Posts Tagged ‘Aid’

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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Still learning as we go along … are we?

July 23, 2016

By Jacob Steiner

A review of So Much Aid, So Little Development: Stories from Pakistan published by the Johns Hopkins University Press in 2011. The book was republished in 2015 by Ilqa Books in Pakistan and is available there in book stores and online.

Some months back I visited a rural support program in a Central Asian country, executed by one of the world’s biggest development organizations with an excellent repute here and in similar areas in Pakistan. A European consultant, with ample experience in the area and his field – sustainable construction solutions – had recently visited the project. The outcome of this visit, a number of manuals as guidelines for the local execution, had just been printed and handed over to the local engineers. Among them seismic proof housing, and split latrines. These toilets are currently a very fancy topic in sanitary engineering for developing countries when discussed among experts in the West. They are very easy to construct, turn human excrements safely and without special treatment into fertilizer and are hence theoretically a sustainable and environmentally friendly solution. But the link between smart and fancy ideas in the donors’ offices in Europe and sustainable solutions on the ground seem to be a hindrance that few want to deal with.

In default of pre-constructed toilet seats for this system in the respective country, the technical expert thought of a solution. Food bowls in two different sizes were acquired at cheap prices in the local market and assembled to a locally made split toilet. That sounds awfully convincing in a report, “using locally acquired material”, “supporting local merchants”, “easy to assemble”. The local program manager and a village engineer have already assembled the first sample. Sure, a smart idea from their friend the expert. They acknowledge his input and technical expertise, and are convinced that his intentions are the best. “But what will the people say when we propose to them to use food bowls to shit in?” They both laugh heartily. No, that won’t work, but they’ll do it anyway. Results need to be shown, reports are due and they are already behind schedule. It’s a comical situation, if it wouldn’t be frustrating to see so much effort, and money, brought to waste. A new book on similar encounters in Pakistan shows how this phenomenon may be an essential part of failures in international development initiatives.

Samia Waheed Altaf, former senior advisor of the Office of Health in the USAID Mission in Islamabad, has collected such comically frustrating episodes from her participation in the Social Action Plan (SAP) in the 90s in her So Much Aid, So Little Development – Stories from Pakistan (Wilson Woodrow Center Press, May 2011). The SAP was developed by the Pakistani Government and funded by the World Bank from 1993 to 2003 and targeted health supply services amongst others in Pakistan with a multi billion $ budget. It’s probably the most famous failure of aid and development in Pakistan. A number of papers have already been published on this issue, most notably from the CGDEV, which also Altaf refers to time and again. These papers are looking at why that could happen and how it could be avoided in future, providing mainly the dry figures of wasted inputs and unintended outcomes. They are essential reading to grasp how so much money could be invested in the country in recent decades with so little progress and conclude with definite policy recommendations. But they seldom go beyond the gross calculations of a development economist. Altaf portrays how these figures of failure are produced by the “human factor”…

Read the full review here.

Jacob Steiner’s addendum to the review:

There are other reviews out on the book.

In Dawn, by Sakuntala Narasimhan (you may go to the SouthAsianIdea to comment and discuss it with other critical minds) and in Regional Studies, Volume 45 by Claudia R. Williamson.

They are interesting to read together, since they are written from the two perspectives, the Western ‘Expert’ (in this case a researcher) and the Eastern Intellectual (in this case a journalist). Those two which Altaf manages to include in a single narrative. And they are more or less stuck in precast conceptions of the problem. Williamson wants to read more on where failure is to locate in the local institutions, Narasimhan criticises the Western Experts decadence and ignorance. They are both not wrong in their criticisms, their understanding of where failures may be located. But they are both looking for where they are convinced failure emanates from and seem not to be too receptive to an alternative explanation – a change in mindset and acknowledging responsibility. This is which I think both parties – the International (Western) Expert and the Local Expert – should take from the book. If everyone just understands it as a confirmation of ones own best intentions, brought to no avail because of the failure of the Other, we stay stuck in the dilemma. Question expertise – of others and your own – and be prepared to reassess opinions.

Manan Ahmed has been writing on the ‘Expert’ problem on a wider and more political/historical scale. I think his thesis in this aid example so well documented by Altaf is backed up on the local scale and just confirms how this is an issue that should be studied with more depth in future.

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Depicting Tragedy Humorously: Foreign Aid Without Development

February 7, 2016

By Ishtiaq Ahmed

So Much Aid, So Little Development: Stories from Pakistan
By Samia Altaf
Lahore: ILQA Publication, 2015, 204 pages, Rs. 895

William Shakespeare was the past master of the art of depicting tragedy humorously. That such a skill can be employed by a medical doctor to illustrate something as removed from the world of fiction as the relationship between foreign aid and development in Pakistan, is quite an extra-ordinary achievement. Academic works and technical reports on foreign aid and its impact on third world countries are legion. The very nature of such writings makes them reading-worthy for experts and for students who take courses on that subject. Dr Samia Waheed Altaf’s book can be read almost as a novel or a play, but it is with hard, ugly facts that she puts together a range of stories, which shed light on what goes on from the time a development plan is formulated till it is “implemented” in the field.

The general public relies largely on experts or journalists who ventilate their opinion in the press. On the whole, interested people know that foreign aid achieves little in stimulating genuine development. Billions of foreign aid has poured into Pakistan but poverty, illiteracy, bad health and other such egregious indicators of underdevelopment remain constant and may even have worsened over the years. That corruption permeates throughout our society and the higher you are placed in the bureaucratic and political hierarchy the greater your vantage point to partake in that corruption, including in the misuse of foreign aid, is a commonplace. Then of course there is no dearth of grand conspiracy theories about foreign aid being a devious trap through which alien powers control the destiny of developing and dependent states.

The author shows that the relationship between foreign aid and economic and social development in third world countries in general and Pakistan in particular is much more complex and multifaceted. It needs to be evaluated in the backdrop of the asymmetries of power that exist between the donors and the recipients, the information and knowledge gap and concomitant culture clashes which are attendant in the donor-recipient equation, and in the behaviour of the various structures that mediate development aid in the implementation process. All these different levels have to be included in a holistic framework to understand what goes on. This, the author manages to capture in her very readable book which is rich in vivid descriptions of meetings and visits.

Altaf declares at the outset that her book ‘is about one participant’s understanding of why international development projects fail in Pakistan – and by analogy, why they fail in other developing countries’. She does this by presenting a range of stories from her experience in the delivery process pertaining to the Social Action Plan (SAP) during 1993-2003, when the Government of Pakistan and the World Bank cooperated to provide access to social services, ‘including primary education, with a particular focus on girls; primary health; family planning; the rural water supply; and sanitation – and to improve their coverage and quality’. She does this by presenting a spectrum of stories about the bureaucracies involved in the donor-recipient interaction. She also asserts that her book is about Pakistani women; their vulnerabilities in a society that, despite its rhetoric of inclusion of women in the development process, refuses to accept them as equals. The author was hired on the project as a technical expert by the Government of Pakistan to work on SAP as an external consultant (which means she was not a regular civil servant) to propose incentives to attract more women to work within the rural health delivery system.

I shall present some central characters (whose real names have been changed but who represent actual happenings). From the donor end the typical foreign staff hired by the World is usually narrowly-trained technicians from Europe or the United States who lack an understanding of the social conditions and institutions of a developing country but who arrogate themselves the role of experts and exploit them to the maximum. Lucymemsahib, a Canadian nurse, epitomizes such a character. We find her running away to buy clothes, jewellery, carpets and rugs during her working hours. Not surprisingly Punjabi male bureaucrats are only too pleased to please her. A peculiar blend of sensuality, exaggerated gallantry and colonial mentality place her on a high pedestal as Punjabi men from the higher echelons of the bureaucracy interact with her to discuss different aspects of the development aid. Lower down the order the admiration remains very visible and is represented in great willingness to render small services to her. Interestingly, the author notes that Lucymemsahib does not get the same sort of attention when she visits officers in Khyber-Pakhtunkawa or from men in the streets. She thinks this derives from the fact that in that province because light eyes and fair skins are more common than in Punjab. More substantively, we learn that Lucymemsahib is poorly informed on many matters but has strong opinions which she does not hesitate to express.

