DAWN - Opinion; December 01, 2008

Published December 1, 2008

The ghost projects

By Naeem Sadiq

“When I send my child to the market with Rs10 to buy something, I demand an account of the money when he returns home. Similarly, when the government spends my money, I have the right to ask for an accounting of these expenditures.” — Susheela Devi

A GHOST project is like a ghost school. It consumes money and resources, benefits a small group of delinquents and does nothing for its intended beneficiaries. With 30,000 ghost schools already under its belt, Pakistan is now well on its way to achieving the next milestone — to be a market leader in ghost projects.

The daily newspapers carry sickening doses of how the rich and powerful scrape away the last pennies from projects created ostensibly for the good of the ordinary people. The billion-dollar poverty alleviation programme only alleviated the poverty of bureaucrats and consultants. The $350m ‘Access to justice’ ADB loan did not make our justice system any better. A scam of Rs3.6bn was discovered in the execution of Tawana Pakistan Project (TPP).

The former prime minister Shaukat Aziz spent over Rs1bn on 47 foreign visits during 2004-07. The Rs16bn clean drinking water project is bogged down by delays and complaints of unfair bidding.The KPT’s purchase and subsequent theft of a Rs320m water fountain remains unchallenged. The details of payment for the two chartered aeroplanes carrying 240 freeloaders to Saudi Arabia still remain unexplained. Irresponsible expenditure coupled with heavy leakages have left the country reeling under a formidable foreign debt of $45.6bn (not counting the latest $7.6bn IMF loan). Clearly the problem of Pakistan is not the size of its kitty, but the holes in the kitty.

The numerous watchdog committees like the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), the Public Procurement Regulatory Authority (PPRA), the audit department, NAB, and the NACS have not only failed to curb this menace. They have themselves become a huge burden on the exchequer. These bodies primarily operate in a reactive manner, often moving into action long after the curtains have been dropped and the actors gone home.

There is little that these organisations can show in terms of their contribution towards accountability, especially for those who yield power or influence. On the contrary there are examples of the NAB dropping corruption cases involving Rs500bn of the taxpayers’ money under the influence of the NRO. It is therefore time to seriously rethink the utility of these organisations and search for alternate ways to plug the large holes in our leaking bucket.

How do other countries make their financial systems more accountable and transparent? The best method is a proactive disclosure of financial information by each department and agency. By making this information readily available on departmental websites, ordinary citizens can directly evaluate if public funds are being managed effectively. If not, they can hold the government officials accountable for their actions. The second method is the use of the Access to Information Act (at present in the process of being revised), which enables citizens to obtain any non-classified public information for scrutiny and questioning.

The Canadian government offers one of the best models for financial monitoring and accountability. It requires each department to make quarterly disclosures on its website showing: (i) details of the travel and hospitality expenses of ministers, parliamentary secretaries, political staff, and senior public service employees; (ii) details of contracts awarded; and (iii) grants and contributions that were given to any individual or organisation (http://www.tbs-sct.gc.ca/pd-dp/gr-rg/index-eng.asp). The system further provides protection for any one who exposes misuse of public funds, mismanagement or a breach of a code of conduct. The Canadian system makes it obligatory for the head of the department to disclose the identity of the person found to have committed the wrongdoing, any corrective action taken or the reasons why no corrective action was taken.

At the project level, Sri Lanka has developed an excellent web-based project monitoring system that displays monthly updated information about all foreign- and local-funded projects. The system has 12 modules which include project profile, monthly financial report, activity monitoring report, cash flow report, reimbursable foreign aid, loan covenant, procurement monitoring, financial progress on each component, project review report and comments by the public (http://www.fabm.gov.lk/index.html).

Despite the existence of an Electronic Government Directorate (EGD), the government seems to have little understanding of what is meant by the term ‘e-governance’. A recent Planning Commission advertisement (Nov 22, 2008) claims that its website now contains an “interim report on economic stabilisation with a human face, speeches of the prime minister, projects identified for foreign assistance, and a ‘Synoptic View’ of the Planning Commission”.

The government departments seem to consider their websites as instruments of self-publicity (pictures of ministers, comments, speeches and notifications) rather than putting hard facts and figures about each project, its cost, purchases, suppliers, contractors, completion dates, overruns and various other details of expenses. A good example of the data that may be included for any project monitoring may be seen at www.good-governance.com.pk , a sample website set up by a private Pakistani citizen at a modest cost of Rs7,000.

The people of Pakistan have a right to demand an end to this unending financial plunder. They have a right to demand an account of how and where their money is spent. Using Public Document Rules, 2004 the government could immediately ask every department to proactively (on its website) provide complete and ongoing details of its projects. This should be a precondition for the release of any further funds. Transparent projects and an independent judiciary may be the two key factors that could rid us of ghost projects and help us move towards a progressive Pakistan. n


Beyond signing the convention

By Zahid Abdullah

THE world will celebrate International Day of People with Disability on Dec 3, recognising the achievements and contribution of the disabled.

