STATE charity is an opiate: it creates addicts of both the donor and the donee. The poor accept charity because they have little or no option. Governments turn to charity when they run out of policy options.
Habitually, in moments of crisis, our governments importune donors (whether their own citizens or foreign benefactors) with open palms and a closed conscience. Like improvident kings, they are invariably at a loss for money, but never for novel reasons on how to raise it.
One does not need to conduct an investigation into the plethora of schemes under which Pakistani governments have raised money in the past. Millions of dollars and billions of rupees have flowed into different official receptacles for noble, plausible purposes. Springing to mind are the prime minister’s flood fund of 2010, the Supreme Court’s dam fund of 2018, the prime minister’s Covid-19 fund of 2020, and the perennial zakat fund. Yet, while such benefactions are accounted for (donors especially tend to keep an eye on how much they have donated), no one seems to have kept an equally assiduous eye on how that money has been spent.
This statement could be dismissed as a broad blast from a blunderbuss, had it not been for the startling submission made recently by the auditor general to the Supreme Court, in response to its query on the utilisation of Baitul Mal and zakat funds. The AGP explained that, in the FY 2019-20 alone in which the Pakistan Baitul Mal had a budget of Rs5 billion, irregularities of Rs3.1bn were discovered by its auditors. Of this amount, only a paltry Rs475 million has been recovered.
Better minds have cautioned against such coercive largesse.
Compulsory zakat, since its introduction in 1980 by Gen Ziaul Haq, is collected by banks through deduction at source. It should be a contribution made voluntarily by Muslims for being Muslims. In the past three financial years, approximately Rs17.7bn has been accumulated to be shared by Islamabad with the four provinces, Azad Jammu & Kashmir, and Gilgit-Baltistan. Of the Rs7.38bn applicable to FY 2019-20, the AGP could conduct an audit of only 13 per cent of the transactions, ie Rs961m. It discovered irregularities of Rs574m. This is leakage on a scale that even Julian Assange would envy.
Gen Ziaul Haq may not have been taught much accounting by the Pakistan Military Accounts Office but he learned quickly enough that deductions at source were a fool-proof tithe. It does not need prior consent, nor does it need to be equitable. In one shot, on the first of Ramazan each year, government coffers enjoy a false feeling of solvency.
Since then, the temptation to repeat this formula has had many imitators. A disastrous natural flood occurred across Pakistan in August 2010. A prime minister’s relief fund was launched by the PPP government. The response was over $2.65bn in humanitarian aid. The US contributed 25pc of it, enough for Hilary Clinton (then US secretary of state) to suggest wryly that perhaps wealthy Pakistanis citizens might also wish to contribute “more for their country”. Prominent individuals abroad did, especially the Saudis and Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan. Amongst locals, president Asif Ali Zardari remitted £2.5m out of his own money from the UK. Our high commissioner to Britain Wajid Shamsul Hassan preferred not to disclose its source.
The same month, government employees opened their pay packets to discover a deduction from their salary towards the prime minister’s fund. Grade 17-plus employees had two days’ salary cropped, Grades 5-16 one day’s salary. The lower grades 1-4 escaped by the skin of their poverty. This cut did not go unfelt. Government employees complained, adding the wrath of ulema such as the ubiquitous Mufti Muneebur Rehman to the fire of their remonstrance.
This strong-arm exaction has been repeated since with diminishing success by the Supreme Court-sponsored Diamer Bhasha and Mohmand Dam Fund, and most recently by the government-sponsored prime minister’s Covid-19 fund. Again, the accountant general will make deductions from the April salaries of every government functionary. Affectees have winced and are applying for legal redress.
Better minds than ours have cautioned against such coercive largesse. “Those who must administer wisely must, indeed, be wise,” the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie warned, “for one of the serious obstacles… is indiscriminate charity.” Muhammad Yunus (Grameen Bank’s founder) put it bluntly: “Charity is no solution to poverty. Charity only perpetuates poverty by taking the initiative away from the poor.” Another mind has said: “Charity [exposes] the fault lines of a culture.”
Our country is balanced on geographical fault lines. Will we ever be free of this other fault line, this conditioned instinct to open our palms for alms? Or should we simply admit defeat and include the begging bowl as the fifth symbol in our national emblem?
The writer is an author.
Published in Dawn, May 7th, 2020