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Opinion

July 6, 2018

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Progress under scrutiny

Last month on May 5, I received a legal notice that was served upon me for an expose of the ongoing irregularities and the misuse of public money in a development project. This is the most promising donor-supported, community-based economic transformation project worth $120 million in the region.

Out of the total budget of $120 million, the share of a UN agency is $67 million as a concessionary loan to the government of Pakistan. The government’s share is $23.63 million, with $22.98 million and $6.54 million added up as co-financing and beneficiary contributions, respectively.

The overall goal of the programme is to reduce poverty, and improve incomes and nutritional levels for rural households in the region. The development objective is set to enhance agricultural income and create employment for at least 100,000 small landholding rural households as per the project document.

In his notice, the legal adviser of this project admonished me for making unsubstantiated claims about the irregularities and misuse of public money. My critique of the project was based on the documents shared by the whistleblowers of the programme as well as the video testimonials of the beneficiaries’ dissatisfaction over the allocation of funds.

This is, of course, not the first legal notice that was served against the team of the Accountability Forum which is committed to exposing corruption in the development sector in the larger interest of the poor of Pakistan. The legal notice contained some interesting language to turn my critique into defamation case against a senior development professional whose ego was apparently hurt by one of my opinion pieces.

Not surprising though, the notice was written in a threatening language to teach me a lesson for my courage to expose the irregularities and the violation of procurement rules of the said project. The person who threatened me with legal action under defamation laws, perhaps, forgot the fact that I was not an ordinary news reporter making a sensational story. In the past, he must have been dealing with amateurish reporters of local newspapers – some of whom might have submitted to his whimsical pursuits under duress. As a responsible columnist of a leading newspaper in Pakistan, I could have taken this person to task for threatening me. But I exercised professional restraint and focused instead on helping improve the development outcomes of the project.

I sent an email advising the gentleman and the legal adviser of his organisation to present a counter statement with facts to repudiate what I had written. In the email, I even invited the gentleman to send the comments, which would be incorporated in an article if they are factually convincing. I did not receive anything from them on this, other than threatening messages and a smear campaign against me.

As my professional responsibility, I also called up some of my friends in government departments who supervise different aspects of this programme to advise the aggrieved gentleman to steer clear from legal action. Prior to this, I sent an email to the country head of the donor agency which provided the concessionary loan to fund this project. In that letter, I raised my reservations about the way public money was being misused due to sheer incompetence and wilful delays on the part of project executing authorities.

The country head responded after I wrote two emails to him and he assured me that he would look into the matters. He also advised me to share the evidence with the competent executing authority in the government. It gave me some confidence that the matters would then be addressed on an immediate basis. When I received the legal notice, I forwarded it to the Accountability Forum as well who advised me to call a press conference to expose the scam.

I reflected on this option seriously, but decided not to go through with it, given that the senior management of the programme had shown an interest to address the issues immediately. Then, there was some visible progress to improve the pace of project execution. During my visit to project area last year, farmers and a number of young people approached me with written and video-based testimonials of favouritism, a lack of baseline surveys, and stringent and exploitative payback mechanisms.

I was provided with the project work plan and internal documents of procurement violations as evidence of irregularities in the project. The project representative who served me the legal notice also circulated an obnoxious email within the organisation, accusing me of harbouring a personal vendetta against him. This email was shared with me by the whistleblowers from within the organisation. It was aimed at maligning me as a fraud and a novice who had no knowledge of the development sector. I could take the gentleman to task through a media trial if I were to show any semblance of personal vendetta. But I was neither interested in sensationalism nor egoistically obsessed to flex my journalistic muscle. My only concern, of course, was to ensure that the project was streamlined and didn’t suffer a mission drift.

As a development professional, I could sense the danger of a media trial, which might lead to the project being suspended. It was of utmost importance for me to flag the project issues only so that they are addressed in a timely manner without an adverse impact on the development potential of this project.

This was not the first time that I faced censure for speaking out against the misuse of public money in the development sector. The country head of a family foundation has also been maligning me for exposing her incompetence. There have been serious matters involving the misappropriation of funds; violation of labour laws; forced termination of employees; illegal money trails; and harassment against those who have the gumption to demand accountability.

We must speak out to salvage the development sector from the collusion of corruption and incompetence. As civil society activists, development practitioners and policymakers, we must join hands to expose those who have caused serious damage to social movements. We must work towards strengthening the institutional rigour of the civil society, with improved transparency and accountability against personality cults and racketeers. As development practitioners, we are entrusted with the means and ends to serve the poor. If the money of taxpaying citizens that is earmarked for social development doesn’t go to the deserving, it would reflect our collective failure as a society.

When I was maligned by unscrupulous characters for exposing their wrongdoings, I can imagine how difficult it would be for an ordinary development worker in this country to stay true to his/her mission. We have very good examples like Abdul Hameed Khan and Shoaib Sultan Khan who stood steadfast to serve the people despite all odds. Change-makers are extraordinary souls and their unflinching commitment to help transform societies cannot be shaken by mundane temptations.

It is heartening to see a movement taking shape in this country to bring to the dock those highly paid incompetent bosses of the development sector who have so far been able to evade accountability. With a few exceptions, the sector is led by those who avoid public accountability. This is particularly true in the family foundations where development is equal to what the boss deems right. I am relieved to know that these foundations and programmes are being brought under public scrutiny. This will bring accountability, professionalism and merit, and ensure that the right people are employed for the right jobs.

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]

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