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Pakistani elite needs to decide whether or not they want a country: outgoing country director UNDP Pakistan

Marc-André Franche has been the country director for UNDP Pakistan for the last four years. Last weekend he bade farewell to Pakistan to take a position as the Chief of Financing at the United Nations Peacebuilding Fund beginning September. Discussions with Pakistani academia, government and civil society circles affirm our feelings that Marc would be dearly missed, both personally and professionally: from his very affable and social mannerism, his eagerness to engage different stakeholders, his advocacy abilities, to even his astute moderation skills at conferences and roundtable discussions.

Unlike most of his peers from international development community, Marc has usually been found very vocal about the causes and consequences of Pakistan's socio-economic problems. He was no different in this interview where he shares his parting thoughts about the country. This discussion - that took place last week - revolves around the changes in UNDP's work and strategy in the last four years, its spending pattern, the legacy he leaves, and his thoughts on how to put Pakistan on the road to development. Below is an edited transcript.

BR Research: Let's start with your thoughts and feelings as you leave Pakistan?

Marc-André Franche: When you spend four years in a country, you learn to appreciate its complexity. I do not even remember how many times I have been to Balochistan; I believe I have been to nearly every district in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa; I have gone to the northern areas a number of times; and I have, of course, travelled in Punjab and Sindh. So I am leaving with a lot of admiration for Pakistan and its people. When you read the history of Pakistan, it was not obvious that this country would survive. There was a lot of criticism and people doubting that it will. Yet it has, and it has come very far and achieved a lot in many ways.

But at the same time it is also extremely frustrating for me to see, a country and people that are so capable and intelligent, not making more progress than they should in terms of poverty reduction, inequality, modernising the state, and functioning institutions. It's not my role to say what Pakistan should or should not do. The fact that even in 2016, Pakistan has 38 percent poverty; it has districts that live like sub-Saharan Africa; that the basic human rights of minorities, women and the people of FATA are not respected; that this country has not been able to get its act together and hold a census; or that it has not been able to push for reforms in FATA, an area that is institutionally living in 17th century. It is extremely preoccupying.

BRR: Is there an overarching thought that will likely occupy your mind when you board the flight to UN's mother ship in New York?

MAF: If there is one thing I leave with, it is a sense that the only way a critical change will happen in Pakistan is when the elite of this country, the politicians and the wealthy sections of the society, will sacrifice their short term, individual and family interest, in the benefit of the nation. You cannot have a political class in this country that uses its power to enrich itself, and to favour its friends and families. This fundamental flaw needs to be corrected if Pakistan is to transform into a modern, progressive developed country. The political and economic elite must also try to build consensus.

BRR: We will come back to some of the points you mentioned, but before that we will like to go through some organisational affairs. You've been in office for about four years whereas most foreigners in donor/developmental space spend a year or two at the most, which is not enough because it takes about six to nine months to know the economy, the players, the system, and by the time they get into the flow of work, they are ready to leave. Would you agree with that assessment?

MAF: The UNDP's official term period for Pakistan is two years, though I have always spent about four years in my postings. But I agree with you. I have been very critical to my colleagues of the international community who only spend one or two years, which is so little to understand the complexities of any country.

It is also true that foreigners need to come with the right attitude. You mustn't come with a mindset that you could teach Pakistan or that you will be giving instructions. I think anybody who goes to another country needs to go with a lot of humility, and really my role here has been to listen to the issues from different sections of the society and then try to be a facilitator of certain solutions and ideas.

BRR: In 2011, the then deputy country director of UNDP Pakistan emphasised on UNDP's role in fostering growth and entrepreneurship, especially the new growth strategic framework. However, the emphasis on growth has somewhat waned in your tenure. What are the reasons behind that?

MAF: I think the UNDP has remained focussed on inclusive growth. But it is true that the strategic framework for economic growth that the previous administration had developed was not re-taken by the new authorities, though a lot of the elements from that framework were adopted in broad terms in the Vision 2025. You have to understand that we are here to serve the government.

BRR: Who sets the agenda and scope of activities for UNDP Pakistan? Does it come from UNDP head office? How much leverage or room does each country director has?

MAF: We are the generalist development agency of the UN, and in that sense we have the flexibility to adapt to each country context because we are not specialised agency. We have what is called the UNDP strategic plan, where we set priorities globally, and within that here in Pakistan we chose those the government was interested in, and the programmes that we have now were agreed and signed formally with the government of Pakistan. I had very little room in terms of that when I came. My focus has been in bringing that broad vision into concrete implementation, and deliver on that with the government and I think by and large we have achieved that.

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BRR: What legacy do you think you are leaving at UNDP Pakistan?

MAF: I don't think anybody will ever change the world with a project or a programme. But there are a few things that I leave behind and I am very proud of the work that the team has done.

One is the role that UNDP is increasingly playing as a facilitator of public debate on poverty, equality, FATA reforms and so forth. That's the legacy I hope my successor will continue. Before I arrived, we hadn't been playing such a role for a while, because we were very focussed on responding to disasters, floods, earthquakes, etc. We were always reactive to the latest crisis. I had the opportunity to establish a much greater role which is not only helping the government in developing its policy but also creating a space for policy dialogue with the civil society.

The second is the much greater investment in provinces; FATA, Balochistan and KP. Our Peshawar office is going to be larger than our Islamabad office this month in terms of the number of people. A great proportion of our funding on the ground is now with the provinces. So there has been a big shift in the UNDP. Previously we used work exclusively with the federal government, now I have done a lot of decentralisation in terms of implementation, and created strong offices in Balochistan and Peshawar.

