The British government’s Department for International Development is unwittingly helping to fund the re-election campaign of the incumbent Pakistan Peoples Party in parliamentary elections scheduled for May, says a development economist in London.
According to a report in the Daily Telegraph, Ehtisham Ahmad, a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, told a parliamentary inquiry that British taxpayers have handed out – through the DfID -- £300 million ($456 million) to a government program in Pakistan that is actually being used to funnel cash into the PPP’s coffers.
The program in question is called the Benazir Income Support Program -- named for the murdered Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, whose widower, Asif Ali Zardari, is now the president of Pakistan -- and is earmarked to lift families out of poverty and to encourage them to send their children to school.
But according to critics, the recipients of the funds are being coerced and pressured to support the Bhutto-controlled PPP party. “It is not stolen to the extent to which previous cash transfers were stolen, but this is the mechanism -- which is funded partly by [DfID] -- to make friends and influence people. This is the re-election campaign of Mr. Zardari, which is funded by DfID,” Ahmad told the committee. Moreover, opposition parties in Pakistan dislike the program since its name suggests that the cash comes from the Bhutto family, rather than from the government.
“The fact that it is called Benazir Income Support Program tends to suggest that there is what is called clientelism,” Ahmad told the Telegraph. “The more you give the more benefit there is to the party that bears the Bhutto name.” The DfiD itself asserted it is completely unbiased with respect to Pakistani politics. “Our development assistance is based on need and effectiveness, not politics,” said a spokesman. “The Benazir Income Support Programme Act was unanimously passed and supported by all political parties in Pakistan.”
British financial aid to Pakistan, a former colony, is an extremely controversial topic both in London and in Islamabad – nonetheless, by 2015, Pakistan is expected to receive an annual grant of £450 million from Britain, making it the UK’s single largest foreign aid recipient. Conservative politicians in the UK want the government to significantly scale back such largesse, while some opposition groups in Pakistan – notably presidential candidate Imran Khan – want foreign aid eliminated entirely because they feel it only feeds corruption in a state that is already one of the world’s most corrupt places.
For example, the Telegraph noted, while poverty is widespread in Pakistan, two-thirds of the country’s lawmakers do not pay any taxes at all – and yet they somehow have the money to build nuclear weapons. Thus, donating money to BISP would seem to make the corruption problem even worse. Khan has openly called the BISP a fraudulent scheme by the PPP to “buy votes.”
Pakistan’s largest opposition party – the Pakistan Muslim League (N) – which is currently led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif – has vowed to change the name of BISP in order to remove any taint of Bhutto cronyism.
Pakistan also receives enormous financial aid from the United States – despite the fact that the discovery and assassination of Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani compound in May 2011 poisoned ties between the two erstwhile allies. Almost $3 billion in U.S. taxpayer money went to Pakistan in fiscal 2012; since 2001, the Pakistan has received more than $20 billion in military and non-military aid.
But during his confirmation hearing in January, John Kerry (now the U.S. secretary of state) told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he did not advocate a dramatic reduction in aid to Pakistan, despite the many suspicions Washington holds about Islamabad.
“We need to build our relationship with the Pakistanis, not diminish it,” he said.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.