It is a columnist’s dream to receive letters from the readers, or emails as it would be nowadays. I usually receive some emails but not very many, and almost all of them are positive. Last week, though, I received a couple of emails from aid workers, who wanted to defend their agency’s record. They wanted to tell me that it was not only Greg Mortenson, his Central Asia Institute (CAI) and similar small organisations that had done well: the CAI has helped build schools and provide other educational benefits, especially for girls in the remote areas of Pakistan. But other agencies had done more, a staff member in a USAID project, told me. He referred to the thousands of schools that had been rebuilt after the devastating earthquake in Pakistan on October 8, 2005. And he was right! Many agencies have done marvellous work, not the least in Kashmir. I have earlier written about the work of the Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority (ERRA).
I have also written about the Norwegian government assistance to madrassahs in what was then NWFP (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa). That was also useful assistance, I believe. It mostly went to help upgrade facilities, including separate toilets for girls, and other essential things. But the Norwegians were asked questions about this project by their own MNAs in Oslo and got worried about the general public’s opinion at home. Since government aid is taxpayers’ money, they don’t like too controversial projects. I believe assistance to madrassahs is important so that those schools can become better. They give education to about one and a half million of Pakistan’s poorest children.
I underlined in my article last week that we must not be petty and criticise too hard the CAI, even if some funds have gone astray. The best must not be the enemy of the good. Few of us can be best, or excellent, but all of us can be good and do good!
If you read my articles often, you have noticed that I often mention that I am a Norwegian. I mention it so that the readers can take that into account when reading my articles. Today, then, since I am again writing about development aid, I want to mention that the Norway’s government development aid agency, Norad, is this year celebrating its 50th anniversary. Almost $100 billion has been given as development aid to the less developed countries. Pakistan ranks as the 11th largest recipient.
Today, Norway gives about one percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) in development aid (and the country’s economy is listed as about the 25th largest in the world). I found it interesting that Norad in its magazine for May, when celebrating it all, themselves in particular, had a major article with a senior Norwegian political scientist claiming that that it is Norway that has gained most from its own development aid activities, not the recipient countries. This was the opinion of Professor Øyvind Østerud and he went further to claim that development sometimes has been directly negative for the recipient countries.
Another Norwegian aid expert, Professor Jarle Simensen, a historian and the author of one of the large volumes about Norway’s aid history, was more sober in his remarks. He mentions about a successful education project in Kibaha in Tanzania, where support was provided to health, education and agricultural development. Indeed, important fields to achieve betterment of people’s daily life today and in the future.
Again, such information, perspectives and critique make the work of small NGOs even more relevant, because I believe few negative side effects can be found in their activities. But from large transfers of technology, food aid, building materials, goods and services, etc, we can many times see that aid can be negative in itself and it can have unintended side effects.
Now, before the Pakistan government budget will be presented, I have noticed several newspaper articles where specialists, economists in particular, argue that Pakistan does not need development aid if it collected tax from the upper segments of its own society, reduce the military budgets and spend money wisely. The dependency that aid creates with foreign countries is negative and humiliating for Pakistan, a leading economist, Dr S Akbar Zaidi said in an interview in local English daily last Sunday. But then to collect tax from those who should pay, but don’t pay, is not easy.
To change the course of a large ship on the high seas takes a long time; yes, much longer than common sense would suggest it should take: President Barack Obama said about implementation of his many “change promises” in his election campaign; he succeeded with a health reform, sort of! In Pakistan, it seems almost as difficult to modernise the tax system and get the rich to pay up and show solidarity with the needy.
The day before yesterday, I gave a guest lecture in Hamdard University in Islamabad. The topic was how we can learn to analyse issues and be creative, or simply, how we can learn to think and ask questions in a better way. Yes, in due course, we would then be able to find better answers and do things better. A friend of mine, who is herself an experienced cognitive psychologist, had told me earlier that “you cannot teach people to think.” And before this lecture, she sent me the following email: “I pray for lots of impart to the young minds today, but I believe that if your influence only changes one life substantially you have won big.” Was she too modest? No, not at all, and I don’t know if I came even close to that wish at all. Perhaps, I contributed a tiny bit to “a few small influences to many minds.” That is how it is, I believe.
Our contributions should not be measured in miles and kilometres, rather just in inches and centimetres. If each of us contributes the way Greg Mortensen does, and the way USAID, ERRA, Norad and other larger donor and government agencies do, yes, then we will indeed see results. And, if each of the young students at Hamdard and other universities will do their share, as I am certain they will do, then there is hope for changes and improvements. I hope to that the young students will set their minds to follow their own ideas, with some lessons from older people, of course. And I hope the upcoming summer vacation will do them good because life is not only to be lived in classrooms and libraries; it is also outside, in local communities, with families and friends in hometowns and villages.
Every time when I see young students and other young people, I get inspired and hopeful. I know they will do better than the aging generation has done. True, we also tried, but we also left a lot unfinished for those who are young today to sort out in the future - and we also left a mess in many fields in many countries, such as in finance and economics, unemployment, lack of international understanding and so on.
Yet, I don’t want us to become negative. We should be positive and optimistic in the way we analyse issues and the way we seek solutions to problems. When I defend small NGOs and individual aid workers who try something new, it is also in that spirit. We must ask ourselves: what can we do better ourselves? How can we contribute positively? How can we do our share as taxpayers, and as contributors to aid agencies and NGOs? That is more important than to criticise what others do!
n The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist based in Islamabad. He has served as United Nations specialist in the United States, as well as various countries in Africa and Asia. He has also spent a decade dealing with the Afghan refugee crisis and university education in Pakistan.