Third, I helped bring focus. UNDP was used to doing so many different things. In the first six months that I was here, we were able to close about 144 projects, and instead focused only on seven areas by beefing up the expertise in knowledge management, and engagement with civil society and government in those seven areas.

BRR: What's the percentage distribution of UNDP Pakistan's funds across the provinces?

MAF: We have about a total of 287 employees in Pakistan, of which about 135 are in Peshawar. About 35 percent of our spending is on FATA, 35 percent on KP, 15 percent on Balochistan, and the rest is spent nationally including Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore. So, in total, about 85 percent of our spending is on FATA, KP and Balochistan.

BRR: Considering that Balochistan is the least developed province in Pakistan, according to UNDP's own district-wise HDI rankings, don't you think that 15 percent spending is a small percentage?

MAF: It is surely bigger than Lahore and Karachi. It is not easy to implement programs in Balochistan and it is also very difficult to mobilise the attention of our partners in Balochistan. I wish we could have more allocations for Balochistan.

BRR: What are your thoughts on local government systems in other provinces?

MAF: We are generally disappointed with the quality of local government laws that each province has developed. Only KP has a decent law that gives real power and real money to the local government. Local government does not mean that you just elect them and deny them fiscal resources or power. We have been advocating for a review of those laws. In KP, because they put in place a decent local government law, we are currently finalising the agreement with the provincial government to support them in local governance, focusing first on seven districts, one per each division.

BRR: In so far as UNDP's engagement work is concerned, don't you think that your work is checked by limited economic discourse in the media? Is that something you would recommend to the new country director to work on as part of UNDP's next items on agenda?

MAF: I think we have a deficit of media literacy in terms of the issues that we have been dealing with. However, when I speak of the elite, these are also the elite. Media is of course a business. But a business that does not contribute to the public good has very little utility. It is important that the media makes money, but the media is one of the pillars of democracy and the media has to educate the public. Unfortunately, the level of dependence of the government on military authorities, and the degree by which a lot of media in this country is manipulated by powerful sources, are sources of erosion of democracy and erosion of the institutions that are the foundations of this country.

BRR: Would you recommend your successor to develop a programme for nudging the media towards setting the economic agenda?

MAF: We wouldn't do a special programme on that. But as part of our different programmes, such as climate change, poverty, etcetera; we have a lot of emphasis on engaging the media.

BRR: But those activities are limited to awareness seminars for reporters or round table with editors, and have little impact. Media in general likes to focus more on politics and infotainment than economic issues. So, all those awareness seminars are left without the desired outcome. Do you feel the need for a certain level of research in how to develop the media market, a level of engagement with media bosses, and developing media, especially economic media, as the pillar of democracy?

MAF: This is definitely something the UNDP could do. But I think all the UN agencies need to do this together with our government partners. We need to bring the government in it as well.

BRR: Inequality is being touted as the greatest challenge of the 21 century. In the context of Pakistan, are you more concerned about inequality of wealth and income or inequality of rights and opportunities? And is that an area UNDP would focus on in Pakistan?

MAF: If there one issue that will be determining all of the UN's sustainable development goals, it is what the world does with inequality. And it's interesting that this is not only a developing country problem, it's a global issue and it's much harder to tackle inequality than it is to tackle poverty.

In Pakistan's context, I am concerned about both. But I am more concerned about inequality of rights and opportunities. The apartheid of opportunities in Pakistan is horrible, which is why so many young people are trying to leave the country. This is one of the issues that UNDP will continue to work on in Pakistan for sure - investing in both improving the quality of data, and the quality of analysis of inequality.

BRR: Earlier in our conversation, you emphasised on the role of elite. Why would the elite want to reset the game? Poverty and inequality reduction happens when circumstances (such as threats of revolt by the poor or inter-elite rifts) arise which force the elite to make strategic alliances with the poor. Do you see those circumstances emerging in Pakistan?

MAF: I don't see those circumstances emerging in Pakistan at the moment. But it will eventually happen in one way or the other. You cannot have a country, where nearly 40 percent of the people live in poverty.

BRR: But the elite were not forced to sacrifice in favour of the poor when poverty was much higher. Why would the elite do so now, now that poverty is on a decline?

MAF: There are two reasons. One is self interest. If they want to sell more products, they need a greater economy, they need more consumers. And certain small groups have already understood it, the likes of Baber Ali, or the people in Sialkot who are not waiting for the government to build an airport. They understand this naturally, that the elite need to collaborate and invest in public good for their business to grow.

I was in Karachi this month and the situation there is appalling. It's at a breaking a point. If Karachi is at all to continue being the engine of growth in this country, something needs to be done about public utilities. You cannot live in Karachi and grow your business anymore with the state of disrepair of public institutions.

BRR: But when the elite have their gated communities then why should they worry about the poor?

MAF: Pakistan will not be able to survive with gated communities where you are completely isolated from the societies, where you are creating ghettos at one end and big huge malls for the rich at the other end. It is not the kind of society you want your kids to live in.

BRR: So can we force you to prophesize when would that tipping point come about?

MAF: I cannot say that. But based on the history of many countries, I do know that the change will eventually come. You cannot have an elite that takes advantage of very cheap and uneducated labour when it comes to making money, and when it is time to party it is found in London, and when it's time to buy things it is in Dubai, and when it's time to buy property it invests in Dubai or Europe or New York. The elite needs to decide do they want a country or not.

I have visited some very large landowners, who have exploited the land for centuries, paid nearly zero money for the water, and how they almost sometimes hold people in bondage. And then they come to the United Nations or other agencies and ask us to invest in water, sanitation, and education for the people in their district. I find that quite embarrassing.


Copyright Business Recorder, 2016