LONDON – A host of leading academics, aid campaigners and politicians in Britain are fuming over their government for doling out more than £1billion of foreign aid budget to Pakistan in cash over the past five years.
As much as £300million is being lavished on a scheme – Benazir Income Support Programme – that the Brits say is riddled with corruption.
Around 235,000 families are pocketing payments every three months to boost their incomes, funded by UK taxpayers. Despite judging the scheme high risk, Whitehall officials plan to expand it to 441,000 Pakistani households by 2020.
Where the budget has soared from £53million in 2005 to an annual average of £219million in the period 2011-15, British MPs have compared the foreign cash handouts to ‘exporting the dole’.
They claim large amounts of their money is being stolen or embezzled, while still more goes to well-heeled charity bosses and high-earning consultants.
They are calling upon the British government to ditch the commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of national income on foreign aid.
Nigel Evans, an MP who sits on the Commons international development committee, says that while he supports cash transfer programmes in very limited circumstances – such as ‘a crisis or emergency where it is the only way to give help’ – in the case of BISP we are simply ‘exporting the dole to Pakistan, which is clearly not a good idea’.
He said: “Normally this sort of aid is only given in a crisis or emergency when it is the only way to give help.
“It only should be a temporary measure, but it seems like we’re exporting the dole to Pakistan, which is clearly not a clever idea. Anything that involves money needs to be properly scrutinized and is clearly open to fraud with money siphoned away when it ought to be directed to those most in need.”
“This is something that International Development Secretary Priti Patel needs to look at urgently to ensure that there is proper accounting for how this money is being delivered,” the MP added.
Benazir Income Support Programme
More than 9.3million people across 14 countries, including Yemen, Bangladesh and Rwanda, have received cash payments funded by the British government since 2010.
In Pakistan, families get 4,500 rupees (£34.50) a quarter, which they can spend however they want, as part of the Benazir Income Support Programme. British taxpayers currently fund 7 per cent of the BISP programme, although in previous years the UK contribution has been nearly 20 per cent.
One in ten people get their money in envelopes at post offices, while others get cash cards that are regularly topped up with money that they can withdraw or use in shops.
The Daily Mail found people in a village on the outskirts of Peshawar taking out money from cash points with cards they said they had been given after paying kickbacks to officials.
Safiullah Khan, 49, a cart pusher in the Khyber Bazaar area of the city, told the British daily that a local councilor demanded a bribe to enroll his family in the programme. “I paid the money and my card was prepared,” he added.
“My income is not enough to cover day-to-day expenses of my family, so someone in my neighborhood told me about the BISP card.
“I went to see my local councilor, and he asked for a bribe for enrolling my name into the programme. After a few months, I managed to find this amount, and so my card was eventually prepared.”
Kishwar Bobo, a 53-year-old mother of eight from Sheikhupura district of Punjab, says she managed to obtain a BISP card because her brother belongs to the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q), an opposition party with contacts in the local administrative office. However there are no ATM machines in her village, forcing her to pay a ‘commission’ to a shopkeeper.
“Whenever payments come into the bank, I give my card to the owner of the grocery store, with an extra 300 rupees (£2.30),” she says. “He will withdraw the cash for me when he next travels to the bank.”
‘Tales of corruption’
Also last year, in Pakistan, several newspapers reported that a nationwide probe was being launched ‘after growing number of complaints about fake accounts and alleged corruption’ from project staff. Seven employees were suspended on corruption charges and 125,714 suspicious accounts were suspended.
In August 2016, the National Accountability Bureau also said to have summoned BISP’s former chairman, Farzana Raja, for interrogation over the alleged embezzlement of around £23million from its advertising budget. The allegations, stretching back to before 2012, remain unproven.
The Daily Mail also quoted Abdul Malik Baloch, the ex-chief minister of Balochistan, complaining about ‘massive corruption’ in the programme.
“Uneducated people registered with the BISP do not know how to use the ATMs to draw the money. They are also deprived of the money at the post offices and the BISP offices by the staff,” Baloch had said.
The BISP scheme was set up by Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto, in 2008, a year after her assassination, and was seen as an attempt to help him be re-elected as president.
The vast majority of this cash – £279million – is supposed to be handed directly to the country’s most impoverished citizens, sometimes via debit cards, at other times in envelopes stuffed with banknotes. The remaining £21million pays for ‘technical support’ for the BISP scheme.
Despite all the criticism, the Department for International Development defends the cash transfers and says in Pakistan it has started rolling out biometric payment cards, which verify who people are with their fingerprints, in order to cut out middlemen.
A spokesman said: “Cash transfers allow aid to be more efficiently targeted to those who need it, when they need it.
“In Pakistan, the use of biometric payments makes our programme one of the most secure cash transfers in the world, and means British taxpayers can be sure that the help they provide goes to the less fortunate, not those abusing the system. We have a zero-tolerance approach to fraud and corruption.”
‘Charity begins at home’
The Daily Mail also cited a couple of Pakistani academics in Britain highlighting the ‘flawed’ scheme which contains a political aspect as well.
Professor Zaidi has argued that the huge amounts being spent on aid to Pakistan means that British workers are effectively ‘subsidizing’ Pakistan’s elite.
“Less than 1 per cent of Pakistan’s population pays any income tax,” he said. “Many members of parliament and other respected members of society avoid taxes because it is so easy. By continuing to give Pakistan aid, donors have allowed Pakistan’s elite to avoid and ignore major reforms.”
Ehtisham Ahmad of the London School of Economics says cash transfers can become a poverty trap that distorts the economy by dissuading people from getting jobs.
He has given evidence to British Parliament describing BISP as particularly flawed, because it has been named after the assassinated politician Benazir Bhutto. Her image appears on the debit cards used to access cash, making the scheme overtly party political.
Dr Ahmad argued in 2012 that British taxpayers were effectively ‘contributing to her party’s election campaigns’.
The UK is the only member of the G7 group of leading nations even close to hitting the target of spending 0.7 per cent of national income overseas.
Since 2004 the amount Britain hands to foreign governments and other aid bodies has rocketed by 144 per cent, according to the G7.
Germany, France, Italy, the US, Japan and Canada each spend just 0.4 per cent or less. Over the past decade, spending on aid by Japan is up by just 4 per cent and France by 25 per cent.
One dollar in every five spent by the G7 on aid now comes from British taxpayers – despite huge public concern over corruption and waste.
Reference Daily Mail.