DAWN - Editorial; April 28, 2007

April 28, 2007


Trapped in Iraq

THE Democrats who seized control of the American Congress in the mid-term elections in November last year have gradually begun to assert themselves to change the thrust of the Bush administration’s Iraq policy. But this will not be an easy task. The only thing that can be expected to emerge from their latest foray in the field of lawmaking on Iraq is embarrassment for the Bush administration. The president has already warned that he will veto the bill demanding the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq by March 2008. The bill has been passed by both houses of Congress by a narrow majority and will be sent to the president on May 1, the fourth anniversary of the “Mission Accomplished” speech in which Mr Bush had precipitately declared victory in Iraq. Since the Democrats do not have sufficient strength in Congress to override the presidential veto, the bill will come to naught. Such a deadlock will create difficulties for the administration in another way, though. The bill also approves the $124.2 billion supplemental war spending the president has demanded for the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The withholding of this sum could pose practical problems for the government in its prosecution of the war and it is not known how the Bush administration will get round the financial constraints it would face as a result of the perceivable stalemate.

The mess in which the United States now finds itself is of Mr George Bush’s own making. With over 3,300 US soldiers killed in combat in Iraq and no feasible exit strategy in sight, it is not surprising that Americans are now questioning the Republicans’ decision to invade Iraq on false pretexts. They want their troops to be pulled out — as many Iraqis who have been killing one another also want — but it is also widely realised that simply ending America’s military presence in Iraq will not resolve the problem that Washington has created. With the country politically destabilised and polarised on sectarian/ethnic lines and in the grip of a civil war that is taking a heavy toll of lives every day, it is clear that the war in Iraq will not come to an end if the Americans pack their bags and pull out. In fact, the fighting might actually intensify after whatever the security umbrella the US presence offers is withdrawn. The need of the hour, therefore, is to induct an independent and impartial UN-controlled administration into office in Baghdad specifically charged with the responsibility of bringing the various warring parties together at the negotiating table. No peace can come to Iraq if the government in office does not enjoy the confidence of the people as is the case today. The Americans in any case will have to go but before they do that, they will have to pave the way for an interim administration of the right kind. At present, the United States has been resorting to military solutions alone. Be it building a wall dividing the Shia from the Sunni areas, or the ‘surge’ that has seen the induction of more American forces in Baghdad, these strategies have not worked, leaving the Iraqis deeply hostile to the presence of occupation forces. It is also essential that neighbouring states like Iran and Syria which have a direct stake in peace in Iraq also join hands in a massive effort to end the civil war.

Registration of madressahs

CONCRETE action must accompany the promulgation of laws. Since the Madressah Registration Ordinance was introduced in 2003, every province as well as the federal capital territory has on paper taken legal steps to regulate the country’s religious seminaries. The most recent example is the ordinance promulgated by the Sindh governor, a follow-up to the original 2005 provincial amendment to the Societies Registration Act of 1860. Yet, several thousand of the 13,000-plus madressahs in the country are yet to register themselves. This process, originally meant to be completed by December 31, 2005, must now be expedited. Certain ambiguities in the law also need to be clarified. For instance, the latest Sindh ordinance states that madressahs must have their accounts audited and that a copy of the report must be provided to the registrar. Since no time frame is specified, it can only be assumed that the accounts are to be audited on an annual basis. More important, does this audit apply only to expenses

or are breakdowns of funding, as opposed to lump-sum amounts, also required? In 2005, the federal government had meekly capitulated to the Ittehad-i-Tanzeemat-i-Madaris Deenya’s refusal to disclose sources of funding. A firm line has to be taken on this issue and no quarter given. A madressah’s sources of funding and its detailed breakdown must be revealed and registration made compulsory irrespective of whether or not a seminary is receiving monetary support from the government.

A system of periodic as well as surprise inspection also needs to be put in place. Without it, there can be no guarantee that madressahs will not “teach or publish any literature which promotes militancy or spreads sectarianism or religious hatred.” Given that torture of pupils and other unspeakable crimes are not unheard of in madressahs, random inspections should also cover students’ dormitories and their living conditions. Curricula and textbooks must also conform to government standards. Besides religious instruction, madressah students should be taught subjects such as mathematics, science and English so that they can become productive members of society once they graduate. Openings for prayer leaders are limited and jobless madressah students are easy recruits for jihadism.