Both meet a number of female Pakistani officers as well, educationists, doctors and head nurses.   Some look unapprovingly at the author wearing a sari instead of shalwar kameez since the national narrative has classified it with India and Hindus. She and Lucymemsahib have to listen to self-righteous sermons on the great purpose of creating a separate Muslim state, which with the grace of Allah was bound to succeed as an exemplary Muslim state. The funniest story is about a senior female officer demonstrating pedagogic originality by suddenly displaying an oversized male phallus, which she tells she uses to show women how the condom should be worn properly. It turns out that such demonstration attracts the attention of people around, even peons and clerks, but the lady is oblivious to the excitement her novel method has generated.

Then there is the interaction with the provincial director (PD) of the Provincial Health Department of Punjab on Cooper Road in Lahore. He is an orthopaedic surgeon, who simultaneously continues to be a professor and deputy medical superintendent at one of the government hospitals while me maintains a thriving private practice through various private clinics throughout the city. He tells the author that thousands of female staff would be used to deliver health services in the rural areas. When asked if they would be paid adequate salaries he tells her that they would be volunteers who would be working in their own communities and therefore get the moral satisfaction of doing something for their own people – while he himself draws three government salaries and runs his private practice!

In her extended conversations she realizes that an exhibition of Islamic piety permeates the conduct of the bureaucrats who ‘say things that sound so right but mean nothing’. Some of them blame conservative culture and values as obstructive to education, including family planning. One of them frankly told her that the purdah system is the biggest hindrance to progress and equal rights and status of women. However, the whole system, from top to bottom, is geared to convincing the World Bank to continue pouring in money. One bureaucrat tells her that the dollars are needed to finance the bomb.

All such stories are interspersed with funny remarks of the author, but a limit to such humour ultimately arises when she depicts the sadness and helplessness of young Pakistani women who are part of the SAP implementation chain at the ground level.  She talks to a number of young women vaccinators working in the rural sector. They are given a small to go around and vaccinate children and others in the villages. The social and cultural systems circumscribing their lives are portrayed in sharp relief. Some express the desire to get an education and adopt a career but are told by their families that the proper role of women is to get married and raise families and obey their husbands.

With regard to her own role in SAP we learn that the Punjab bureaucracy reacts harshly to her independent and critical approach, which is treated as intrusive and presumptuous. They make it clear that any intrusion by an outsider like her into their domain is unwelcome. It finally ends with a report which describes Dr Sabiha ‘incapable of handling a task of this magnitude and seriousness’ and recommends that she be ‘relieved of any further  duties related to  the SAP’.

The British man-of-letters, historian, novelist and liberal politician, Horatio Walpole once remarked, ‘life is a comedy to those who think and a tragedy to those who feel’.  Reading Dr Samia Waheed Altaf’s book convinced me that she is battling to maintain some balance between her thinking and her feeling selves. We learn that SAP cost the Government of Pakistan $8 billion, of which $450 million was in loans. She does not categorically say that foreign aid should not be solicited at all by Pakistan, but one is nevertheless led to conclude that such an inference from her book can be drawn. In a way, it is perhaps wiser not to take an absolute stand on it. We do have examples of foreign aid playing a positive role in some sectors. I was thinking of polytechnics which were established with Swedish development aid and some NGOs such as the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan do an excellent job too. But on the whole, foreign aid has failed to deliver development in Pakistan. I do very much hope Dr Altaf’s book will be used in courses on development theory and practice, not only in Pakistan but worldwide.

This review appeared in the January 2016 issue of Herald magazine. Dr. Ishtiaq Ahmed is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University and Honorary Senior Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. His book, The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed, (OUP, 2012), won the Best Non-Fiction Book Prize at the 2013 Karachi Literature Festival and the 2013 UBL-Jang Group Best Non-Fiction Book Prize at the Lahore Literary Festival. His latest book is Pakistan: The Garrison State, Origins, Evolution, Consequences (1947-2011), OUP, 2013.

So Much Aid

The book is available online from Readings in Pakistan (at a special price), Buyhatke in India and Amazon elsewhere.

