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Rethinking aid

August 01, 2011

THE ongoing popular revolts in the Arab world should warn western governments that the hope of creating regional political stability by providing aid to authoritarian regimes is misplaced.

This warning is particularly relevant to the case of Pakistan, where western support of three military regimes over half a century has prevented the consolidation of democratic institutions.

Without the accountability that comes through sustained mass political participation, the state has failed to deliver basic services such as healthcare, justice and education. The result is that popular grievances against the military and political establishment are finding a violent outlet in militant groups such as the Taliban.

At a time when America is rethinking its military aid budget to Pakistan — in light of possible evidence that the Pakistani security establishment may have harboured Osama bin Laden — it needs to think carefully about where its aid money is going.

Events in the Arab world suggest that, unless it goes into fostering democratic institutions and an effective state that benefits the general public, it will only serve to postpone the inevitable onset of civil strife.

American policy towards Pakistan has aimed to maintain political stability by buttressing a status quo in which the military and a small number of powerful political clans dominate. During the Cold War, it was hoped that this would also prevent communism from gaining a foothold. Gen Ziaul Haq collaborated by preventing the re-emergence of the left-leaning PPP — whose rise to power in 1970 had allowed the have-nots to erupt onto the political scene for the first time — through severe restrictions on political parties and by localising politics.

The result was a return to the parochial politics of the colonial era where candidates were elected on the basis of tribe, caste, faction. This kept communism at bay but also prevented the re-emergence of mass political movements aiming to empower the disenfranchised. The return to personalised, kinship-based politics, reinforced by Gen Musharraf’s local government scheme, has plagued Pakistani politics ever since and is one of the root causes of Pakistan’s troubles.

Nevertheless, in a thought-provoking and widely influential new book entitled Pakistan: a Hard Country, Prof Anatol Lieven argues that traditional kinship-based power structures with the dominant clans at their heads make political life somewhat stable. And further, they prevent an Islamic revolution. He argues that, thanks to these kinship and patronage networks, Pakistan lacks extreme class divisions and that even the poorest Pakistanis can count on the charity of powerful chiefs and relatives to subsist. This makes them immune to radicalisation. So long as unpopular American political pressures and violations of national sovereignty don’t plunge the country into civil war — by splitting the army into rival pro-American and pro-Taliban factions — the country will muddle along as it has always done.

But it is more plausible to see things the other way around. Kinship and patronage networks don’t mitigate political instability and social exclusion; they exacerbate it. In these arrangements, politicians look after the narrow interests of their kinsmen and personal followers, generating violence and only benefiting a select few.

Take the example of political bosses who manipulate the judiciary and the police in order to protect wanted criminals who happen to be relatives, henchmen or just political supporters. This makes a mockery of justice and leads to a culture of criminal impunity where people with connections get away with heroin trafficking, bootlegging, murder, highway robberies, land grabs and kidnappings.

The result is chronic insecurity of life and property, particularly for the poor, who are the most frequent victims of land grabs and cattle theft, and who constitute the vast majority of the up to four million heroin addicts living in Pakistan. The existence of millions of bonded labourers — reported by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and the International Labour Organisation — also raises serious questions about the extent of charity towards the poor and the claim that Pakistan lacks extreme class divisions.

Personal connections and patronage networks also prevent effective service delivery by almost every other state institution.

Hospitals and schools are often poorly staffed because doctors, nurses and teachers who have powerful friends and relatives can get away with claiming their salaries while not doing their jobs. This is because political patrons often guarantee employment, regardless of performance, in exchange for political loyalty. The poor majority who can’t afford private alternatives are thus deprived of reliable healthcare and education. They end up sending their children to medical quacks and to free madressahs that promise heaven in exchange for martyrdom.

The man on the street knows perfectly well why he and his family are denied access to justice and basic welfare services:

precisely because personal relations prevent state institutions from doing their jobs. It was this recognition that brought the Taliban the support of many of the rural poor when they overtook the Swat valley in 2009. For with the Taliban’s religiosity, crucially, came the possibility of impartial justice, regardless of rank and social relations.

Although people’s enthusiasm for theocracy has its limits, and many Pakistanis are appalled by Taliban brutality towards women, musicians and barbers, they may still support militants if they can provide them with the justice, security and basic social welfare that their elites have conspicuously failed to deliver. If they help foster the democratic institutions and practices that could help deliver these goods, America and Europe might find, unexpectedly, that the Pakistani people are more reliable allies than the military-dominated establishment whose power they have buttressed for over 60 years.

The writer is a Fellow at the anthropology department of the London School of Economics. He has carried out extensive fieldwork in rural Punjab in Pakistan.