Travels At The Expense of The National Exchequer
By Imtiaz Gul
Express Tribune, Ferbuary 23, 2016
This is the story of a government official — in his own words — who has served various governments in different capacities: staff officer, diplomat, federal secretary, since times immemorial. A recent report presented before the National Assembly, in fact, served as a trigger for him offloading some of his experiences below:
I was indeed bemused to see the media go hoarse talking about the prime minister’s foreign trips and the costs incurred. The data presented in the National Assembly by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs tells us that the premier’s 65 foreign tours thus far have cost the national exchequerRs638.27 million. But why should this come as a surprise when the actual costs of such trips may be manifold? These trips are not restricted to just prime ministers or presidents. They apply to ministers visiting foreign countries. What is tabled before parliament is only part of the costs such trips entail. Few Pakistanis would know that a significant portion of the ministry of foreign affairs’ budget goes into servicing VVIPs’ foreign tours and this doesn’t show up in the prime minister’s or the president’s official tour expenses.
Let me share with you what I had to put up with in the last two decade. It’s indeed a litany of frustrations over the reckless way public representatives and military rulers, as well as their accompanying cronies abuse public money. Among the prime ministers, presidents, martial law administrators, ministers and parliamentarians I have served, I can recount very few exceptions. Most insist on at least five-star stay and travel by expensive limousines.
I had to, for instance, cough up embassy funds — which don’t count towards the official cost of the VVIPs’ departments — to entertain a number of businessmen and journalists accompanying former premier Shaukat Aziz on his several visits to Southeast Asia and elsewhere.
Back in the 1990s, I suffered public humiliation when the spouse of a prime minister got angry with me because I asked them to return the 8,000 Marks (German currency then) that we had ended up spending on their shopping from the embassy kitty. The couple angrily returned this official money only after several reminders but not before humiliating me in the presence of many before departure.
With great anguish I recall that a 36-hour visit to Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s capital, by a former president cost us $150,000 — more than double the cost of the monthly expense of the entire diplomatic mission. Why? Because most of the entourage rejected official protocol vehicles as ‘shabby and below their dignity’.
In one of the encounters with a federal minister and several of his cronies in a Chinese city in the recent past, I nearly cried. Only a day before I had seen the minister on Pakistani TV sermonising us on honesty and the need of austerity in “these testing times”. It was heart-wrenching to meet the bloated travel and shopping demands of the minister and his entourage. You simply cannot imagine how these ‘elected democrats’ or those associated with past military regimes blow away precious public funds
Once, during my posting in Saudi Arabia, we had to take care of an important religious personality for over two weeks — all at official expense. The gentleman and his family eventually returned with an overload of shopping — again at our expense.
The list of my encounters with ‘people’s servants’ abroad is as endless as it is heartbreaking. This only underscores the hypocrisy that successive rulers have practised. Paying lip service to integrity, honesty and austerity, and at the same time blowing away public money recklessly. They usually dislike being reminded of regulations governing expenditures. Their disdain often makes officials bend regulations. No wonder, questions or challenge to arbitrary spending is conveniently taken by them to mean a direct attack on democracy.
Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies