Pakistan: floods exacerbate suffering

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Thousands of people have been killed, millions have been displaced, and billions of dollars have been wiped off the economy as a result of the most catastrophic flooding in Pakistan’s history, described by the UN as a disaster greater in scale than the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. The flooding has led the government to appeal for huge amounts of foreign aid and assistance, arguing that its already beleaguered state machinery is overstretched and incapable of responding effectively to what has become an increasingly dire humanitarian crisis. Indeed, even though the floodwaters have begun to recede in most of the worst-affected areas, the real challenge will be to rebuild and regenerate all that has been destroyed by the floods. Given the Pakistani government’s track record in such matters, there is not much cause for optimism.

As was the case in 2005, when an earthquake in northern Pakistan killed 79,000 people and flattened the city of Balakot, those affected most by the disaster were the poor. Lacking access to adequate housing and shelter, and bereft of the resources needed to support themselves in moments of crisis, millions of poverty-stricken Pakistanis are currently living in makeshift relief camps, facing an uncertain future in which the strains of economic hardship are unlikely to be eased by timely and effective interventions by the state in the areas of reconstruction and rehabilitation.  For many of the people in these camps, however, life after the floods is unlikely to be very different from that which they experienced in the past. While the floods may have left in their wake a huge swathe of destruction across the length of Pakistan, they are hardly responsible for creating the poverty that is endemic to the regions that they devastated.

In the face of the government’s incapacity to tackle the flooding, opportunities have been created for NGOs and international organisations to fill the void left by the state. Inevitably, as the aid millions start to roll in, much of the money will be absorbed by the hundreds of ‘experts’ and development sector bureaucrats employed in projects aimed at providing flood relief. Undoubtedly, much of the money will also simply disappear into the pockets of state functionaries and their partners in the non-governmental sector. Most significantly of all, however, will be the reinforcement within Pakistan of neo-liberal dogma advocating the roll-back of the state. As the state continues to be maligned, with the political elite themselves using the argument of state inefficiency to absolve themselves of all responsibility, it is likely that post-flood Pakistan will once again be subjected to the dictates of the IMF and World Bank, introducing programmes of economic ‘reform’ that will worsen the plight of the poor, while simultaneously devolving responsibility for governance to NGOs and private organisations. Given that Pakistan pays almost $3bn a year in debt servicing to the same organisations that are clamouring to provide the government with even more aid, it would be quite possible for the state to mount a more effective relief effort if it simply reneged on its commitment to pay back its debt. This, however, would be a solution that would not be in the interests of international capitalism or its local agents in Pakistan. For them, dismantling the state even further and subjecting the country to even more debt are far more attractive propositions. Disaster management is, after all, big business.

The irony of the situation is that, if anything, Pakistan requires more state intervention, not less. To the extent that relief efforts have been successful in Pakistan, it is due to the presence of state machinery that, while inefficient and corrupt, nonetheless remains the only set of institutions possessing the resources and reach necessary to respond to a disaster like the floods. The solution to Pakistan’s problems lies not in leaving its people to the dubious mercies of the market, but in strengthening state institutions and making them more responsive to the needs of the people. This, in turn, is something that can only be achieved by a sustained political project aimed at fundamentally transforming the relationship between state and citizen in Pakistan. Time and time again, Pakistan’s political elite have shown themselves to be incapable of addressing the needs of the poor. Indeed, while President Zardari was rightly criticised for embarking on a European Tour at the time when the flooding was at its worst, the vitriol directed at the polarising figure of the President deflected attention from the real problem: the fact that the Pakistani state, as a whole, exists only to further the interests of the rich and powerful propertied classes. Until this changes through a radical political process that empowers the poor and dispossessed, it will be business as usual in Pakistan.

Predictably enough, some sections of the international media have suggested that the real fallout from the floods in Pakistan will be increased recruitment for the Taliban and other militant Islamist groups, as thousands of disaffected people affected by the flood flock to their banners in an attempt to give voice to their rage. This is failing to see the wood for the trees. As has always been the case, the limited support that does exist for Islamist militancy in Pakistan can be attributed to state sponsorship for such groups, the lack of a credible political alternative in the absence of popular political participation and, most importantly, deprivation. The devastation wrought by the flooding pales in comparison to the systemic, everyday violence that the people of Pakistan are subjected to as a result of poverty, oppression and exploitation. These are problems that cannot be solved by replacing the state with the market or, as is being whispered within Pakistan itself, by removing a flawed democracy and ushering in yet another round of military dictatorship. It is only through a progressive political struggle that this system can be transformed.

Hassan Javid

FRFI 217 October/November 2010

 

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