Despite the fact that there are many individuals with disabilities who have achieved much through sheer hard work and tenacity, this piece will focus on the plight of hundreds of thousands of voiceless, nameless and faceless disabled Pakistanis whom the state of Pakistan is letting down on a daily basis.

Taking stock of the legislative framework aimed at protecting the rights of the disabled we have bad news as well as good news. The bad news is that Pakistan has not adopted any legislation to protect the rights of the disabled other than the ordinance promulgated in 1981 that provides a one per cent quota for the disabled in all government jobs. Before taking up the good news and analysing it, it would be in order to shed light on the context.

Elsewhere, special interest groups exert pressure on the state to have laws enacted in order to protect their interests and rights. Disability organisations in Pakistan have not been able to serve as pressure groups owing to two factors. First, the primary focus of disability organisations has been on imparting life skills to the fellow disabled.

Secondly, these organisations have entered into a patron-client relationship with the state. As a result, the ministers and the state functionaries have a condescending and patronising attitude towards people with disabilities. It has become a norm that in seminars and conferences organised by the disability organisations, ministers and state functionaries call the disabled blessed ones and special people, provide some lip service and leave.

On their part, disability leaders in these events demand an equal-opportunity environment in generalised terms and thank profusely the state functionaries for gracing the occasion with their presence. This will be happening again on Wednesday, only on a larger scale. However, this needs to change if we want to provide an institutional support mechanism to people with special needs scattered throughout Pakistan and mostly belonging to the poorest of the poor. Already some positive changes are discernable.

For example, this paper carried an article titled ‘Protecting rights of the disabled’ on June 23, 2008 which stated: “The singular failure due to which the disabled are largely nameless, faceless and unaccounted for is the inability of our rulers to put the legislative framework to protect the rights of the disabled in place. The starting point has to be the signing of, but not limited to, the UN Convention on

the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.”

This article was well received by the disability leaders and it was heartening to note the demands raised in the article reverberating in the speech of a disability leader in the presence of some politicians and state functionaries. It was due to demands like these that led to Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi signing on Sept 25 the UN Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities — something the state of Pakistan had been unable to do ever since the convention was opened for signatures for the member states on March 30, 2006.

Signing of a convention only signifies the intent of a state party to actualise the objectives of a given convention. Given the virtual absence of legislation on disability, a great deal needs to be done before Pakistan will be ready to ratify the convention and thereby be answerable to the world community in protecting rights of the disabled.

In other words the signing of the convention needs to be augmented with other concrete efforts in terms of enacting laws aimed at protecting universally acknowledged rights of the disabled envisaged in the UN Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This is not going to be easy for a state with its institutions perennially afflicted with the malaise of malpractice and maladministration and the one which has institutionalised the habit of spending its scarce resources on misplaced priorities.

This is not going to be easy also because the thought of costs involved in providing an equal-opportunity environment to people with special needs will make the politicians cringe as the scattered disabled population, though seven per cent of the total according to the World Health Organization (WHO) figures, has never been politically attractive as a vote bank. In such a scenario what course of action the disability movement in Pakistan need to take?

We, the disabled people, need to proactively engage in developing linkages with political parties and civil society organisations working on mainstream issues. We will have to lobby the decision-makers to enact a comprehensive act of parliament to protect our rights as well as to develop an understanding of international law and the way it operates to achieve our rights.

For example, Pakistan has signed and ratified the Convention on Rights of Children (CRC). Only 30,000 children of school-going age with special needs out of 600,000 are enrolled in special education centres run by the government. We need to determine how we can put to use international law to exert pressure on the state to commit resources to help children with special needs left behind to exercise their right to education.

On their part, the politicians will have to understand that anyone can become part of the disability statistics, as in the case of Dr Israr Shah, a PPP politician, who lost both his legs in a bomb blast in Islamabad. Sadly, it had to be a personal tragedy for greater realisation of the disability issues to prevail in the ruling circles. Nevertheless, it drives home the point that disability is not the issue specifically of the disabled alone and needs to be treated as such.

Lastly, we need to understand that disability is not caused by specific impairments but because of the barriers in the physical and social environment which hamper the participation of the disabled in mainstream social life. These barriers can be removed through proactive

legislation. n

The writer is attached to the Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives and based in Islamabad.


Crossroads and sangeen bohran

By Salman Rashid

TWO million people died for the creation of Pakistan. These were not just Muslims but Hindus and Sikhs as well. I consider all of them to have paid for Pakistan with their lives.

This grim statistic includes my grandparents, a great-grandfather, two aunts and the family’s servant together with his wife and five children. They died so we could live in the unhappy country of Pakistan.

