Giving a voice to Pakistan’s flood victims

September 8, 2010

charpoyIf you were to give the flood victims in Pakistan a voice, they would tell you that they need seeds to replant the crops destroyed by the water and enough emergency relief to tide them through the winter. After that the land, newly fertilised by the floods, could yield bumper crops in the years ahead.

The children would tell you that the floods hit so powerfully that the memory of feeling in panic while loudspeakers broadcast warnings from the mosques will be forever etched on their minds. They don’t blame the government for a disaster so big that not even in the tales of their ancestors had they heard stories of such floods. They just want enough help to rebuild their homes so they don’t have to sleep in half-destroyed buildings with sunken floors, worrying about them collapsing on top of them in the night.

In the villages, people would tell you they don’t mind who helps them — whether the army, the government or Islamist charities — as long as they provide food and medicine for their families. They don’t care about politics, or Islamist militants, or the “right” interpretation of Islam. And again and again, they would stress that they don’t want to survive on handouts, but want to rebuild their lives.

It is ordinary, sensible stuff. Travelling in Pakistan, and particularly to flood-hit areas, you are left thinking that if only ordinary people had a bigger say in the running of the country, it might be a considerably better place.

Yet for all its latest experiment in democracy which began in 2008, Pakistan has yet to find a way of devolving power properly down to the people. Politics is dominated by feudal elites and family dynasties — from the Zardari-Bhutto family which runs the ruling Pakistan People’s Party to the Sharif brothers in the main opposition Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz).

The civilian government has been severely criticised over its slow response to the floods. Corruption is so endemic that even the government has been forced to admit that it might be better if international aid were channelled through other hands than its own.

It is hardly surprising then that given the devastation of the floods, people are looking for answers on the most efficient way to rebuild Pakistan.

Political leader Altaf Hussain has already called on the army to support the masses against corrupt feudal leaders in something akin to the French Revolution. His suggestion – made from exile in London – was largely dismissed within Pakistan. Yet it was also wdely reported, in part because it provided a vehicle on which to hang widespread mutterings of disquiet about democracy’s inability to act fairly in the interests of flood victims.

The Pakistan Army has taken the lead role in flood relief, burnishing an image which was badly tarnished in the final years of former president Pervez Musharraf. Nobody is expecting the army to take over. But by demonstrating its power and reach as the only national insitution with the organisational skills, manpower and resources to provide flood relief, it has served notice to the country’s squabbling politicians. If it were ever to decide to take over at some point in the future, it probably has the means, and the power, to do so.

It was because of that context that the call made by Altaf Hussain had such resonance within Pakistan.

The army, so the argument goes, tends to be more meritocratic than political parties – men from lower middle class families, including its army chief, General Ashfaq Pervez kayani, can join up and rise through the ranks in a way they could never do in the political dynasties. And given that the army has no political axe to grind, it can be trusted to distribute flood relief to those who need it, rather than to those whose votes might be required in the future.

The problem, however, is that after running the country on-and-off since independence, the army has never really allowed democracy to mature. Any return to military rule would likely take Pakistan even further away from devolving power to ordinary people.

Another suggestion doing the rounds is for there to be a government of technocrats to administer the flood relief and the billions of dollars in international aid that will be needed to put Pakistan back on its feet. In an article for the BBC, writer Ahmed Rashid develops this idea further by suggesting that the government should allow foreign technocrats to sort out the country through a Pakistan Reconstruction Trust Fund.

“No doubt the army and politicians would reject such an idea, saying that this would spell the end of sovereignty of a nuclear power and be intolerable for an independent nation,” he writes. “But the elite is already losing its sovereignty every day if it cannot put the country back together again and regain the trust of the people. The sovereignty the government has lost in the floods is the biggest loss in the country’s history bar one, when the ruling elite lost East Pakistan – now Bangladesh – in 1971.”

Yet the argument seems to fall foul of the same one that applies to army rule – how do ordinary people get to have a say in how the money that is being raised in their name is spent?

Television images can give a misleading impression of Pakistan’s flood victims – there are so many of them that the individual families get lost. The footage tends to focus on people fighting over food handouts, or on the person who complains most loudly about not being given enough.

In the flood-hit areas in south Punjab, my impression was different. I never felt threatened, never saw any sign of protests or violence. Several times we had to fend off offers of food and drink from people anxious to show their hospitality by sharing out their meagre supplies. The complaints were there of course, along with that hopeful look of anticipation you get in poor villages across South Asia — floods or not — when people  mistake visiting journalists for officials come to assess their needs.

But mostly you found people who just wanted the means to rebuild homes and replant crops; and with that the dignity of being able to survive without having to beg. From the little girl who wanted to go back to school so she could study to become a doctor to the old man who looked forward to bumper crops, they knew what they needed.

For all the difficulties facing Pakistan, and indeed the idealism of the sentiment, you have to hope that somewhere, their voices will be heard.

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