Thursday, August 19, 2010

The river beyond

Daily TimesThursday, August 19, 2010

COMMENT: The river beyond —Dr Mohammad Taqi
Political leaders must take charge of shaping the narrative of this disaster and the recovery from it. They must articulate clearly and consistently that the gods are not in the business of unleashing havoc on innocent people and whole societies are not punished for the misdeeds of a few

It may sound like a cliché but the late Munir Niazi’s words ring truer today than ever before:

“Ik aur darya ka samna tha Munir mujh ko,

Mein aik darya kay paar utra to mein ne dekha.”


The translation of the above verse cannot fully capture all its connotations but the gist obviously remains that a bigger river is looking us in the eye when we land across the flooded rivers. The magnitude of the present disaster is such that all statements about the river beyond will remain understatements and every estimate an underestimate. What might not be an understatement though is that, without a cogent political leadership, a major slide backwards is inevitable for Pakistan.

After playing hooky for days, President Asif Zardari is back and, from the initial barbed exchanges, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) have moved on to talking to each other, which certainly is a good omen. However, the political leadership must realise that the tone, metrics and stage for recovery is set within the first few days of a disaster and they are already a fortnight too late.

The nations that have recovered successfully from massive disasters were able to do so through a resolute, optimistic and highly visible leadership, in addition to the resilience of their people. In most developed countries, the social psychology generally is that every disaster can be managed and at least the status quo ante restored, without reordering society in a fundamental manner. Contrarily, where cultural norms contribute significantly to a sense of resigning to fate, a cloud of pessimism can take hold quickly, with the expectations of recovery scaled down to a new lower normal. The 24-hour news coverage is a double-edged sword, which can literally make or break the will of a society in situations like these.

So, first things first: political leaders must take charge of shaping the narrative of this disaster and the recovery from it. They must articulate clearly and consistently that the gods are not in the business of unleashing havoc on innocent people and whole societies are not punished for the misdeeds of a few. No scripture prescribes repentance and supplication as the alternatives to human effort. In my conversations with a Chishti Sufi master from Peshawar, he would always drive home the point that ‘himmat-e-mardaan, madad-e-Khuda’ (God helps those who help themselves). Let us not allow the media rookies to tell the people that they brought this upon themselves.

But to be able to shape the disaster management discourse, the political leadership must put its money where its mouth is — literally. Addressing a joint press conference, Prime Minister Gilani and the PML-N leader Mian Nawaz Sharif have said that they would appeal to the rich to come forward to help the millions in distress. Apparently, Mian sahib also suggested names like the former Justices Rana Bhagwandas and Fakhruddin G Ebrahim and others to be part of the proposed fund-raising and relief panel, to make it credible. The two leaders also nominated Finance Minister Dr Hafeez Sheikh of the PPP and Senator Ishaq Dar of the PML-N to hammer out the details of the proposed federal body overseeing the relief and reconstruction effort.

There are two issues with this proposal. The problem is not the credibility of the fine men Mian sahib has named; it is that of the many among the parties ruling at the Centre and in the provinces. Landing on the top tiers of the world’s most corrupt states list, year after year, has not helped the country’s image. States and the organised and individual donors are shying away from contributing. Even expatriate Pakistanis want to know how their contributions will be spent and would much rather donate to a private charity than the government of Pakistan.

Instead of proposing that Rs 250 billion from the national exchequer be transferred to the new body, the political leadership would have been well advised to personally donate generously into this fund as the seed money. Dr Hafeez Sheikh — a US-educated economist — could have informed the leadership that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has an annual budget bigger than UNESCO and the bulk of its funding comes from an endowment by the Gates family. Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffett, George Soros and many before them have devoted hundreds of billion of dollars towards philanthropic causes. The rupee-billionaires are well represented in the ruling parties. Leading by example and not cashing in on others’ good name is what they could do to boost the credibility of the relief commission. Also, instead of setting up separate bank accounts for flood relief, a contribution to the federal government fund by the military leadership would further bolster the effort.

Another issue that links directly with the credibility at home was the exclusion of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Balochistan from the initial decision-making. While the Council of Common Interests (CCI) is about to meet and the provinces obviously have representation there, respected leaders like Senators Hasil Bizenjo and Haji Muhammad Adeel from Balochistan and KP respectively could have been included in the announced team. Inter-province relations must not be bungled at the very outset of the disaster management.

A functional relationship between the vertical and horizontal layers of the government is a must for a harmonious relief effort and to present a unified front. Around the world, the armed forces are called upon to assist civilian governments in peacetime calamities. For example, the US National Guard has been under the state governors’ command since 1878 to help during catastrophes. The Pakistani armed forces have always served the nation well in a similar capacity and continue to do so with honour. There should be no reason to portray them as an outfit alien to the federal government.

All disasters have political implications and mismanaging one comes at a very high price for an elected government. While some in the west are even predicting the crumbling of the democratic set-up in Pakistan, a more likely outcome could be the de-politicisation of the people and disillusionment with the political forces. With their eyes on the river beyond, the leadership must get its act together; they have to catch up, and fast.

The writer can be reached at mazdaki@me.com

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