But look how we started out. In his book Jinnah of Pakistan Hector Bolitho writes of the derailment of a steam engine near Jungshahi railway station in Sindh. Within moments a crowd had gathered and together they went heave-ho and righted the behemoth on its tracks. Bolitho thought the country held great promise.

But shortly after we ran into the crossroads and planted ourselves squarely in its middle. Born five years after the founding of Pakistan, I do not know if it was the early civilian leaders who invoked this accursed crossroads, but I do know that beginning with Ayub Khan this crossroads has haunted us like some terrible evil spirit. Having taken over this sorry country, the man told us that we were at the crossroads and that he had been much constrained to take over in order to lead us across.

For the next 10 years we blindly permitted ourselves to be led up and down a garden path until things got really bad. In stepped Yahya Khan and he boldly informed us that we were at the crossroads again. We are all good people who know our roads well and are aware that all roads do have occasional crossings so we bore with this man that friends in the army lovingly referred to as Peepa Darling. Peepa, for you who do not know Punjabi is the 20-kg tin of ghee. It is also a euphemism for a lush.

Not many years later another military dictator (who cannot be named without a liberal referral to Punjabi) invoked this crossroads and I realised that we had been marking time since Ayub took over. Why, while all other countries were happily marching on to better times or into disaster we were still at the crossroads. This time I was old enough to reach a conclusion.

There could only be two things. One, that we were so benighted as a nation that we were not on the highway to anywhere but were stumbling about the backstreets of some hick place and kept bumbling into these boggy crossroads. Or it could be that we had actually not been going anywhere at all. We were simply marking time at the crossroads that Ayub Khan first offered to lead us through.

The crossroads have remained our staple fare since then. While preceding military dictators invoked them only when they usurped power, Musharraf repeatedly raised the bogey. He did not only tell us we were still marking time at the crossroads when he took over but he repeatedly referred to them every time he had to go back on any of his decisions — and this he did at the drop of the hat. Remember the famous utterance about mosque loud speakers being used only for the call to prayer? And that was only one.

By the way, in his take-over speech this man also told us that we had hit rock bottom. Only later did we realise that so gross was our deadweight, that we smashed the poor rock bottom to smithereens and under the man’s guidance sped on to oblivion. That, if you don’t yet realise, is a lot worse than rock bottom.

If this sorry country had been plagued only by crossroads, we might have made it somewhere. But we also have another affliction: of the sangeen bohran. I am certain that although the blunderers of the 1950s had first called down this demon on us, it was Mr Bhutto who popularised it. In those heady days of the 1970s he repeatedly told us of the sangeen bohran the country was facing while evidently doing precious little about it. My eight-year-old niece began to imagine this was some horrible goblin with long fangs and claws that lurked behind the hedge ready to pounce upon unwary passers-by.

Really, if you let the word roll around your tongue, it does evoke a dreadful, frightening image. And Urdu newscasters were not helping at all. Even with the voice of Anwer Behzad long forgotten, his clones could conjure up images of doom when they let slip sangeen bohran in their practiced grave voices. Yes, voices from the crypt.

The sangeen bohran stayed with us throughout Mr Bhutto’s tenure. And after the long night of the Great Hypocrite, the flurry of short-lived governments successively impressed upon us its looming threat again. So it seems that in our six decades we have staggered from one sangeen bohran to another only to find ourselves again marking time at some crossroads. By the way, we went nationalist about 1967 and military drill commands were translated wholesale into our two national languages — we had Urdu and Bengali then. Mark time became talay talay from the Bengali word to dance, so I am told. There were other more hilarious results but they do not concern us.

My good friend Zafar Wattoo who was conscripted for national service in 1970 further translated this command into Punjabi: jandray jandray. Now talay is plural for locks that we put on doors and other things that we want to restrain and jandray is locks in Punjabi. Remember we have been marking time at some malignant old crossroads?

In this rather twisted play on words, there rests a perverse quirk of irony: we have been talay talay-ing at the crossroads the past 60 years. In a way, we have been locked in place. And when we briefly struggle free, we are assailed by that demonic sangeen bohran as is the current situation if we are to believe our prime minister.

Ever notice that military dictators never speak of sangeen bohran and civilians leaders of crossroads? That is because of the pathological hatred they have for each other. Had they been hand in glove, we would have been assailed by the crossroads and the sangeen bohran at the same time. I wonder how many of us could survive that double menace.

The writer is the author of several travel books.


Cultural diplomacy

By Simon Jenkins

THIS is a tale of two cities, both called Damascus, and a tale of two diplomacies. Two weeks ago the UK foreign secretary, David Miliband, visited Syria to plead with its president, Bashar al-Assad, to help rescue Britain’s decade of catastrophic diplomacy in the region and to help with the so-called Middle East peace process. The latter has been a genetic obsession of British ministers for half a century.

