Can the Pakistani Diaspora Save Pakistan?

The Sunday newspapers have lots of stories about how the man behind anti-war protest targeting British soldiers in Luton — Anjem Choudary –- has encouraged his extremist followers to stop spending their money on their families and divert it instead to Muslim soldiers waging jihad, or holy war. As the organization Mr. Choudary is affiliated with, Ahle Sunnah al-Jamah, is thought to have no more than a core of 30 to 40 people, the call is unlikely to change the bulk of remittances sent by, for example, British citizens of Pakistani origin to Pakistan.

But the call makes me come back to the issue of diaspora groups and the role they play in their “home” countries. For though Mr. Choudary’s appeal is unlikely to make much of a difference, I understand from speaking to British friends of Pakistani extraction that remittances are often sent not only to families but also for reconstruction projects in “home” villages and to political parties and movements.

In a study of party political funding, the Pakistani Institute of Legislative Development and Transparence suggested that most Pakistani political parties receive funding from abroad while many extremist groups, like Lashkar-e-Toiba, receive cash from abroad.

To varying degrees, this money — $673.50 million in December 2008 –- cannot help but encourage the centrifugal tendencies in Pakistani politics at a time when the government is facing a raging insurgency in its northern provinces and the secular Pakistan People’s Party and the big-landlord Muslim League are locked in an rancorous conflict, which may tear the country apart.

Development aid cannot make up the support from remittances to the political parties, as only a tiny proportion goes to democracy-promotion as opposed to poverty-alleviation. Out of the $278.60 million spent (pdf) by USAID in Pakistan in 2005, only $15 million were spent on governance and democracy-promotion (I’d show how much DfiD spends, if this information was not impossible to find on the department’s website). Even if more money was provided to this line item with liberal and civic-minded groups as the beneficiaries, their role in Pakistani society is limited or, in a sense, “co-opted” by the political parties.

The proactive way forward therefore seems to be to encourage a Pakistani diaspora network, which can fund liberal groups and centripetal projects in Pakistan, and rival the overseas money-collecting operation of the established political parties. Though some British government start-up cash ought to be offered, for such a network to any credibility among the diaspora and in Pakistan, it would have to be run by people of independent standing and funded in the main by non-governmental resources. But it would seem like an obvious project for many of the philanthropic organizations to back while I can think of numerous Britons (and other Europeans) of Pakistan extraction who could become powerful leaders of such a liberal project. Let us hope someone will step up to the plate and do for liberal causes what Anjem Choudary tries to do for the dark side.