The South Asia Channel

Money can’t buy everything

As soon as Pakistan’s heartland became catastrophically inundated by flood waters, political elites in Pakistan and the West began drawing on a familiar well of anxieties about Pakistani society — most of all, that extremist organizations were best positioned to exploit the situation to their advantage. Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari joined the chorus, as ...

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As soon as Pakistan’s heartland became catastrophically inundated by flood waters, political elites in Pakistan and the West began drawing on a familiar well of anxieties about Pakistani society — most of all, that extremist organizations were best positioned to exploit the situation to their advantage. Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari joined the chorus, as did U.S. Senator John Kerry, who directly linked Pakistan’s humanitarian needs with its — and America’s — national security. The western world responded to those alarms with massive donations of money, nearly $1 billion in total.

But the biggest problem facing Pakistan as it tries to recover from the floods isn’t extremist groups, or a lack of money to combat them: It’s the lack of effective governance on the local level. Humanitarian assistance that refuses to seriously reckon with local facts won’t be of much use to Pakistanis.

Before anything else, the direness of much of Pakistani life requires acknowledgement. Most of the affected areas were catastrophes long before the floods arrived: their major socio-economic indicators — the literacy rate, school enrollment rate, and child mortality rate — were already abysmal. The poverty in some parts of southern Punjab, for example, stood at 55 percent before the floods.

The condition of women in the region has always been especially bad. The International Fund for Agricultural Development’s July 2010 study on southern Punjab mentions that women of the area are considerably more vulnerable to poverty than men. The report adds that an estimated 2.6 million women and girls are essentially reduced to serfdom, employed as cotton pickers on the cotton farms during the harvesting season between September and December.

Indeed, patterns of land holding in much of Pakistan are basically feudal. Five percent of Pakistani agricultural households own 64 percent of the farmland. Landless laborers are destined for lives of penury and servitude. In short, Pakistani society has a long road to travel in pursuing economic development; humanitarian assistance should show humility in that regard.

The other major problem is that Pakistan’s governmental institutions are ill-suited to respond to problems in rural provinces. It should not be a surprise that the government’s flood management response has shown such shoddy coordination between the provincial Punjab capital of Lahore and the local elected councils in hard-hit areas. The elected local bodies were empowered under the rule of General Musharraf in a gesture of political expediency; they have since succumbed to indolence and corruption. So in spite of the presence of several early warning mechanisms at the provincial as well as federal level, no one was prepared to cope with the floods.

Philanthropists should be especially concerned by the lack of accountability of Pakistani institutions. Palagummi Sainath, in his classic book Everybody Loves a Good Drought, documented how catastrophes in India often became opportunities for the state bureaucracy to fleece public money. The situation in Pakistan is likely no different.

Pakistan’s rehabilitation and reconstructions will take years — but the international community ought to look at it as an opportunity to help reform Pakistan from the ground-up. Unfortunately, the world squandered the same opportunity in the aftermath of the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan. Now, instead of offering just money to Pakistan’s central government, donors should consider lending technical assistance to local institutions, while also sharing best practices that the development sector has implemented elsewhere. This disaster could help many Pakistanis break free from their shackles; indeed, that’s the only way for the country to enjoy a sustainable, long-term recovery.

Luv Puri is a Fulbright scholar and has reported from South Asia for more than a decade.

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