As a result, Britain just now needs Syria more than Syria needs Britain. Yet Miliband uttered the usual Foreign Office phrases about all sides “pushing ahead with the peace process”, and withdrawing support for Hamas and Hezbollah, as if such hoary bromides made the slightest difference.

Like Tony Blair, ensconced in his luxury suite in Jerusalem’s American Colony hotel, Britain’s language is still soused in post-imperial supremacy. If Britain wants to be taken seriously here it should start by getting out of Iraq, stop calling everyone “unacceptable” and end economic sanctions imposed at the bidding of the White House.

Meanwhile, down the road, a second diplomacy arrived in style. It took up residence in the Asad Basha caravanserai in the heart of Damascus’s glorious souk, next to “The Street Called Straight” of St Paul’s conversion. This diplomacy was for real.

London’s V&A (Victoria &Albert) museum has brought to Syria the first star-quality loan exhibition ever seen in the city. It is of 116 ceramic pieces from the finest collection in the world, plus a dozen added from the National Museum of Damascus. The exhibition, a masterpiece of flair and learning curated by the V&A’s Tim Stanley, embraces the statuary of the ancient Egyptians and Chinese, the pots and plates of Mesopotamia and the Levant, a life-sized Dresden goat, Medici porcelain, Meissen, Sevres and Chelsea ware, ending with Picasso’s 1954 vase painting, The Artist at his Easel.

The works are large and were transported from London with excruciating care. They are grouped mostly in contrasting threes, in lofty cases that soar towards the black-and-white banded vaults of the 18th-century caravanserai, once resting place for the camel trains arriving from the east across the desert. Approached through a secret door in the inner and most secure part of the souk, the display is protected from and yet immersed in the noise, colour and smell of a traditional Arab market, a place of spices, herbs, fabrics, food and metalware.

This is no modest British Council touring job. The contents would make it a knockout in any European or American museum. But they acquire a special lustre here in Damascus, where so many of their creators first traded them at the crossroads of east and west, where Mediterranean met Silk Road amid the intoxicating bustle of the souks and caravans. Any enthusiast should buy a plane ticket to see this show before it closes in January. I rather dread its return to the Victorian halls of the V&A’s home in London’s South Kensington.

Cultural diplomacy recognises that relations between states can be difficult, even hostile, without being engulfed in mutual abuse. They can continue through trade, tourism and academic exchange as well as through sport and the arts. Such “soft” elements can inform the harder ones, or have no bearing on them. They rarely do harm.

Miliband could have staged his visit to coincide with the opening of the exhibition on Monday, but chose not to do so. The Syrian regime was represented by al-Assad’s wife, Asma. Britain did not bother to send even a junior minister to accompany her attendance at the launch.

The Foreign Office is a department that rates a good diplomats — only party above paying what might have been a real compliment to Syrian culture — much as it accepts the smashing of the ruins of Babylon and Ur in Iraq for fear of upsetting the Americans. Britain has yet to take on board the damage to its image created by its alliance with America in this part of the world. Not for nothing did terrorists seek out British as well as American passports in the Mumbai atrocity this week.

Politics has always trumped culture in Britain’s foreign relations. In more than half the world’s countries, cultural diplomacy should be taking the lead over politics. Ambassadors should be appointed for their knowledge of a host country — not of foreign policy — as is common in the French and Spanish foreign services.

This deficiency results from the continued pretence of Britain as a world power, illustrated by Miliband’s sense of priorities. Its cultural arm, the British Council, remains below the salt and down the road in a tin shed. It must handle the substantive conduits through which nations now speak to nations.

With Britain’s diplomatic status in south Asia never in worse shape, it is hard to think of a better time to play those few cards in which this country is strong. That means enthusiasm for the English language, the tourist magnet of London, the quality of Britain’s arts and literature, and the celebrity of its sportsmen. (I was jovially abused in the ruins of Palmyra on Monday for daring a preference for Arsenal over Manchester United.)

I carry no brief for Ba’athist dictators. Under al-Assad’s father, this was as nasty a regime as that of his neighbour, Saddam Hussein. But I know no one here who would swap al-Assad run Syria for Anglo-American run Iraq; which is why Damascus plays host to two million Iraqi exiles, including thousands of exiled Christians, ironic but cruel victims of the occupation.

The present ruler of this country and his wife were both educated in London. She knows and enjoys British art and was clearly delighted by the compliment paid her country by the V&A. It is on this advantage that policy should play, not on hectoring speeches protesting support for Hamas and Hizbullah.

In sum, Britain would do well to avoid politics in this place. It should talk ceramics instead. Ceramics it does well.

— The Guardian, London



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