“ You’ve no idea how difficult it is to live in this country and do what I do. Each day it gets more difficult, but we put up a brave face and do our fashion shows in the face of terrorism,” she said before turning around to a colleague who then added, “I’ve never even felt the need to sell clothes to Pakistanis.”

It may be hard to believe but by recalling these conversations, the intention is certainly not to mock anyone or their profession. Bizarrely enough, these conversations are heard too often and replied to with a rather patronising “We are here to listen to your problems”. The fact is that the person responsibly listening to the conversation has no authority to be able to resolve the issues in a local context; he or she is usually a foreign diplomat with a curated list of ‘influencers’ who they must speak to, in order to understand the country better — a dangerous, unpredictable and obviously exotic country that they’ve been posted to for roughly a year.

In one such conversation a gentlemen repeated “We don’t have the ideas but we can write the cheque,” so one imagines he’d lean back and start rubbing his pot belly as he cackles. Yet we sat around him looking rather attentive and listened to lots of talk about capacity building, trainings and the need for more conferences. In the past year, ‘deliverables’ and ‘deliveries’ have been spoken more in the development sector than in three years at the gynaecology ward. “Par bibi project deliverables kya hain?” These usually range from creating awareness to reaching strategic goals that can enable a better understanding of the issue to strategic capacity building initiatives. No, I don’t understand what that means either.

An anonymous insider gives us a tongue-in-cheek taste of what it’s like to work in a foreign-funded NGO

“Array Shehansha/Alija/Sir jee kaisay hain ap?” There are a range of adjectives selected, curated and developed to address the donors; if your donor is brown, rigorous use of the term “Sir jee” along with a warm head shake, an ear to ear grin, a little submissive tilt of the head, embellished with a warm handshake and a hand on the chest will do the magic. Don’t forget to repeat “Yeh to sab Khwaja Sahab ka vision hai” every time you meet a new person in your donor’s presence. If it’s a potential foreign donor, start with “Let me tell you something about Pakistan,” mix in news of a few threats here and there, words like “state persecution” and a dab of “but we continue to be hopeful, shattered but hopeful”. If he/she is really listening, go ahead and say “We need your help and support, especially the international community’s” … and your job’s done.

The corruption and harassment within the development sector is immeasurable. Simply because it doesn’t occur in isolation an entire culture, or mafia if you like, feeds the NGO-Industrial Complex. There’s lots of talk about stricter cross checks for NGOs but not a word about donor-enabled corruption. For instance, if you’ve pitched a project and received money for it and let’s say you’ve been able to do the job in less amount of money than originally quoted, you’re likely to be penalised rather than lauded.

A well-meaning rights activist — yes they exist — once told me that during one of her initial projects they were able to do 12 events instead of six, simply because they found a cheaper venue: “Excited, we sent our report to the donor only to find out that they were disappointed at our supposed inability to make accurate budgets.” In such a situation, civil society organisations would rather focus on spending the money than on how to get the most out of funds being spent on interactions.

If you’ve allocated a certain amount of budget for travel and do not require it at some point of your project and you can’t put it to better use; you must use it or send it back. Before you know it, you’re tailoring ‘projects’ according to what’s required by the donor. The donor’s demands may change from what the current director is interested in; to a high-profile incident with strategic foreign policy value. Between that and donor’s own research on what’s important in your region; there’s a little likelihood that you’d actually be able to do what you feel or think is important.

It’s a badly broken system where incompetence and rampant corruption is seemingly unquestionable. That’s not to say that every single development worker in Pakistan is involved in corruption or hoarding funds, but the bureaucracy of it all leaves even the most optimistic clamouring for support. The fact is that the system only works for the donors and NGOs and does little or nothing for the problems that they’re trying to address. There are exceptions, which could’ve been more common had it not been run like an industry more focused on spending money as fast as possible than on investing it strategically to reduce dependency.

The answer doesn’t lie in the over regulation of the NGOs or their donors but a total dismantling of the NGO-industrial complex. Until then, conferences and consultations on ‘labour rights’ can continue to be held at five star hotels — which for one are known to underpay their employees — without a hint of irony and we’d continue to have lots of project reports to show for it.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, May 25th, 2014