February 19, 2020
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Post-quake, will all the aid end up in the wrong hands?

From the time the earthquake ravaged it on October 8, Pakistan has experienced innumerable aftershocks of varying intensity. But the most recent of these is political in nature: a rising crescendo of voices demanding an accounting and monitoring of the millions of dollars pouring in for relief and reconstruction. The backdrop to this is the government's decision to establish an Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority (ERRA), which is to rebuild towns and villages reduced to rubble by the temblor.

The total amount Pakistan has received from foreign countries, international organisations and private donors is anybody's guess. Journalists in Islamabad, trying to get a fix on the grand total, usually visit the Presidency which houses the President's Earthquake Relief Fund (PERF). From there, they are sent to the finance ministry, then to the Federal Relief Commission, and finally to the foreign office. But that has only the figures of donations/pledges from countries abroad and international organisations. These, as on October 26, totalled a whopping $1.6 billion—and still counting.

As aid pours into Pakistan, the Joint Action Committee (JAC) of over 100 Pakistani NGOs is concerned over the way the government is handling the donations to the PERF. Senior JAC official Tahira Abdullah told Outlook, "Who decides where, when, how and on what the donations will be used? Who decides the prioritisation of expenditures in terms of geographic and sectoral needs?"

There's worry that urban centres will gobble up the funds, thus depriving villages of the resources needed to return to the life before the quake. There's also the issue of participation. As Tahira asks, "Are civil society, the corporate sector, elected representatives, the media and, not the least, representatives of the affected communities in Kashmir and the NWFP invited to participate as equal stakeholders in the emergency relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction phases? Are there any financial accounting mechanisms?"

These questions have assumed salience because of the perceived lackadaisical attitude of the officialdom. The government hosts grand banquets for the visiting foreign dignitaries. No wonder, former cricketer and head of the Tehrik-e-Insaf Imran Khan fears eventual wastage of millions of dollars pouring into the country. He, therefore, suggests that the process of utilising the funds should be made transparent. Imran told Outlook that a non-partisan steering committee comprising the government, the opposition, the civil society, development and engineering professionals should be set up to monitor the utilisation of the fund. "We have a chance in history to rebuild the lives of millions of people devastated by the quake. Without a coordinated and transparent national effort, this opportunity is likely to be wasted."

Pakistan People's Party leader Farhatullah Babar says the concept of accountability and transparency is alien to the military mindset, adding that "entrusting the task of rebuilding Kashmir to those who disdain such concepts is fraught with grave dangers." Instead of ensuring accountability, Babar notes that the ERRA notification has given immunity to its officials from legal suits. The authority is also permitted to engage defence personnel on a contract basis, sparking fears that it could become the army's new employment bureau.

A non-partisan committee, too, is the demand of the Majlis-e-Muttahida Amal, an alliance of religious parties. As its leader Qazi Hussaain Ahmed said, "We are not opposed to the army but the funds should not be allowed to go to the National Security Council. Aid flowing in should be audited by a parliament committee comprising representatives of the treasury and opposition benches. "

Daniyal Aziz, who is chairman of the National Reconstruction Bureau established to decentralise development, feels local politicians should be involved in the process of rehabilitation. He told Outlook, "Relief has to be based on genuine claimants. The community has to be involved. It would be the local leadership at the union council level who would be best placed to identify the needy."

But others are pessimistic. For instance, Khawaja Asif of the Nawaz Sharif Muslim League remarks acerbically, "The same kind of accountability and transparency will continue as we have seen under (President Pervez) Musharraf for the last six years. Why are generals heading relief and reconstruction work? Under the existing system, the relief material will be sold in the open markets. It will never reach the survivors."
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