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Home > National Interest vs People’s Interest > The ghost projects in Pakistan

The ghost projects in Pakistan

by Naeem Sadiq, 2 December 2008

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Dawn, December 1, 2008

“When I send my child to the market with Rs10 to buy something, I demand an account of the money when he returns home. Similarly, when the government spends my money, I have the right to ask for an accounting of these expenditures.” — Susheela Devi

A GHOST project is like a ghost school. It consumes money and resources, benefits a small group of delinquents and does nothing for its intended beneficiaries. With 30,000 ghost schools already under its belt, Pakistan is now well on its way to achieving the next milestone — to be a market leader in ghost projects.

The daily newspapers carry sickening doses of how the rich and powerful scrape away the last pennies from projects created ostensibly for the good of the ordinary people. The billion-dollar poverty alleviation programme only alleviated the poverty of bureaucrats and consultants. The $350m ‘Access to justice’ ADB loan did not make our justice system any better. A scam of Rs3.6bn was discovered in the execution of Tawana Pakistan Project (TPP).

The former prime minister Shaukat Aziz spent over Rs1bn on 47 foreign visits during 2004-07. The Rs16bn clean drinking water project is bogged down by delays and complaints of unfair bidding.The KPT’s purchase and subsequent theft of a Rs320m water fountain remains unchallenged. The details of payment for the two chartered aeroplanes carrying 240 freeloaders to Saudi Arabia still remain unexplained. Irresponsible expenditure coupled with heavy leakages have left the country reeling under a formidable foreign debt of $45.6bn (not counting the latest $7.6bn IMF loan). Clearly the problem of Pakistan is not the size of its kitty, but the holes in the kitty.

The numerous watchdog committees like the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), the Public Procurement Regulatory Authority (PPRA), the audit department, NAB, and the NACS have not only failed to curb this menace. They have themselves become a huge burden on the exchequer. These bodies primarily operate in a reactive manner, often moving into action long after the curtains have been dropped and the actors gone home.

There is little that these organisations can show in terms of their contribution towards accountability, especially for those who yield power or influence. On the contrary there are examples of the NAB dropping corruption cases involving Rs500bn of the taxpayers’ money under the influence of the NRO. It is therefore time to seriously rethink the utility of these organisations and search for alternate ways to plug the large holes in our leaking bucket.

How do other countries make their financial systems more accountable and transparent? The best method is a proactive disclosure of financial information by each department and agency. By making this information readily available on departmental websites, ordinary citizens can directly evaluate if public funds are being managed effectively. If not, they can hold the government officials accountable for their actions. The second method is the use of the Access to Information Act (at present in the process of being revised), which enables citizens to obtain any non-classified public information for scrutiny and questioning.

The Canadian government offers one of the best models for financial monitoring and accountability. It requires each department to make quarterly disclosures on its website showing: (i) details of the travel and hospitality expenses of ministers, parliamentary secretaries, political staff, and senior public service employees; (ii) details of contracts awarded; and (iii) grants and contributions that were given to any individual or organisation (http://www.tbs-sct.gc.ca/pd-dp/gr-rg/index-eng.asp). The system further provides protection for any one who exposes misuse of public funds, mismanagement or a breach of a code of conduct. The Canadian system makes it obligatory for the head of the department to disclose the identity of the person found to have committed the wrongdoing, any corrective action taken or the reasons why no corrective action was taken.

At the project level, Sri Lanka has developed an excellent web-based project monitoring system that displays monthly updated information about all foreign- and local-funded projects. The system has 12 modules which include project profile, monthly financial report, activity monitoring report, cash flow report, reimbursable foreign aid, loan covenant, procurement monitoring, financial progress on each component, project review report and comments by the public (http://www.fabm.gov.lk/index.html).

Despite the existence of an Electronic Government Directorate (EGD), the government seems to have little understanding of what is meant by the term ‘e-governance’. A recent Planning Commission advertisement (Nov 22, 2008) claims that its website now contains an “interim report on economic stabilisation with a human face, speeches of the prime minister, projects identified for foreign assistance, and a ‘Synoptic View’ of the Planning Commission”.

The government departments seem to consider their websites as instruments of self-publicity (pictures of ministers, comments, speeches and notifications) rather than putting hard facts and figures about each project, its cost, purchases, suppliers, contractors, completion dates, overruns and various other details of expenses. A good example of the data that may be included for any project monitoring may be seen at www.good-governance.com.pk , a sample website set up by a private Pakistani citizen at a modest cost of Rs7,000.

The people of Pakistan have a right to demand an end to this unending financial plunder. They have a right to demand an account of how and where their money is spent. Using Public Document Rules, 2004 the government could immediately ask every department to proactively (on its website) provide complete and ongoing details of its projects. This should be a precondition for the release of any further funds. Transparent projects and an independent judiciary may be the two key factors that could rid us of ghost projects and help us move towards a progressive Pakistan.