The word corruption has become synonymous with the government of the day. In the past, stories of corruption were leaked by the establishment to dismiss elected governments. Now, it is the opposition and the judiciary, calling the elected government to account. Whether or not it is time for the establishment to revert to its old ways is hard to say. One indication — and I must emphasise that it is just one indication — that the ultimate accountability is likely to take place at the polls and not through an extra-political arrangement, is the behaviour of aid donors. While bilateral donors are not necessarily discreet in their dealings with recipient governments, the international financial institutions speak through carefully worded reports. The lead is generally provided by the US-dominated World Bank. Coincidently, the Islamabad office of the Bank is situated on Sharah-e-Jamhuriat or Democracy Road. It does not bear repetition that democratisation is billed as the one-word agenda of the donors.
The Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP), backed by the World Bank, has been criticised in various ways. The urban middle class intellectuals and activists of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf see it as a political programme of the corrupt and for the corrupt. In the few cases where it manages to reach the needy, the programme perpetuates dependence rather than provide work opportunities. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz leaders on various occasions have described it as dole outs to party workers and — considering the huge sums involved — a source of corruption. Economists are divided on whether cash transfers are better or conditional cash transfers are the way to go.
As much as a billion dollars have been disbursed since 2008, but no petition of corruption in the BISP has been registered in the superior courts. In a recently published pamphlet for popular consumption, the World Bank office in Islamabad reveals why. The programme is credited with “major strides in establishing a transparent, effective and robust safety net system”. Such a powerful statement on transparency, in a government programme, is a rarity. In its early days, the BISP was a political programme, with the poor identified by the parliamentarians. This was quickly replaced by the poverty score cards, a system of objective targeting. A door-to-door survey of 27 million households has been conducted to design a management information system. Six million families have been found to be eligible. This, according to the Bank, makes it the first ever national registry of the poor in South Asia. The system enables the BISP to be transparent and “independent of any political influence”. Not only that, 98 per cent of the beneficiaries received payments on time through the much maligned Pakistan Post. There were some reports of postmen demanding their cut. The problem will be resolved as the smart card becomes the main instrument of transfer.
How is an island of transparency possible in what is routinely described as an ocean of corruption? Is the World Bank painting the BISP larger than life? There have been many instances in the past where donors have issued justificatory documents about projects and programmes supported by them. For instance, it took a long time for the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank to realise that the Social Action Programme project was a disaster. Similarly, civil society organisations exposed major water and sanitation projects as benefiting mainly the contractors and the contract awarding authorities. In the present environment of judicial activism and a no-holds-barred media, plus the World Bank’s own stronger anti-corruption mechanism, it seems hard to indulge in unmerited praise.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 13th, 2012.
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