KARACHI: A company related to the Digital Pakistan initiative — a brainchild of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government — has stirred a controversy on social media, questioning the involvement of Tania Aidrus, the premier’s special aide leading the initiative, who is among the board of directors of the related company.
Prime Minister Khan had launched the Digital Pakistan programme on Dec 5 last year and named Ms Aidrus, a Google executive who quit her position, to lead the initiative.
The Digital Pakistan programme operates directly under the Prime Minister Office. Later in February, Ms Aidrus was appointed as Special Assistant to the PM (SAPM) on Digital Pakistan, according to terms of rule 4 of the Rules of Business 1973.
During the same month, as per recent disclosures made on social media and verified by Dawn, a not-for-profit company named the Digital Pakistan Foundation (DPF) was registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan (SECP) under section 42 to compliment the government’s Digital Pakistan initiative.
According to the SECP website, the founding directors of the foundation are Ms Aidrus, PTI stalwart Jahangir Tareen (who has been disqualified by the Supreme Court), ride-hailing app Careem’s CEO Mudassar Ilyas Sheikha and Mr Tareen’s lawyer Sikander Bashir Mohmand.
The inclusion of Ms Aidrus on the board of directors and the lack of transparency around the foundation’s funding and operations have raised concerns, particularly one leading to conflict of interest.
Company is not-for-profit entity & won’t take any payments from govt, says PM’s aide
Reacting to the concerns, Ms Aidrus told Dawn: “There is absolutely no issue with an SAPM being on the board of a not-for-profit company. It’s important to remember that this is not a private limited company and the same sector would only be an issue when the company is a profit-making entity.”
The purpose of the foundation, she said, was to provide free-of-cost support to the government in its digitisation initiatives.
“As such, the foundation does not intend to take any payments from the government. The foundation does not intend to increase the burden on the government, rather looks to alleviate it by raising funding from external donors via grants, not loans,” she said.
Ms Aidrus confirmed to Dawn that Mr Tareen was indeed part of the founding team “as someone who is tied to the government’s reform initiatives”.
However, she said, due to pressing personal and business commitments, which required his full-time attention in April, he resigned from the board.
“On April 15, 2020, Mr Tareen chose to resign as member and director and informed the board accordingly. The SECP approved Mr Tareen’s request to resign as subscriber member on April 23,” she said.
The former Google executive said the foundation’s team was in touch with numerous granters, including high net worth Pakistanis who were looking to give back to Pakistan.
The PM’s aide said Mr Tareen had no ongoing engagement or role within leadership, management or operations of the foundation.
With Mr Tareen and his lawyer’s resignation, the board is yet to make new appointments. Ms Aidrus said the expansion of the board had been delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic but should be done in July at the start of the new financial year.
The company, according to her, is yet to start operations formally and obtain funding.
Ms Aidrus said no director or chairperson was permitted to draw a salary or a stipend from the organisation while holding any public office, or playing any other part-time or full-time role.
“No contracts have been signed or even exchanged at this point. The Digital Pakistan Foundation, like any other not-for-profit organisation, will need to go through the government/regulator’s requisite approval processes,” she told Dawn.
Conflict of interest?
According to lawyers, there is a lot to unpack in terms of legality surrounding the company’s operations and links to the government.
“There may not be a question of making personal monetary gains here. However, it’s in the interests of transparency and good practices to avoid such conflicts of interest between one’s role as a government actor on the one hand and acting as a board member for a privately controlled entity on the other,” constitutional lawyer Waqqas Mir told Dawn.
“In her capacity as SAPM she shouldn’t consult the government or advise it in relation to a private body where she serves as a board member,” he added.
According to Mr Mir, if the DPF was a foundation run by private citizens, and it bid for any government contracts where Ms Aidrus is also present in the capacity of a decision maker or consultant on the government’s side, such a conflict of interest would have to be disclosed to the government.
“As per a general rule, when a conflict of interest is disclosed, the person with the conflict doesn’t participate in the voting or decision-making process when it is taken up by the relevant government department or agency,” he added.
The role of SAPM is defined under rules of business that provide for the fact that the terms and conditions of appointment are approved by the cabinet.
“The appointment as a director of the company may not itself create a particular conflict of interest. However, if a public official is allowed to be chairman of a company, the procedures of her appointment and terms and conditions are subject to the rules of business,” said lawyer Reza Ali, adding that this appointment needed a cabinet approval.
Published in Dawn, June 24th, 2020