Aid as Religion

By Anjum Altaf

Aid has become the new religion. That is the only conclusion to be drawn from the authors’ summary of a new report on aid to Pakistan from the Center for Global Development (Making KLB Effective, Dawn, August 12, 2012). There are certain fundamental presumptions to be accepted on faith followed by exhortations to be more faithful and to work harder. Inshallah everything will work out fine since God (in this case the US) helps those who help themselves. Conspicuous by its absence is any semblance of doubt or uncertainty, there is no challenging the assumptions, there is no assessment of experience, there is no asking of questions. Just a few regrets before Muslim and Christian soldiers march happily onwards hand in hand.

The authors are quite candid about the central premise of their report: “one of its underlying assumptions is that US-Pakistan development cooperation should continue.”  One presumes the reader is required to take this as a given because the basis for the assumption is never explained nor justified. There is only the promise of good outcomes if the path recommended is followed: “The lives of Pakistanis can be improved by adding megawatts of power to the national grid and by improving entrepreneurs’ access to credit – areas where the US can help.”

How exactly do these two claims relate to each other? Megawatts of power have been added regularly over the decades (Mangla, Tarbela, Ghazi Barotha) and entrepreneurs’ access to credit has also increased over time. Yet, the correlation with improvement in the lives of Pakistanis is not all that obvious. Even if there is a correlation, it does not follow that US-Pakistan development cooperation is essential. And the fact that these are areas where the US can help in theory does not mean that it will be able to translate that in practice.

That, in a way, is what the report itself says: “Decades of failed reform efforts highlight the limits of donor leverage.” Notwithstanding that, the authors retain faith in their premise and in the future: “Yet, US assistance can act as a catalyst to bring about modest change.” Again, there is no explanation for why one ought to subscribe to this view in light of all the accumulated evidence of the past or if the price of modest change is too high or too low.

The analogy with religion becomes quite explicit when the authors move on to recommend what both countries need to do to realize good outcomes: “They must redouble their efforts to make sure that money spent on development achieves its intended result.” There is no analysis here of what has kept the countries from redoubling their efforts all these years or why they would want to change course at this point in time. All one is given is the following concession regarding the US: “One of the biggest failures of the current US approach is the lack of overarching vision.” Take it or leave it; there is no explanation for why with all the intellectual firepower at its disposal the US continues to lack an overarching vision. Or could it be that there is an overarching vision that is not visible to the authors blinded by their unquestioning faith?

The exhortation to hard work is followed by some specific recommendations: “Pakistan needs to insist that the two countries agree on a limited set of metrics to measure Pakistan’s overall development progress.” This is analytically weak in many ways. First, Pakistan is a geographic entity, an inanimate piece of land – who in Pakistan is to do the insisting? If it is the government, why has it not been doing so in the past, and why should it change now? If it is the citizens, what is the leverage they have and why would they fare any better now than before? Second, why does there need to be an agreement when standard development indicators are readily available? Third, why does the US need to be forced to an agreement to employ a standard indicator? Fourth, isn’t it obvious that despite the continued inflows of assistance, many key indicators of development show little if any improvement? Fifth, why insist on an agreement at all? If the government of Pakistan is not interested in the development of its people, why does the US not accept that reality?

There is no answer to these questions except a plaintive appeal: “The government of Pakistan must exercise leadership and either take ownership over development programming to ensure that it is a joint, highly focused effort, or reject it outright.” The report is forced to end in a whimper because it eschews any analysis of the incentives of the government of Pakistan. Why should it reject assistance outright and why should it spend it well? Why shouldn’t it siphon it off and use it for patronage when there are donors who insist on and persist in funneling money for reasons that analysts are not prepared to challenge?

Because the report lacks serious analysis its various parts do not hang together. “Bilateral development cooperation is still important to improve the lives of millions of Pakistanis” but “The Obama administration needs to communicate to Congress that aid will not buy Americans love, rein in the Pakistani military or force crucial reforms on energy or tax collection.” If aid will not force crucial reforms on energy and tax collection, what is the assurance that the funds for additional megawatts and increased credit would find productive use? Just trying harder will not do and effective leadership is not going to emerge out of thin air.

All the difficult questions are left out of this upside down religious discourse in which aid is a given and desired outcomes are a function of prayers, morality, hard work and wishful thinking. Grounding the discourse in reality should make it obvious that what is needed in Pakistan is reining in the military, accountability to the people, and crucial reforms in governance. How are these to be achieved? And, more crucially, does aid help or hinder in their achievement? Any credible perspective on aid to Pakistan must start from this question.

This question is not even hinted at in the conclusion of the authors: “the United States should remain fully committed to its KLB promise to support the creation of a strong, economically vibrant Pakistan with an accountable, democratic government.” Why should one begin with the premise that aid helps support the creation of an accountable, democratic government? Could soft money, by making the rulers dependent on external donors and not on the ruled, not delay the emergence of a domestic social contract? Or, for the sake of argument, why should one accept that the US wants an accountable, democratic government in Pakistan? After all, isn’t there ample historical evidence, and not just from Pakistan, that the US has wanted, promoted and supported governments in the past that it has wished to remain unaccountable and pliant?

If US policymakers do indeed want to help the people of Pakistan and not its governments, should they not begin by listening to the opinion of the former? Could there not be good reason that KLB has “become a household phrase in Pakistan”? The authors disregard this voice completely. Their conclusion is of interest: “Pakistan too shares the burden for improving US efforts. Even though the US is spending billions to help Pakistan, ironically it is Pakistan that must help the US in order to help itself.” The bottom line is that whether the people of Pakistan want it or not, the US is going to ‘help’ them. The only choice for Pakistanis is to decide whether they wish to help the US help them or stand in its way.

God/Uncle knows best and who is to question the ways of the Almighty or deny its will.

More posts on aid to Pakistan, including a response to an earlier CGD report, are here.



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