For speedy justice

THE failure of the police department to purchase 153 prison vans for Sindh, despite the release of the required funds by the home department, is part of the larger issue of the slow-moving judicial process in the country. In Sindh, thousands of prisoners — the number of under-trials far exceeding that of those convicted — are living in unhealthy, overcrowded conditions in jails across the province. According to last year’s figures, the number of prisoners (approximately 22,000) in Sindh’s jails was more than double the authorised capacity. This lack of space leads to a situation where petty offenders have to share cells with hardened convicts because there is no room for them in separate barracks. Moreover, their lengthy trial exposes them to corrupt influences inside the prison complex, which far from being a centre for reforming the inmates is more like a venue for crime and violence of all sorts.

Lack of legal counsel, the non-availability of police escorts and vehicles to go to court and the absence of judicial officials from duty are responsible for many detainees spending more time in jail awaiting trial than if they were convicted. The current judicial crisis has aggravated matters as many prisoners have not been produced before court because their protesting lawyers often do not turn up. The situation is not likely to improve unless, acting on the recommendations of various jail reform commissions over the years, comprehensive measures are taken to expedite the trial of prisoners. Apart from having on hand the requisite number of vehicles to transport the detainees to court and back, magistrates should be appointed to hold trials at the prison premises so that at least the cases of petty offenders are decided quickly. Expanding jail premises is also important, but it is the speedy disposal of cases that will help most in reducing the backlog.

Public-private partnership

By Dr Noman Ahmed

IN the second week of this month, the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission announced several measures under consideration by the government to facilitate the role of the private sector under partnership arrangements. The proposed sectors included energy, roads and highways, aviation and airports, ports and shipping as well as water and sewerage.

The emphasis on such a development management structure has evolved owing to several reasons. The capacity of public sector institutions has declined sharply, even in such domains where they were the sole players. Under the overwhelming influence of corporate and venture capitalists, the government has been forced to open up those sectors for entrepreneurship which were traditionally the spheres of public sector operation.

Above all, there is a drastic paradigm shift in the organisation and working of the state. It is reducing its role from a provider and custodian to that of a facilitator. The rules of the game obviously cannot be determined by the government alone. The rising influence of the private sector has led the country to reappraise the entire state structure. Many issues have become crucial in this respect.

The context and background of public-private partnerships has to be properly understood. A public-private partnership is an institutional concept introduced by international donor agencies as an alternative to public service provision. It exists in various forms depending upon the objectives of the project/programme, socio-economic conditions, and institutional capacities.

Public-private partnership, in a conventional sense, can be defined as a contractual arrangement between an agency or unit of the public sector and a private organisation for a defined scope of services.

There are several pre-conditions that can lead to public-private partnership as the choice for service delivery or enterprise development. One, it requires recognition at the macro level for it to be useful in service delivery. Two, it is normally effective in contexts where free market practices have an acceptable background. Three, it requires an aware clientele that considers the provision of an urban service to be a chargeable product depending upon the nature of production. Four, it needs a clientele that is socially and economically stable enough to pay for the services. Finally, it needs a capable private sector that has the capacity to efficiently provide and sustain the contracted part of the service to the identified clientele.

There are several pre-requisites to be considered before a public-private partnership approach can be adopted. Experts say that a favourable economic environment is a basic criterion. Low inflation rates, high GDP growth, rising real incomes and limited value of unemployment and inequality are the usual parameters.

But economists and experts from other domains also point out that stakeholders can twist and turn the value of these variables to suit their working agenda. Evidence from independent economic analysis has often validated this objection.

What is more objectionable is the manner of economic decision-making. Public-private partnerships can be successfully created, and function where the right institutions are involved in determining priorities and choices after obtaining inputs from the concerned stakeholders. However, when decisions are taken on a personalised basis that bypasses institutions, partnerships are not likely to be sustained.

At present, an extremely centralised and non-transparent decision-making process is involved where neither the institutional viewpoints are incorporated nor any recourse to the concerned laws taken.

A potential investor seeks a direct appointment with the prime minister. He arranges an attractive computer presentation for his proposed venture. If the prime minister or his representatives are satisfied, they send the investor/venture capitalist to the presidency. Once presidential approval is obtained, the decision is communicated to the concerned institutions, ministries and authorities to extend full cooperation to the approved venture in the shortest possible time.

