Helping Pakistan; not if, but how

August 14, 2010

morefloodsOutside President Asif Ali Zardari’s political rally in Birmingham last weekend, I chatted to a middle-aged woman passing by about the floods in Pakistan. “I have every sympathy for Pakistan and the Pakistanis, but he is not helping them much, is he?” she said. Another woman asked me to explain why it was that the  protesters were not focused on the floods but demonstrating “about all sorts”.  Inside the rally, a young British Pakistani who had recently returned from a visit to his family home in Kashmir complained about negative stereotyping in the media of Pakistan that had reduced a country of some 170 million people to “a terrorist threat”.

If there is a common thread to the relatively slow western response to one of the worst catastrophes in Pakistan’s history, it is a sense of confusion, not about whether to help, but how to help. That, and the dehumanising impact of stereotypes - corrupt politicians, angry bearded protesters, suicide bombers to name but a few – that obscure the impact of the floods on the very real people – 14 million of them - affected by the disaster.

In the short term, the weak civilian government has been slammed for failing to come up with a clear plan to address the immediate needs of those hit by the floods. Nor has it provided the leadership that might rally all institutions and people behind it. The result has been that the Pakistan Army, long the country’s most efficient and effective national institution, has stepped in to fill the void, leading efforts to rescue flood victims.  Meanwhile, as Pakistani politicians squabbled amongst themselves and flew into disaster-hit areas with an eye for photo-ops, and as Zardari travelled abroad to France and Britain, the banned Jamaat-ud-Dawa – the humanitarian wing of the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group - quietly moved in to help, as it did in the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir. 

The United States, along with other countries, has been ratcheting up its aid efforts, offering financial assistance totallling $76 million and sending military helicopters for relief and rescue operations. However, I can’t help but feel a bit uneasy when this is presented in terms of vying for influence with Islamist charities like the Jamaat ud-Dawa. This may be partially true, but it is also part of the same dehumanising process, as though the flood victims are no more than “hearts and minds” to be won over, rather than people facing death from hunger and disease.  International and Pakistani NGOs are doing what they can – although for those who want to help, it can be hard for outsiders to work out which charity best deserves donations (inside Pakistan, the Edhi Foundation is widely respected.)

But if understanding how to alleviate the short-term crisis is hard enough, the question of how to help Pakistan in the long term is even more perplexing.  The damage to its fragile economy is likely to be felt not just this year – the World Bank says $1 billion in crops have been lost - but in grain sowings for food supplies in the future.  The impact on society in a country already struggling to find its feet in a battle against Islamist militancy is yet to be fully understood, although popular anger against the government over its response to the floods does not bode well. Add to that  the disorientating impact of climate change – and scientists are still arguing about how much the floods in Pakistan and drought in Russia are due to global warming – and the need to bolster Pakistan’s defences in the future against water crises (both shortage and excess) and you have a reconstruction challenge which would defy even the strongest of governments.

At a crude level, Pakistan needs better water management, better irrigation and a reversal of the deforestation which has been widely blamed for exacerbating the flooding.  Deforestation has a double impact. Firstly there is nothing to slow flood waters and mudslides. Secondly,  it contributes to soil erosion, silting up river waters so that dams and levees downstream are even less able to contain the impact of unusually heavy monsoon rains. Pakistan’s forests have been ravaged by an illegal timber mafia, often working in league with corrupt local politicians. Reversing that process is both an obvious need and - as with so many obvious needs in Pakistan - a political nightmare.

The economy itself might actually tick up slightly. Natural disasters are often followed by a reconstruction boom. But reconstruction which does not take account of the need for sustainable development would leave Pakistan exposed to more natural disasters in the future, particularly if uneven monsoons combine with faster melting of the Himalayan glaciers which feed its rivers. Reconstruction which exacerbates income disparities and feeds corruption will tug even harder at the country’s fragile social fabric.

And that brings us to the question of who is going to manage the reconstruction and the inflow of foreign aid.  In an editorial in Dawn newspaper, Cyril Almeida worries that financial rescue from the west may be even worse than the original problem if it encourages a desire – particularly among Pakistan’s overseas backers – for a return to the apparent efficiency of military rule.

There is no real hint of that right now – the army has shown no interest in taking over the running of the country as long as it can control foreign and security policy from behind the scenes. It benefits from having a civilian face supporting it in what is effectively a civil war against Pakistani Taliban militants.  It needs civilian institutions to try to fill the gap with administration and services after it clears areas of Taliban control. And for Pakistan as a whole, the benefits of democracy and its ability to devolve power to the provinces are often presented as a better way of keeping the country together than through military rule, which tends to revolve around a centralising authority. Most reckon that an end to civilian democracy would be a disaster for the country in the long term.

Yet the cycle of civilian-military rule forms a familiar pattern in Pakistan.  People are usually glad to see military dictators go, and yet after a period of unsuccessful civilian rule, many welcome the army back with relief – as happened when former president Pervez Musharraf seized power in a coup in 1999.  In his early years in power, he appeared to hold out great promise of reform although this dissipated over time.

“1999-2002 wasn’t very long ago,” writes Almeida. “Many remember it fondly, for its attention and commitment to reform. Why green-light another bailout for a tried-and-failed lot that will just kick the reform ball down the road again? Why not just fold and walk away from a swaggering Zardari? Zardari may be too arrogant to care about the media response here, but the scorn heaped on him by the western media will have send chills down the spines of his smarter (!) advisers.  They know the West’s demand for reform is greater than its love for democracy here.”

In a reversal of the “do more” mantra repeated to Pakistan by the west looking for greater action against Islamist militants, Pakistan is asking foreign countries to “do more” to help it cope with the floods. But the question is not really whether western countries will help – they have too much at stake, from a war going badly in neighbouring Afghanistan to concerns about instability in nuclear-armed Pakistan, to refuse. The question is how.


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