Using aid judiciously

THE Brussels-based International Crisis Group’s warning on the dangers of repeating the mistakes of the past while offering a fresh and enhanced flow of international aid to Pakistan in the aftermath of the September 11 tragedy has not come a day too soon. The ICG is a group of eminent international citizens and foreign policy specialists. Established in 1995, this new organization — wholly independent of any government — proposes, through well considered advice and high-level advocacy, to help governments, international organizations and the world community at large to prevent deadly conflicts, or at least contain these within the narrowest possible bounds. The ICG has recently set up a branch office in Pakistan. So far the Group has joined about 10 crisis resolution international efforts in Algeria, the Balkans, Central Asia, Central Africa, Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe. There is nothing in the ICG report on Pakistan carried by this newspaper on Wednesday with which one can disagree. Pakistan has had a number of bail-out packages in the past and it has also enjoyed generous budgetary support on a number of occasions during the last 50 years or so. But so far no amount of generous aid and no amount of debt relief has been able to get the country out of the socio-economic mess in which it has been mired all these years. Every time the world came to Pakistan’s help with its billions, the government of the day treated it as a reward for its obedient role in the context of the cold war or for its services in Afghanistan in pushing the Soviets out of that country in the eighties and went on with its profligate ways without the slightest change in its spending habits or in its policy priorities.

The report hits the nail on the head when, describing the state of affairs in the country, it lists some of the problems that ails Pakistan: a stagnant economy, with intelligence services providing support and sustenance to Islamic extremists for long years, military rule, continuing disputes with India, especially over Kashmir, a collapsed education system and the flight of its professional and technocratic class out of a persistent apprehension of Pakistan being in real danger of slipping more and more into chaos and anarchy. After having warned against repeating the past mistakes and listing out the basic problems facing the country at the present time, the ICG has very rightly called upon the donors to coordinate and deliver their assistance in a way that actually helps secure changes the absence of which, in the opinion of the ICG, have long stood in the way of increased transparency and an agenda for comprehensive reforms.

Successive governments have indeed kept the nation in the dark while they messed up the country’s economy, distorted its foreign policy objectives and undermined its social infrastructure. Also, they have successively avoided meaningful reforms all these years because of the fear that the ruling elite would lose much of their traditional hold on economic and political power as a consequence. The Group, therefore, has strongly suggested to the donors that they must secure substantial changes in the country’s fiscal structure and help create a new tax culture that underpins a more secure Pakistani state. Again, by advising the donors to help prop up an interim social safety net that can cushion the immediate jolts for the people, particularly in health care and education, as a result of massive economic restructuring, the ICG report has only stated the obvious. Such a safety net would at least keep the social infrastructure, or whatever of it we have here, from collapsing completely when, as a result of overhauling of the taxation system, cleaning up of the banking sector and such other structural reforms, the entire nation would undergo hardships of an extreme nature.

Beyond pledges of help

AS delegates to the Tokyo conference on Afghanistan head home after pledging substantial amounts of aid to the war-ravaged country, certain lingering doubts remain. Donor countries are still a little sceptical about the ability of Hamid Karzai’s interim government to provide conditions for the smooth and unhindered delivery of aid. Pledging funds is perhaps the easier part of the massive task of reconstruction of Afghanistan. What is more difficult is to ensure conditions on the ground that will allow aid to reach the most needy. On that score, at least, the donors do have something to worry about. In recent weeks, at least two well-stocked godowns belonging to the World Food Programme have been looted. In many areas, lawlessness is rife and the writ of the new government is at best tenuous. In certain provinces, such as Khost and Kandahar, rival warlords are involved in potentially dangerous territorial struggles. Many key roads are swarming with armed marauders who pose a threat to aid convoys.

In the days ahead, much will depend on the ability of the new government, aided by the international peacekeeping forces, to effectively maintain law and order. It is only when security is ensured that aid will actually reach the target population and sceptical donors will dig deeper into their pockets. Many donors are still haunted by bitter memories of the civil war in Somalia, where much of the food aid was looted by warlords and bandits who used it to feed their fighters or sold it on the black market at exorbitant prices. The Karzai government, already facing countless problems in bringing Afghanistan to some semblance of normality after two decades of war, must ensure law and order and establish the writ of the government as its first priority. For the millions of people facing starvation in that unfortunate country time is fast running out.

Hopefully very soon

ONCE again, citizens of Islamabad are being reminded that local government elections would be held in the Federal Capital Territory. This time, however, instead of the usual statement by one federal official or the other that the elections would be held “soon”, it has been reported that President Pervez Musharraf has already directed the Election Commission to hold local government elections in the capital and that preliminary preparations have already started. The report also said that discussion on the modalities of the devolution of power and the responsibilities of the capital’s district nazim were taking place amongst the National Reconstruction Bureau, the ministry of interior and the district administration, and that these would be finalized in the first week of February and submitted to the president for approval. Elections are expected to be held, according to the report, at the end of March or the first week of April.

Hopefully, this unofficial “time frame” for local government elections would turn out to be more accurate than the previous ones. Islamabad residents have been told off and on for the past more than half a year that elections would be held by this month or that month, but so far all these pronouncements have not materialized. As evident in the provinces where local elections were completed in July last year, the district and tehsil local governments, well into their sixth month of operation, are still facing numerous teething problems. The new local government in the capital, once established, is expected to go through similar problems. All the more the reason for local government elections in the capital to be held as soon as possible so that a local administration is effectively in place and running smoothly well before the national elections in October.

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