Blow This House Down: There are Better Ways of Spending $31 Million

16 Feb
The government wants you to know it has its economic priorities right. That it is serious about fixing bread-and-butter issues—for Parliamentarians.

In the houses of Parliament: Praying for more housing for Parliamentarians?

On Feb. 8, a joint committee of the National Assembly and Senate approved plans to build two blocks of family-sized apartments for 100 legislators and 500 of their domestic help at a price tag of Rs. 2.7 billion or $31 million. The complex will take three years to complete, and feature an underground tunnel that leads to Parliament. Presently, Islamabad has 358 apartments for its 442-strong Parliament. The contract was won by Habib Rafiq, a privately-held company that’s been in business some 50 years. It’s also owned by a close friend of the prime minister’s. But while that relationship is no crime, this project is.

In a country where sessions of Parliament are marked by poor attendance, rewarding lawmakers with housing they may or may not actually use is a questionable allocation of state resources. That their private servant armies will be subsidized is equally atrocious. Luxury Lodges-gate turns one stomach because the country is still recovering from its worst natural disaster and holding out for more foreign aid in the name of flood survivors. I know, tsk tsk.
Funding for the housing complex comes out of the Public Sector Development Programme, the moneybag for goody-goody projects like improved education and health services, and poverty alleviation. The cash-strapped federal government recently cut PSDP funding by Rs. 100 billion to Rs. 180 billion. If legislators approved the complex because they couldn’t find better ways of scratching their spending itch, here are some suggestions:
There are some 147,000 flood survivors languishing in relief camps, in desperate need of shelter, medicine, food and clean drinking water. According to fresh U.N. estimates, 21 percent, or about $52 million, of Pakistan’s funding needs for post-disaster relief and recovery remain unmet. Almost 60 percent of this gap can be bridged from the money being spent on the new digs.
Acumen Fund, a U.S.-based patient-capital firm, estimates that it takes an average of 35 years of savings or $5,000 to purchase a plot of land in a low-income, urban part of Pakistan. Some 6,200 families living in urban slums could have been property owners with the cash that’s been earmarked for construction of the lodges.
If housing for the poor isn’t their bag, MPs could have invested in schools that yield high social returns. After all, 40 percent of Pakistan is illiterate. Mountaineer-turned-educator Greg Mortenson says it takes between $35,000 and $50,000 to construct a school in Pakistan and fund its operations for a year. We’re looking at 620 to 885 brand new schools that could have been built for the amount our legislators, all college graduates, have chosen to spend on themselves.
And we wonder why Pakistan is mocked. We have no political will to broaden the tax net or cut down on frivolous expenses (and corruption). We take offense when foreign donors advise us on reforms necessary for our economic survival. At a time when people are taking to the streets in protest against their worsening social and economic conditions, this kind of pork-barrel spending isn’t just callous, it’s downright criminal.
The only party to tut-tut this project has been the opposition Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz). Unfortunately, their polite, protest words against the housing complex don’t quite cut it. During a parliamentary session on Feb. 2, PMLN MPs joined others in demanding an increase in their perks and privileges. These perks varied from country club memberships to health care. Later that evening, the PMLN’s Khawaja Asif and the PMLQ’s Kashmala Tariq continued to defend their demand on TV talk shows. How about a sit-in, anyone? Parliament, it seems, wants nothing more than to build lodges while Pakistan burns.
The government says the $31 million will be spent over three years, and so it will not burden the national exchequer. The edifices being built to house political egos will yield no benefit to the Ali in the street financing this venture. Investing taxpayer money in enterprises that could generate broad economic or social benefit would have been eminently sensible. But then, common sense seems to be fairly uncommon here in these parts these days.
TARIQ works at a think tank in Islamabad.

Published in the Feb 21, 2011 issue of Newsweek Pakistan


2 Responses to “Blow This House Down: There are Better Ways of Spending $31 Million”

  1. AM February 21, 2011 at 9:01 pm #

    the criticism is justified, but how to stop such activities in practice besides writing about them.

  2. Saifullah Khalid March 3, 2011 at 12:48 am #

    40% are documented illiterate in Pakistan but the vultures sitting in assemblies are graduates “literate” and elected by you and me. Unable to understand what to do and where to do something with this poor system. Everyone is ready to criticize but no one is willing for change, understandable.

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