As Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton spar over security and foreign aid, those of us living in Pakistan wonder how we ended up in the rearview mirror of the debate. American taxpayers spend billions of dollars per year in Pakistan — a nuclear state with religious extremists baying at the door — and next door in Afghanistan, where the Taliban are ensconced. America’s money is meant to strengthen security infrastructure and democracy. And this money, I can tell you firsthand, is creating an effect that empowers extremists and breeds cynicism among the many who want a better future for our country.
Pakistan is a democracy, albeit a fragile one, that has lurched between coups and crises. Only the development of transparent, legitimate institutions accountable to the people can serve as a long-term bulwark against instability and extremism. But corruption remains pervasive in Pakistan. Graft. Rigged bids. Poor judicial and regulatory oversight. This is the kind of stuff that breeds seething disaffection with government and plays into the hands of religious extremists. The situation is so bad that U.S. taxpayers are actually pouring anti-corruption money into a corrupt Pakistani organization. You read that right.
Years ago, I served as a journalism fellow with Transparency International (TI), the well-known anti-corruption watchdog. Among its other work, TI produces a popular annual corruption index (Pakistan ranked number 117 out of 168 countries in 2015). The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) spends hundreds of millions of dollars promoting “development” and “good governance” in Pakistan, including multi-million dollar grants to Transparency International’s Pakistan (TIP) branch to operate an “anti-corruption hotline.” However, watchdogs continually flag the leadership of TIP for abuse of authority to intimidate and settle scores, as well as for its own financial and political benefit.
Transparency International and USAID have strict rules against nepotism. However, the USAID-sponsored hotline is run by Fawad Gilani, the son of Adil Gilani, a controversial former chairman of Transparency International Pakistan, who is still currently a senior member of the TIP team, as well as an “adviser” to the prime minister. According to TIP’s own filings, Fawad Gilani has taken USAID-funded junkets to places like Nepal and South Africa in addition to making the rounds in Washington, D.C. and Germany on the U.S. dime. Meanwhile, he has not been much of a corruption-fighter: numerous complaints against his father’s consulting contracts have never been investigated, and Gilani Sr. has been silent about a Pakistani administration that is under fire for off-shore accounts disclosed in the recent Panama Leaks.
In Pakistan’s fragile energy sector, a qualified American company, Walters Power, was harassed out of the market through a baseless complaint filed by TIP with the U.S. Department of Justice. While no evidence of wrongdoing was found by the Department of Justice, the taint of the complaint killed the firm’s bid to provide low-cost power to millions of Pakistanis. Interestingly, the complaint against Walters Power was filed by Adil Gilani, who was at that time involved in litigation against a Pakistani partner of the firm, the Associated Group. That conflict of interest, where the purported watchdog was actually a litigant, was never reported to Transparency International, USAID, or the Deparment of Justice.
I am not the only one to have voiced concerns about this suspect USAID-backed watchdog in Pakistan; incumbent cabinet ministers, award-winning journalists, and even courageous insiders, have spoken about Transparency International Pakistan. One whistleblower — a highly qualified academic who served as a trustee of TIP — first sounded the alarm in 2013. She spoke out about conflicts of interest among its leadership and their efforts to improperly influence federal anti-graft investigations, intimidate companies with libelous media-smearing campaigns, and target multinational investors in Pakistan who compete with their personal business interests. Also, it is ironic that the same TIP leadership now works for the Pakistani government.
Just like it conditions its military aid, the United States should also condition its aid to Pakistani institutions on reforms of anti-corruption policies. USAID must improve its oversight on grants to ensure that good money is being put to good use. We need the United States to push Transparency International headquarters to hold its ‘gone-rogue’ and politicized franchises to account. With all due respect, the United States can’t just tick the box of ‘aid granted’ and move on. We are playing with precious American tax dollars and the fate of a strategically critical region. Afghanistan serves as a cautionary tale for Pakistan with a number of extremist groups filling in the service gap left behind by a corrupt government. These groups offer Afghanis a seemingly pure alternative: pledge your support in exchange for services and protection.
Organizations such as Transparency International are required here. But when the watchdog is not being watched, the corruption culture here allows it to become the fox watching the henhouse.
• NBC News Pakistan correspondent Wajahat S. Khan, is a former fellow at Transparency International and Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center. He is also editor of the Bureau for Investigative Reporting in Pakistan