Pakistani Punjab's Rejection of US Aid Hurts the Poor
While the amount of aid rejected is relatively small, the decision's outsized impact on the poor is now coming to light. Here are some of the projects most impacted:
1. U.S. aid could have transformed Punjab Government's Lady Willingdon Hospital in Lahore, where rats run through the halls, patients sleep three to a bed, women who require C-sections aren't getting them because only one operating room is functioning, and premature babies risk death because of a shortage of incubators, according to the Associated Press.
The hospital struggles to provide even basic care. Built by the British in the 1930s before Pakistan's independence, it was meant for 80 patients. The country's population has since exploded, forcing officials to cram 235 patients into a facility that is now run-down. Paint peels off the concrete walls and black mold covers the ceilings. Patients are forced to share beds, and sometimes women who are close to giving birth have to sit on the floor for lack of space. It has only one functioning operating room, leaving women lined up to receive cesarean sections.
The hospital has only three working infant incubators, which were donated by NGOs. The hospital is forced to use overhead warmers for other infants, leaving them more exposed to disease. The $16 million offered by the U.S. would have been used to purchase 10 incubators, build a new 100-bed ward and expand the nursery and emergency facilities.
2. Another $100 million of US aid was to be used to rebuild schools in southern Punjab province that were destroyed by last year's devastating floods. An additional $10 million was meant to improve municipal services like clean water and sanitation.
3. The loss of aid for Shamaspura, a poor neighborhood in Lahore, means that its 15,000 residents will not get their only road paved, nor will they get a new sewer system.
Batool Akhtar, a poor but feisty woman quoted by the AP story, summed it up well when she said: "This is rich people denying aid meant for the poor. The government should have taken the money."
As Pakistan's ruling elite and its ghairat brigade, led by PML's Sharif brothers, engage in loud empty rhetoric about infringement of their national sovereignty by the United States, here is something to ponder:
Pakistan runs chronic budget deficits of around 5% of its GDP, and its government collects less than 10% of GDP in tax revenue which is among the lowest in the world. A big share of these deficits is funded by foreign aid and loans, making Pakistanis beholden to the interests and whims of major foreign donors and lenders.
Pakistan's tax policies are among the most regressive in the world. Direct taxes make up less than 3.5 percent of GDP, with wide ranging exemptions to powerful segments of society coupled with governance issues at Federal Board of Revenue, according to former finance minister Shaukat Tarin. The bulk of the tax receipts are collected in the form of sales tax, placing the heaviest burden on the lower-income people who spend almost all of their income on their basic needs.
Given the unwillingness of Pakistan's ruling elite to pay more in taxes, I agree with the decision of the other three provincial governments to continue to accept US economic aid. As the Punjab examples above show, refusing such aid clearly hurts the poor the most.
Pakistan would be well advised to not seek confrontation with Washington. Why? The reason is simply that the United States is the architect and the unquestioned leader of the international order that emerged after the WW II and this system still remains largely intact. Not only is the US currency the main reserve and trade currency of the world, the US also dominates world institutions like the UN and its agencies, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organization (WTO).
All foreign aid, regardless of its source, comes with strings attached. And those in Pakistan who think that China, undoubtedly a rapidly rising power, can replace US as a powerful friend in helping Pakistan now are deluding themselves. Today, China's power and influence in the world are not at all comparable to the dominant role of the United States. Chinese currency is neither a trade nor a reserve currency. Chinese themselves depended on the US agreement to be allowed to join the WTO after accepting terms essentially dictated by the United States in a bilateral agreement. Most of China's trade is still with the United States and its European allies. And the Chinese military power does not extend much beyond its region because it, unlike the United States, lacks the means to project it in other parts of the world.
Rather than alienate the United States and risk being subjected to international isolation and crippling sanctions like North Korea (a Chinese ally), Pakistanis must swallow their pride now and choose better ways of becoming more self-reliant in the long run.
Here are some of my recommendations for Pakistanis to move toward greater self-reliance:
1. They must all pay their fair share of taxes to reduce dependence on foreign aid and loans.
2. They must spend more on education and heath care and human development to develop the workforce for the 21st century.
3. They must invest in the necessary infrastructure in terms of energy, water, sanitation, communications, roads, ports, rail networks, etc, to enable serious industrial and trade development.
4. They must develop industries and offer higher value products and services for exports to earn the US dollars and Euros to buy what they need from the world without getting into debt as the Chinese have done.
No amount of empty rhetoric of the "ghairat brigade" can get Pakistanis to reclaim their pride unless they do the hard work as suggested above.
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