Posts Tagged ‘USAID’

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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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…)

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…)

A Primer on Foreign Aid – 1: Essential Definitions

May 29, 2011

Foreign aid is almost always in the news, at times more than others. All sorts of questions keep swirling in the air: questions about its nature, rationale, aims, effects, results, justification, symbolism, and even about its quantum. All through this heated debate the issue remains surrounded by a thick fog of obfuscation; many remain unclear of what exactly is being talked about. In this post, I intend to present a primer on foreign aid. Each of the opinions offered in the following sections can be contested; the aim is not to provide a definitive conclusion but to set the stage for an informed debate that employs common definitions and a shared point of departure. (more…)