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Handwaving on Aid: Response to Nancy Birdsall

September 21, 2012

By Anjum Altaf

I am happy to engage in a debate with the Center for Global Development on US aid to Pakistan. However, for me the issue is not aid to Pakistan or aid in general but the analytical validity of CGD’s recent reports. I argued that CGD’s 2011 report was advocacy, not analysis and based on a reading of a summary of the 2012 report I concluded it seemed no different.

CGD has responded to my criticism of the latter but has, in what I consider a handwaving style, ignored my central concern and resorted to diversionary arguments to mount a defense. Here, I aim to show why CGD’s case remains a weak one. (more…)

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…)

Lucymemsahib and SAP

May 6, 2012

By Irfan Husain

Over the years, billions of dollars in foreign aid have been poured into Pakistan’s social sector. Nevertheless, literacy remains stubbornly below 50 per cent, and life expectancy at birth is at 66 years, 164th lowest in the world.

So why this abysmal and sustained failure by successive Pakistani governments and international donors in solving these perennial problems? After all, other similarly placed countries have made great strides in both critical areas. Sri Lanka, to name one, has long had a literacy rate of over 90 per cent, and life expectancy there is above 75.

One reason is our prodigious birth rate: Pakistan’s population has grown around six times since Partition, climbing exponentially from around 32 million in 1947 to close to 190 million now. (more…)

All Wrong on Poverty and Aid

March 30, 2012

By Anjum Altaf and Samia Altaf

It is our claim that the debates on poverty and aid have gone off the rails. On poverty, it is too narrow, quibbling about a few percentage points above or below some historical number. On aid, it is too broad, arguing whether it is helpful or harmful in its totality. These are important issues and we need to get the big picture right if the public discourse is to make any sense.

Let us start with poverty. We are hobbled by the fact that our understanding of poverty alleviation is borrowed from elsewhere without much adaptation to our context. This has led us down unrewarding paths much like prescriptions based on flawed diagnoses. An example should make this clear. Imagine a community of 100 people in which 10 are homeless. Many ways can be found to house the homeless in such a situation.These can include borrowing by the state, progressive taxation of the better off, charitable social action by the affluent, or assistance by an external donor. Now imagine another community of 100 in which 90 are homeless. None of the above mechanisms are likely to work. Some other recourse would need to be found that would focus on generating the wealth to be allocated to housing the homeless.

On poverty, our models are derived from societies where only small minorities are deemed poor in an absolute sense. We are copying solutions that work in such societies and applying them to situations where the majority is blighted with absolute poverty. No amount of alleviation funds or income support programs can cope with situations in which the majority is poor no matter how well off the non-poor may be. Simple arithmetic can reveal how financially absurd such approaches are.

The only solution in such situations is to generate wealth to raise the living standards of the economically marginalized. An essential aspect of this is employment creation that yields higher incomes for marginalized families. Not any form of employment would yield the desired results in our context. We can see in India that even extended periods of wealth generation concentrated in high-tech services yield very slow gains in poverty alleviation. In contrast, the town and village enterprises favored by China in the 1980s were much more effective in reducing poverty.

This brings us to aid. We know from East Asia that aid has been an effective ingredient in recipes yielding rapid growth. In contrast, it has been much less effective in South Asia. Why doesn’t aid work here? First, as mentioned above, the use of aid for direct poverty alleviation and income support is a fool’s errand. Its persistence is a comment on the intellectual bankruptcy of our intelligentsia. Second, the use of aid for service delivery is equally misguided. Any aid that has to be siphoned through long bureaucratic chains would leak away without robust mechanisms of accountability. The continued deterioration of our public education and health systems, the recipients of huge amounts of aid, should have told us that long ago. Third, the use of aid for improving governance and capacity building in institutions where incentives are hopelessly skewed is like praying for rain.

The persistence of these misallocations points to the strong incentives for arrangements that yield windfall gains to many of the non-poor in the name of the poor. Grants and concessional loans can benefit Pakistan provided they are directed to wealth generation and employment creation for the poor. In terms of design, in a system riddled with corruption and lack of accountability, aid has to avoid programs and projects dependent on long and diffused bureaucratic chains. It has to be focused on discrete, perhaps turn-key, investments critical to spurring the wealth generation dynamic. These could include dams, power generation plants, irrigation channels, farm-to-market roads, and the like.

