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9/3/2010

A senseless demand

A senseless demand It is accountability that civil society should be demanding, not debt write-offs. It should make an assessment of the amount of aid taken in the past, its use and misuse and how much went missing. By S. Akbar Zaidi

WHILE well-meaning, the ‘demand’ by a section of civil society for Pakistan’s foreign debt to be written off in the wake of the floods and the attendant devastation is a serious case of flawed politics. Sadly, it is also reflective of many aspects of civil society which many observers, even those sympathetic to civil society, have criticised for some years now. Perhaps the most important observation following this so-called demand for a debt write-off is that civil society has now become completely depoliticised, and the members and organisations which constitute it have come to accept the status quo with regard to the state, rather than challenging the way things stand. Had the finance minister or the prime minister made such a demand, one would have understood their doing so, but civil society has only exposed its own lack of political under standing by calling for a debt write-off. Clearly, Pakistan’s debt of $55bn is a huge burden on the economy and on the common people. However, the issue is that the loans that were given to Pakistan over the last three decades over which the debt problem got out of hand have been taken by governments that have comprised military elements and those composed of Pakistan’s civil and political elites. The ‘common man’ (seldom the common woman!) in whose name these loans have ostensibly been taken has never been consulted, although he has had to bear the burden and the debt they have created. While Pakistan’s elites, who are represented in government, usually borrow so that they do not have to impose taxes on themselves, it is left to the common people to pay back these loans, through higher indirect taxes, reduced subsidies and increased surcharges. On the one hand then, it makes sense to make the demand that this unfair burden be lifted from Pakistan’s poor, common men and women, and this is why the government of the day can make such requests to donors. However, the bigger problem involves the political economy. The question needs to be asked as to what has happened to the loans taken by this and previous governments. While loans amounting to billions of dollars have been taken in the past and continue to be taken, there is little to show by way of development output. This would suggest that the borrowed money has not been fairly distributed and honestly utilised. There is much evidence to indicate that there has been a lot of embezzlement and misappropriation of the money received in the name of Pakistan’s common people, and there are allegations that even the humanitarian aid money which came in after the 2005 earthquake was pocketed by some of those in power. If this is indeed the case then civil society needs to ask questions about the use of that aid and those loans. If it can prove — which would not be very difficult — that much has been stolen, it would need to emphasise that those leaders and governments who took the loans are accountable to the people of Pakistan in whose name they keep going back for even more loans. It is accountability that civil society should be demanding, not debt writeoffs. Civil society needs to make an assessment of the amount of aid taken in the past, its use, how much was spent, and how much seems to have gone missing. It then needs to hold all governments accountable about the loans taken in the people’s nam e. Moreover, civil society should also be asking donors to explain why they continue to fund dead projects and pump in huge amounts of money which is badly spent and often not accounted for. However, these are political questions, not those one expects an answer to from a civil society which has also become increasingly donor-dependent. One finds it odd that civil society has asked donors to write off debts, while its own donor-dependence has increased in recent years. Just as the country has asked for increased donor assistance, so has civil society. Where else would human rights or women’s rights, or minority groups be, if there was no donor funding? There are few civil society initiatives in Pakistan which would survive without donor funding. In fact, it has been observed that many donors set the development and human rights agenda in Pakistan, and civil society together with the NGOs merely work on projects till the funding runs out. Also, where civil society has held elected representatives accountable — such as during the fake-degree scandal that continues — and has accused the government of not fulfilling its promises, it has seldom volunteered to hold itself accountable for what it does or does not do, or explained how it uses donor funds.

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9/3/2010 A senseless demand One can ask whether this is the reason why some civil society organisations have launched a campaign for the ‘unconditional’ write-off of Pakistan’s external debt, rather than one to hold donors and the government accountable for the loans being taken in the people’s name. Many of Pakistan’s NGOs are seen as contractors doing the government’s bidding — and civil society’s voice would hardly be heard if it were not for donor funding. A depoliticised, donor-dependent, civil society is the last forum from which political demands would emanate. Pakistan’s civil society needs to realise that in order for it to emerge as an independent entity, and not as an appendage or mouthpiece of the government, it needs to think and act politically. ¦ TOP

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A senseless demand