In a few pages, with a highly sophisticated simplicity, Davies arouses emotions and thoughts as impossible to resolve into full coherence as life itself. John Evans’s death is both tragic and a triumphant final expression of the love that gave his life meaning; we oscillate between sorrow and joy, between discomfiture and reassurance, as we read. As for Nurse Baldock, she encapsulates the mixture of good intentions, condescension, and careerism that is the modern welfare state. Rationally, we cannot refuse to endorse the efforts to rescue Evans; it would be a terrible world in which his predicament evoked no response. At the same time, we know that these efforts are not only beside the point but, at the deepest level, incapable of being other than beside the point.

There it is: The Evanses are the recipients, Nurse Baldock the donor, “encapsulat[ing] the mixture of good intentions, condescension, and careerism” that is the modern aid enterprise. Her judgments of John Evans echo the familiar comments of the aid executive – poor people “won’t listen,” “men [have] let themselves be spoilt” by their unwise ways. If only he had heeded her advice; if only poor countries would follow the instructions given to them by the well-intentioned donors.

The notion of “helping the poor” is a noble one, but it comes with this shadow that falls between people, states and their citizens, donors and recipients, between individuals and representatives, and this shadow grows darker and deeper as we try to pretend that it is not there, that it can be fixed with one quick step (always one quick step, just to keep us going for the next round).

Perhaps the story offers another insight as well. Nurse Baldock, with her plow and her van and her helicopter, her diploma in social studies, the full weight of the state behind her, is immeasurably more powerful than a weak, devastated, poor old man. Of course to her it is simple; she knows what is right, she knows what he needs far better than he himself could. But what if Nurse Baldock could meet John Evans as her equal?  What if she could try, instead of helping him by force, to engage with him? In this light, might the shadow finally begin to fade?

Theodore Dalrymple’s article (The Welsh Chekhov) can be accessed here.
Nurse Baldock is reincarnated as Lucymemsahib in our fellow panelist, Samia Altaf’s book (So Much Aid, So Little Development: Stories from Pakistan) forthcoming from the Johns Hopkins University Press in May 2011.
For more on foreign aid on this blog, see:
Should Pakistan Receive More Foreign Aid?

How to Aid the Health Sector in Pakistan
Remaking Public School Education in Pakistan

 

 

Pakistan Picaresque

January 9, 2008

A chat over tea at a government office in Islamabad reveals why billions in aid have done so little for Pakistan’s poor… 

By Samia Altaf

Not enough nurses. Not enough jobs. Nurses working as “doctors.” Trained nurses being encouraged to leave the country. Untrained and uncertified “nurses” being recruited in sheer desperation by private hospitals. What a strange and paradoxical situation! Yet there is no discussion of these crucial issues. And new training programs are being developed, because there is pressure from international organizations to include more women, supposedly to meet the human resource ­shortage.

My companion sat shaking her head. Mrs. S. was starting to look restless. She signaled to the attendant for tea. In a government office, a tea break can become a project unto ­itself.

“The problem with women,” Mrs. S. volunteered conversationally, again adjusting the dupatta delicately on her hair as the tea service was laid out, “is that they all want to get married.” Quite a problem, and one the world over. “So eventually they must leave the profession to take care of their husbands and children.”

We let this pass, and raised another possible solution to the “problem” with women: training more male nurses. As the primary wage earners, they would not be compelled to leave once they married, and they could tend to the male patients, making it easier to attract women to the ­profession.

“Not a good idea,” according to Mrs. S. And why ­not?

“Because men are very unreliable. As students, they will agitate the girls,” she continued in the same conversational mode, oblivious to the effect of her remark on her audience. “If they are in classes together, they will induce them to strike on petty matters.”

“But the girls are under no obligation to do their bidding,” Lucymemsahib ­said.

“Yes, but the poor girls have no choice but to follow the boys. It is natural for them to do so. By themselves, girls never cause any problems. They quietly do what they are told or get married and go away.” Mrs. S. warmed to her subject. “Look what is happening in Liaquat National Hospital, Karachi.” Liaquat hospital is a major training institution for nurses, one of the few in the country that prepare male nurses. About a third of each entering class was male (as is still the case today). During the weeks before our visit to Mrs. S., the nursing students at Liaquat had gone on strike, demanding better living conditions, apparently at the instigation of male ­students.

“All because of these boys!” Mrs. S. continued. “So many headaches these boys are causing us.” She struck her forehead with the palm of her right hand in the traditional gesture of frustration, causing the dupatta to flop off her hair. She hastily retrieved it. “And the girls are not listening to us either. They are naturally listening to the boys. Stupid things!” She shook her head in ­indignation.

Lucymemsahib looked at Mrs. S. as if she had come from another planet. Thankfully, the tea arrived at this point, and we fell to it with gusto, under Mr. Jinnah’s enigmatic smile from his perch on the wall. Mrs. S. very generously ordered her attendant to run out for some mint chutney to go with the samosas, which were really out of this ­world.

[The complete article can be accessed at the Wilson Quarterly (Winter 2008) here.] 

Samia Altaf was the 2007-2008 Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. Her book (So Much Aid, So Little Development: Stories from Pakistan) was published by the Johns Hopkins University Press in 2011).

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Helping Pakistan

December 9, 2007

By Samia Altaf 

Pakistan, labeled the most dangerous country in the world, with loose nukes and angry jihadis, is unraveling. It needs help. To be helped it needs to be understood. Urging a transition to “true democracy,” after the fourth military dictator has suspended the constitution for the second time and sacked a judiciary that dared to question his legitimacy, betrays either naiveté or disinterest. Both will hurt in the long run, if there is a long run. 

Understand that there has not been much difference between military and civilian rule in Pakistan. When unreal hopes are betrayed by one, the other is accorded a relieved welcome. Four painful cycles ought to be enough to make that clear. The pundits wringing their hands at the ills of dictatorship today are the same who saw huge silver linings when the fourth dictator, the “enlightened moderate,” came along to clean the democratic mess.

(more…)