Some mention of the kind of wealth generation appropriate for Pakistan at present can be initiated here although it needs a fuller discussion. Given that half its labor force is still in agriculture which has been a major source of resilience in difficult economic conditions, the sector should be the obvious focus of attention. Even otherwise, there is little chance that Pakistani manufacturing can become internationally competitive quickly in the prevailing global and domestic environment. And with half the population functionally illiterate, there is little that growth in high-end services, useful as it is in its own right, can do to yield a significant contribution to employment generation. Trickle-down, if it ever happens, would take too long; the more likely outcome is what Arundhati Roy has famously termed “gush-up.”

An analysis and adaptation of the early Chinese experience is warranted. It was focused squarely on rural growth, the reform of incentives to farmers, modernization of agriculture, and facilitation of town and village enterprises servicing agriculture and manufacturing goods for the poor with rising incomes. This triggered the upward spiral that strengthened demand for investments in human and physical capital providing the foundation for subsequent urban industrial development.

Given that a huge pool of capital seeking productive investments exists in our immediate neighborhood in the food-deficit Gulf states, the conditions are ripe for a win-win partnership that could modernize Pakistani agriculture, use aid effectively, and help the country grow its way out of poverty. If we get this big picture right, subject it to critical analysis, and rally public support round its implications, we can break the logjam of the present and launch the dynamic that could carry us to a more prosperous future.

Anjum Altaf is Dean of the School of Humanities, Social Sciences and Law at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. Samia Altaf is the author of So Much Aid, So Little Development: Stories from Pakistan, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011. This op-ed appeared in Dawn on March 29, 2012 and is reproduced here with permission of the authors.  

$1 Trillion NGO Industry

December 21, 2011

By Farooq Sulehria

The NGO sector is growing globally. Statistics indicate a 400 percent increase in the number of international NGOs. From a couple of hundred in the 1960s, the number had reached 50,000 by 1993 worldwide. In 2001, the last year for which complete figures are mostly available, the size of the “non-firm, non-government” sector was estimated at 1.4 million organisations, with revenues of nearly $680 billion and an estimated 11.7 million employees. Over 15 percent of development aid is channelled through NGOs. A UN report says that the global non-profit sector with its more than $1 trillion turnover could rank as the world’s eighth largest economy.

The growing NGO influence is evident in many ways. On one hand, the overall global flow of funding through NGOs increased from $200 billion in 1970 to $2,600 billion in 1997. On the other hand, the buzzword ‘civil society’ has been appropriated by the NGOs. (more…)

Pak-US Relations: Conflicting Perspectives

December 11, 2011

By Kabir Altaf

The incident last week at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in which NATO air strikes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers has brought Pakistan-US relations to their lowest ebb since the OBL raid. The public reaction in both countries has revealed the extent of the mistrust between the supposed allies. The American public feels that since the US government gives Pakistan so much aid, it is ungrateful of the Pakistani government to block NATO’s supplies or ask the US to vacate airbases in the country.  Americans are also angered by reports of Pakistan’s alleged double-dealing and at best grudging cooperation with Washington.  The Pakistani public, on the other hand, is angered by what they see as violations of their country’s sovereignty. They also feel that fighting “America’s war” has caused a lot of blowback in their country, leading to the deaths of thousands of innocents at the hand of insurgents.

Reading the newspapers from both sides, one gets a sense of how different the narrative is in each country. The articles in The New York Times are accompanied by images of groups of bearded men burning the American flag or effigies of President Obama.  (more…)

More Ideas on Aid to Pakistan

July 21, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

An intense discussion on foreign aid to Pakistan took place amongst a small group of individuals following the exchange on the subject between the Center for Global Development and The South Asian Idea (links to all the documents can be found at the end of this article). Here I wish to record the ideas presented in the discussion in order to refer to them at a later date.

The almost universal acceptance of the extremely poor utilization of aid in Pakistan and its negative impacts on governance leave little need to repeat the evidence. This acceptance marks the starting point for the discussion under review and yields the two main topics that form the core of the debate: How can the utilization of aid be improved and how can the negative impacts of aid on governance be reversed? (more…)