Apr 222008

The writer is a freelance journalist with over twenty years of experience in national and international reporting

Locking horns with bowler Shoaib Akhtar, the kidney doctor from Maryland knows his days as the chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) could well be numbered. That’s fine and all good things (read junkets & jamborees) must come to an end. Dr Nasim Ashraf, originally from Mardan, who made America his home and cashed millions as a nephrologist, ruled like a czar over cricket because Musharraf willed it. Ashraf toured with the Pakistan team when it played abroad, splurging on himself the luxuries which the PCB footed. Senator Enver Baig of the PPP frequently thundered inside the House against his imperialistic ways. Most of Baig’s badmouthing fell on deaf ears. Who dare dislodge Pervez Musharraf’s ‘darling’?

But Enver Baig’s party is the ruler of the day. And Baig’s threats now carry currency. Doubtless, cool cat Asharf had nine lives; he survived many crises in the past as the PCB chairman. Now it’s a different ballgame. When he finally does get the sack, there will be collateral damage. His heartthrob, the National Commission for Human Development (NCHD) with its umbilical cord the Pakistan Human Development Fund (PHDF), will drown with him. The names of these two organizations are enough to confuse any sane person. Why have two bodies and more importantly why give them such convoluted names?

It was the winter of discontent — the World Trade Centre had been bombed two months before — when I bussed my way from New Jersey into New York on a wet cold afternoon to meet Dr Nasim Ashraf. He was staying at Roosevelt Hotel, owned by PIA in posh midtown Manhattan. He was a man in a terrible hurry and much in demand by the UNDP. The international ‘babus’ at the UN Headquarters were gung-ho about his proposal to set up a Human Development Fund and were opening up their purse strings to make handsome donations to the doctor. The good doctor was on a high. During the few minutes I spent with him for an interview, he made all the right noises and pledged his everlasting love to his brainchild, the fund.

Dollars began pelting the fund like a hail storm. Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz wrote the first cheque of $100,000 from his personal account followed by a frenzied queue of 30 more philanthropists writing out similar cheques to the doctor, most of them being his acquaintances. All donors were promptly taken on board as directors. Meanwhile the government of Pakistan which had begun to reap rich dividends from partnering with Bush’s ‘war on terror’ bequeathed billions of rupees into the fund to hoist Nasim Ashraf as ambassador extraordinary. After the financial windfall, Nasim Ashraf set up shop with a grand office launch in Islamabad and hiring began at breakneck speed. I remember visiting the fund’s website in its early days of inception. I was still living in the US. To be honest, the website was designed (deliberately?) to confuse the visitor. It spoke of thousands of ‘volunteers’ collecting data on development, leaving one clueless as to the real work of the Fund.

Nasim Ashraf widened his net by setting up a commission (NCHD) under the aegis of the government. While the fund (PHDF) is a public-private partnership and a money reservoir, it diverts resources to the commission. As chairman of both these entities, Nasim Ashraf has kept a tight leash on what, why, when, how the affairs are run. Many of his handpicked staffers are deputed from the government and paid handsomely. Ashraf was on a roll (until recently) and ran both the joints like a Masonic Society, shunning any publicity. “If we failed to show you the wonderful work NCHD has done over the years, then it’s our fault,” admits the chief financial officer, Zulfiqar Ahmad. “We have a full public relations department that has perhaps not been able to spread the good word around,” he says. “Belief is everything and if you don’t believe what I am trying to tell you, then there’s been a failing at our end.”

I tell Zulfiqar that it’s the pride and hubris that played a part in keeping the commission aloof from others. During the reign of Musharraf, Chairman Nasim Ashraf was a knockdown, who demolished anyone standing in his way. His source of power emanated from Army House. So comfortable had Ashraf become with strong-arm power that running the fund and the commission was not enough. He wanted more power, exposure and excitement. Development, as you will all agree, is boring. It has no glamour; no glitz. So Ashraf turned his sights on cricket and friend Musharraf obliged. He made him the chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board. Nasim Ashraf scored a hat-trick by securing three chairmanships!

But seriously, the good doctor comes across as a collector of chairmanships?

Today Zulfiqar Ahmad’s neck is on the block. The latest tranche of Rs 874 million was signed and sealed by caretaker prime minister Soomro. It got killed when someone from the cabinet division leaked out the information to the press. Actually the budget should have been approved by Shaukat Aziz’s government but Zulfiqar fell seriously sick and had to undergo a heart bypass. “When I returned from a two-month medical leave, Shaukat Aziz had gone leaving us without funds.” The chartered accountant who worked at Fergusons before joining the commission in October 2006 is a very worried man today. “Three hundred thousand grassroots volunteers who work for us all over Pakistan will lose their livelihood if the government does not resume its funding,” says Zulfiqar.

The chief financial officer claims that his commission has done yeoman’s work in the field of “educating and enrolling eight million” children. “With the valuable data that has been collected by us, we go door-to-door to make sure that kids of school-going ages who have not enrolled in government primary schools begin attending,” says Zulfiqar. “And if there is no school within 1.5 kilometer radius, we ourselves set up schools that we call “feeder schools.” Today we have 22,000 such schools as far off as Turbat and Gwadur. Go and see for yourself.”

The commission claims to have resuscitated many ghost schools in Punjab. “We have breathed a new life by providing the schools with teachers.” Another project that Zulfiqar speaks with pride is the adult literacy programme which has “122,000 centers” all over Pakistan. “We have developed a special three-month curriculum to teach those who missed out on schooling altogether and have already made 2.6 million literate.”

UNESCO has recognized the commissions’ contribution towards literacy and given them an award. However, the UNESCO representative in Islamabad recently informed parliamentarians that Pakistan’s literacy rate had not budged from the 50 per cent mark. That’s strange considering the tall claims made by the commission that it has made “millions literate.” Who to believe — UNESCO or the commission?

Law Minister Farooq Naek has given a sympathetic hearing. He has assured Zulfiqar Ahmed that money from the government will not be stopped. Prime Minister Gilani has also asked for a presentation. “Our accounts are audited by Ferguson each year; we make presentations before the various government department heads and answer all the questions raised during these sessions; our intervention in boosting the basic health units (BHU) across Pakistan is bearing results; we are non-partisan and apolitical,” says Zulfiqar who reminds me of a man slowly being strangulated for lack of oxygen, nay money.

Unfortunately, the fate of the commission and the fund is freighted with Dr Nasim Asharf. Granted that Ashraf has been a mover and shaker; granted that he has singlehandedly built up these two empires through fundraising and public relations, but his hip-hop with power politics has been his biggest flaw. Plus his friendship with Musharraf and his face-off with Shoaib Akhtar can drag him down the gutter. That would be a sad day. Many greedy wannabe ‘chairmans’ both for the Cricket Board and the commission are waiting for Asharf’s exit so that they can move in and grab the ‘booty’ left behind. Let’s not forget that the commission has 35,000 employees on its payroll and which politician wouldn’t like to sack the present lot and stuff it with his or her own chamchas for political gain? Not to mention the $27.8 million (Rs1.7 billion) lying around for anyone to whisk away.

Bill Gates Foundation, The World Bank, UNDP, UNICEF and USAID may withdraw their financial support should Nasim Ashraf pull out. But the good doctor must too promise never to play politics, cricket and favourites ever again!

Will he?

Email: aniaz@fas.harvard.edu
Source: The News, 22/4/2008

 Posted by at 7:50 am

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