Merit, transparency, rules and regulations are all mutilated in the name of investment and progress. While the entire country is flooded with projects approved in this manner, Karachi has borne the brunt of these products of short-sightedness and corruption.

Public-private partnerships require corresponding inputs from several interest groups to make them sustainable ventures. The foremost among them are public sector institutions. As a norm, partnerships are created in a bid to hand over certain roles, responsibilities, services and opportunities controlled by public institutions to private groups.

Institutional culture and psyche in our context is such that every public body wishes to acquire more and more control on various domains, even those that fall beyond their rational jurisdiction. We find port authorities making roads and underpasses, air force chiefs supervising and controlling the game of squash, housing authorities initiating desalination and power plants and the armed forces launching institutions of higher learning.

It becomes very painful for these institutions (and their heads) to part with control and authority. Whenever they are forced to do so, it is done with reluctance. Thus the spirit of partnership is violated.

As observed, the offers of partnerships emanate from aggressive venture firms with little association with the local private sector. The sustainability of these ventures is greatly questionable because after the foreign groups leave, the eventual responsibility to run the affairs automatically falls on the local private sector.

The rising interest shown by investors from Dubai, Malaysia and Singapore shows that they intend to exploit the most lucrative avenues with the maximum of state guarantees. The potential affectees in the process are not consulted in these decision-making exercises. Public criticism is on the rise with regard to almost all such deals and contractual arrangements. In other words, these partnerships are finalised as clandestine marriages of convenience rather than equal opportunity enterprises.

It is generally believed that by instituting a regulatory body at the national scale, a level playing field can be created for the participating stakeholders. This assumption has very little validity. The regulatory environment can be effective if it is a logical continuation of an integrated institutional set-up. There is little that a regulatory authority can do when the basic decisions are taken arbitrarily without involving the concerned institutions.

For instance, it is the mandate of the Planning Commission to review and recommend development proposals. As is routine, it is asked to rubber-stamp the recommendations of the prime minister or president without objective assessments. Most regulatory bodies are located and function in the capital. Projects and programmes are being undertaken all around the country. Thus, it is impossible for the common people and even certain stakeholders to visit and participate in the proceedings.

The true spirit of public-private partnerships can only be achieved when investment opportunities are worked out openly, decision-making is undertaken through public institutions, economic, social and environmental impacts are outlined clearly to identify the beneficiaries and those affected and the participants are made to accommodate the legitimate concerns of stakeholders.

The government may consider using the partnership approach in a strategic manner. The input of the private sector can be effective if applied to stimulate activity in dormant sectors. It can also be useful in creating solutions for non-conventional sectors such as housing for low-income groups. Merit in business and open competition are two attributes which can be made the virtues of public-private partnerships. Whenever any contractual arrangement has to be finalised, it must be done through the open invitation of proposals. This helps build up the trust of stakeholders, and breaks cartels and monopolies. It also strengthens the trust of ordinary private sector operators and leads to the scaling up of local entrepreneurs.

If the capacity and robustness of the local private sector is achieved, it would be a significant achievement of the partnership approach. The government may be convinced to use this mechanism for achieving long-term visions in need of innovative input. If handled appropriately, a worthwhile outcome can become a reality.

Prescription for trouble

ALMOST as soon as antibiotics came into widespread use during World War II — allowing battlefield doctors to cure once-fatal infections — bacteria started evolving to resist the miracle drugs. The medical profession further eroded antibiotics' effectiveness by prescribing them too blithely, sometimes for the wrong illnesses; patients chipped in by stopping their medications too soon.

Now a drug company wants to use an important human antibiotic on beef cattle, another major way in which antibiotic resistance is bred. The Food and Drug Administration should deny the request.

The drug, cefquinome, belongs to a class of antibiotics used as a last line of defence for patients with weakened immune systems, such as the elderly or children with cancer. The veterinary drug company Intervet wants to use cefquinome as a treatment mostly for bovine respiratory disease, a common illness in cattle that are shipped and corralled in feedlots. Crowded and stressed, these cattle are more susceptible to the disease.

Unlike other antibiotics that are routinely added to livestock feed, cefquinome must be injected and could be used only with a prescription.

— Los Angeles Times

© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2007