Last Friday, under a narrow and never-before-utilized clause of the Pakistani constitution, one focused on moral probity, Pakistan’s Supreme Court deemed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif ineligible to be “an honest member of parliament,” and thereby ineligible to hold office as prime minister. He resigned.
The decision emerged from processes unleashed by the Panama Papers, in which undisclosed assets held by Sharif’s family members came to light. The Supreme Court decision strangely cited the nondisclosure of income from a company his son owns in Dubai as the reason for the moral probity finding. (Sharif’s lawyers said he did not receive such income).
On the surface any effort to rein in corruption in a land that suffers badly and widely from it should be a positive step; Transparency International gives Pakistan a 32 out of 100 (0 is “highly corrupt” and 100 is “very clean”) on their Corruption Perceptions Index, giving it a rank of 116 out of 176 countries. But this convoluted dismissal instead raises questions of why such a process took place at all, and what it means for the country’s still-weak democratic institutions.
As former Ambassador of Pakistan to the United States Husain Haqqani tweeted, the decision kept the country “faithful to its 70-yr tradition: No PM ever removed by voters; only by judges, generals, bureaucrats or assassins.” It also raises questions about the selective pursuit of Sharif under this constitutional clause. And it further raises questions, given the relatively quick pace of this probe, about why the trials of the accused perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks remain in a state of constant prolongation for nearly nine years. Is justice never served for terrorists in Pakistan?
As analysts within and outside of Pakistan sought to unpack what this unprecedented decision holds for the country, and indeed for U.S. relations with Pakistan, we ought to reflect on the larger picture here. The decision will not improve U.S.-Pakistan ties, so we are left with either a continued status quo of a very difficult, complex relationship, or a further deterioration. Against this backdrop, what should the United States do, if anything can be done, to help Pakistan strengthen its democratic institutions?
As is well known, the United States and Pakistan have long had close bilateral ties, even if the relationship has been a roller coaster, including with periods of outright antagonism. Pakistan has been a U.S. ally and presently holds the status of a major non-NATO ally. The U.S. Agency for International Development has been active with Pakistan since the country’s founding, and has provided nearly $8 billion in development assistance alone in the past decade. (That figure does not include security assistance, a separate topic.)
I have written previously about the counterintuitive finding that Pakistan now fares worse on most major development indicators than Bangladesh, a country that seceded from Pakistan in 1971. Bangladesh remains poorer and with significant political turbulence, but still has managed to prioritize improving the lives of its citizens.
It’s hard to say that Pakistan has placed the improving the lives of its citizens at the top of its agenda, compared with its overemphasis on the military. And despite decades of U.S. government funding to nudge it in a direction of development outcomes, it turns out that the outcomes aren’t that great in the governance and rule of law indicators. The data tool available on ForeignAssistance.gov allows an aggregation of these indicators over time, so there’s a real comparison to be made.
To look at the question of corruption and rule of law, I selected three important indicators from the dataset for Pakistan: rule of law, control of corruption, and government effectiveness. I pulled the results from 1996 through 2014, the most recently available year. Here’s what I found:
These indicators, drawn from World Bank data, represent a “scaled” score ranging from -2.5 to 2.5, with 2.5 as the “best.” On rule of law, Pakistan fares slightly worse in 2014 than it did in 1996, slipping from -0.67 to -0.78. On control of corruption, it has improved, with its score increasing from -1.15 to -0.81. On government effectiveness, things have grown worse, falling from -0.59 in 1996 to -0.75 in 2014. So over a nearly twenty-year period, Pakistan has fared better fighting corruption—although it still remains below the zero “even” point—and it has gotten worse on overall rule of law and governance issues.
It’s harder to download the foreign assistance funding data for the same period, but we can explore on an annual basis the breakdown of foreign assistance funding from FY 2006 through FY 2017. The table below draws from the annual funding (planned) allocations to illustrate the dollar amounts and percentage of U.S. aid that has gone toward strengthening democracy, human rights, rule of law, and governance in Pakistan.
For most of these fiscal years, the peace and security category constitutes around half of all U.S. aid to Pakistan. As the table above illustrates, over the last decade, support for democracy and governance at best constituted 10 percent of U.S. funding, but most years it hovers around 6 to 7 percent. It raises the question: how best should the United States allocate its assistance dollars to shape better outcomes in Pakistan? Would a greater degree of support for democracy, human rights, and governance—rather than the heavily peace-and-security-sector focused patterns of the past—help nudge Pakistan toward more improvements where it needs to strengthen its governance and rule of law?
There isn’t enough information here to suggest any causation between how Washington allocates assistance dollars and indicator outcomes in Pakistan, but the discussion is worth opening.
I would argue that it is high time for Washington to dial up its attention toward these pressing governance problems in Pakistan, since there is plenty of room to dial down the heavily security-centric relationship that has dominated U.S.-Pakistan ties. I base this recommendation on the fact that what we have tried over the years has not succeeded on the security front, nor obviously on the governance front, so ought to be revisited. The Donald J. Trump administration’s initial FY 2018 budget proposed to hold steady the foreign assistance levels for Pakistan. With that in mind, the United States should have a more active debate on the allocation of that foreign assistance funding and the prioritization of programs on which it is spent.