ISLAMABAD // Growing international aid flows into terrorism-torn Pakistan are vulnerable to widespread abuse because of endemic nepotism within the government and domestic non-government organisations, according to non-profit sector insiders. The threat is exacerbated by negligent management by international donors, whose ability to audit projects is limited both by security-related restrictions on the movement of personnel and their susceptibility to elitist social circles dominated by their clientele, NGO managers and consultants said in a series of interviews.
NGOs emerged as an alternative recipient of foreign aid to Pakistan in the late 1980s, following the withdrawal of Soviet occupation forces from neighbouring Afghanistan and decreasing US funds, and became the preferred recipients as relations between the government and its erstwhile allies deteriorated in the 1990s. The role of the NGOs increased as civil war flared in Afghanistan and more refugees poured into Pakistan. However, many NGOs were formed not by idealists, but "by well-educated people with social and political connections," said Arshed Bhatti, an Islamabad-based consultant to NGOs .
Often, they are relatives and cronies of military officers, politicians, civil servants and judges that "invest in 5-to-9pm socialising [with Pakistani and foreign officials], and execute the agreements the next 9am-to-5pm", he said. Subsequently, a large chunk of funding keeps going to the same people, who take two bites at foreign funding by forming their own NGOs and working as lobbyists for others, Mr Bhatti said.
Research by The National revealed numerous examples of human rights NGOs with trustees who are senior government functionaries, including serving federal and provincial ministers, all of whom are in a position to lobby for and secure funding from both international donors and the Pakistani government. Baber Javed, programme manager for the Pakistan Centre for Philanthropy, which certifies corporate social responsibility initiatives for the government, said problems within the non-profit sector were largely attributable to the restrictive practices of major international NGOs, including the humanitarian arms of the United Nations.
He said those big players had each developed pools of four or five local NGOs, and worked exclusively with them, leading to an elite grouping of some 40 to 50 organisations. That compares to 95,000 total NGOs in Pakistan, of which 65,000 were officially registered, according to a 2001 study published by Johns Hopkins University. Asma Jehangir, chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, a Lahore-based NGO, said the Pakistani government's funding of NGOs was particularly questionable.
"It never goes to genuine NGOs, nor do the genuine NGOs want government money," she said. Ms Jehangir, who is also a special rapporteur of the United Nations' Human Rights Council, said the onus was on the government and international funders to install monitoring mechanisms, overseen by stakeholders along the funding chain, to ensure the funding reaches the intended beneficiaries. She highlighted Canadian, European Union and Norwegian funding agencies as being well managed, but notably excluded the United States Agency for International Development, or Usaid, easily the biggest conduit of foreign aid, from her list.
The comments of Pakistani non-profit sector insiders echoed concerns emanating from the US Congress, which in October 2009 approved a five-year, US$7.5 billion (Dh27.5bn) aid programme to improve access to utilities and social services for millions of impoverished Pakistanis, particularly those affected by fighting between security forces and militant insurgents in the north-west tribal regions bordering Afghanistan.
The legislation envisioned most of the aid being channelled through US NGOs, but determined resistance from the Pakistani government, which saw the plan as an affront to national sovereignty, has prompted the State Department to rethink its plans. Richard Holbrooke, the US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, has since said half of the money would be given directly to the Pakistani government and local NGOs.
However, the Pakistani government continued to push for an 80 per cent share of funds, and may even have secured that further concession, subject to US approval of large-scale projects, according to politically connected NGO managers. The rechanneling of aid through the Pakistani government and NGOs has evoked calls for tighter US government controls from John Kerry, chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, and co-sponsor of Pakistan aid legislation approved by Congress.
"The danger is much greater than merely the possibility of a portion of funds being poorly spent," he said in a letter written on May 25 to Mr Holbrooke. "If significant portions of the ... funds are, for example, siphoned off to private bank accounts, political support for continued appropriation of the money could evaporate in Washington and Pakistan." However, Ms Jehangir said it was simply not viable to exclude admittedly corrupt government institutions.
"The NGOs don't have the capacity to absorb that kind of money - they just can't spend it. Instead, they'll stop work to expand and won't be effective," she said. "Excluding the government doesn't work either, because reforms can't be implemented without its active participation." The final shape of the US aid programme for Pakistan is likely to emerge from the second round of bilateral "strategic dialogue" in Islamabad on July 21, with the US delegation led by the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton.