Helping The Bad Guys In Pakistan
Though it has largely disappeared from the headlines, the United States is still making a huge financial investment in my home country of Pakistan, or more accurately in “Af-Pak,” the single theater of operations shared with Afghanistan in which Al Qaeda, the Taliban, nuclear weapons, and deep political instability co-exist in a living nightmare scenario. After its long, bloody, and expensive war in Afghanistan, the U.S. is spending billions of dollars in direct aid and military support in the region, aimed at building institutions that can help stem the tide of extremism that threatens to topple governments in Islamabad and Kabul. We don’t have a minute – or a penny — to waste in these efforts.
U.S. aid here is predicated on the understanding that improvements in transparency, accountability and democracy can yield public confidence and broader civic participation. These in turn bring good governance and economic growth, which can reduce the marginalization and despair that breed extremism. But despite the best intentions of the U.S., good money is going after bad in Pakistan, one of the most corrupt countries in the world.
The dirty little secret is that U.S. taxpayers are pouring money into a sinkhole of corrupted Pakistani organizations including some that are themselves — without a shred of irony — dedicated to anti-corruption efforts. Not only is this a waste of money, it is entirely counterproductive: despite its hefty aid package, the U.S. remains widely distrusted and disliked on the “street” and cynicism among ordinary Pakistanis towards their institutions remains sky high.
I have served as a journalist in Pakistan for more than a decade, and I have seen the frustrations and the dashed hopes of ordinary people in the face of widespread corruption and cronyism. Years ago, I served as a journalism fellow with Transparency International, the well-known Berlin-based anti-corruption watchdog. Among its other work, TI produces a popular annual corruption index (Pakistan ranked number 129 out of 175 countries in 2013).
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) spends hundreds of millions of American tax dollars promoting development and good governance in Pakistan, including multi-million dollar grants to Transparency International Pakistan (TIP) to operate an “anti-corruption hotline.” However, the leadership of TIP routinely abuses its authority to intimidate and settle scores, as well as for its own financial and political benefit.
In direct violation of Transparency International and USAID rules against nepotism, the USAID-sponsored hotline is being run by Fawad Gilani, the son of Adil Gilani, the controversial former chairman of TIP, who is still currently a senior member of the TIP team. According to TIP’s own filings, Fawad has taken USAID-funded trips to locales such as Nepal and South Africa in addition to making the rounds in Washington DC and Germany on the U.S. dime. Meanwhile, he has not been much of a corruption-fighter: numerous complaints against his father’s consulting contracts have never been investigated.
Among those complaints is a lawsuit brought by TIP against Emaar Giga, a UAE property developer. Adil Gilani, then Chairman of TIP, received payments and consulted for a competing development in the same neighbourhood called Arkadians. Not only was this conflict undisclosed by the then-Chairman, the Arkadians project he advocated is itself now mired in court for being illegally built on land meant for a school and a sewerage treatment plant and for shoddy construction practices.
In Pakistan’s fragile energy sector — we have regular rolling blackouts — a qualified American company led by a former Governor of Oklahoma was harassed out of the market through a baseless complaint filed by TIP with the U.S. Department of Justice. While no evidence of wrongdoing was found by the DOJ, the taint of the complaint killed the American’s firm that would have provided low-cost power to millions of Pakistanis. Interestingly, the complaint against Walters Power was filed by Adil Gilani, who was at that time involved in litigation against a Pakistani Partner of the firm, the Associated Group. The conflict of interest was never reported to TI, USAID, or the DOJ.
I am not the only one to have voiced concerns about this suspect USAID-sponsored “watchdog”; incumbent cabinet members, award-winning journalists, senior bureaucrats, leading industrialists and even courageous insiders, have spoken about how Transparency International Pakistan holds public and private institutions hostage, for personal benefit, but parades around with the institutional backing of donors like USAID. One whistleblower — a highly qualified academic who served as a trustee of TIP, no less — first sounded the alarm about TIP in 2013. She spoke out about conflicts of interest among the leadership at TIP and their efforts to improperly influence federal anti-graft investigations, intimidate and damage various companies with a media smear campaign in order to extract personal benefits, and target multinational investors in Pakistan who compete with their own business interests.
What we need is for the U.S. to condition its aid to such Pakistani institutions on reforms of accountability and anti-corruption policies. We need USAID to improve its oversight and follow-through on grants like the one to TIP to ensure that good money is being put to good use. We need the U.S. to push TI headquarters in Berlin to hold its franchises to account. With all due respect, the U.S. can’t just tick the box of ‘aid granted’ and move on. We are playing with precious American tax dollars and the fate of a strategically critical region.
There is an urgent need for transparency in Pakistan. As a matter of fact, organizations such as Transparency International are required here. But when the watchdog is not being watched, the corruption culture here allows it to become the fox watching the henhouse. This is not something the U.S., after such sacrifice, should abide or abet.
Wajahat Khan is Director of the Bureau for Investigative Reporting in Pakistan, and a commentator for NBC.