In Pakistan, lurking behind every failure is a foreign hand and every problem seems to spin into a wild conspiracy theory. The flood crisis is different. Like the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, it was a natural disaster. No one is to blame for the deluge that affected 20 million people, inundated a fifth of Pakistan’s farm land and destroyed any hope of economic growth. The worry is that the humanitarian and reconstruction efforts could provide yet another opportunity for the government, army, private sector and international community to fail Pakistan’s poorest. In fairness, no one entity is equipped to address the overwhelming challenge alone. The civilian government is too fractious and under-resourced; the army is conducting a heroic rescue effort but its primary mission is security; the private sector can lend support and innovation but it is not structured to lead a national effort; and finally, no one wants Pakistan to fall into receivership to the international community.
Ultimately, reconstruction on the scale required after the vast destruction of the floods will entail the kind of organization and investment only a national government working in collaboration with local authorities, international donors and the ingenuity of its own people can provide. The vast extent of destruction and the desperate need of millions of people require politicians to put aside rivalries and forge new alliances for the good of their citizens.
The promising new player gaining influence is Pakistan’s civil society. Civil society organizations may well prove to be the difference between an effort that brings a fractured society together and one that only deepens the existing fault lines. Tapping into the ingenuity of the private sector will be essential to the long-term successful reconstruction and development the people of Pakistan so dearly deserve.
Civil society organizations and activities in Pakistan, a key channel of participation for ordinary citizens in community affairs, have grown in number and scope in recent years. They have been at the forefront of delivering aid to the 2005 earthquake victims and successfully promoting a return to civilian democracy, especially during the so-called lawyers’ movement protests in 2007. With an increase in international funding for development activities in the country, such as the U.S. Kerry-Lugar-Berman funds, the number of Pakistani NGOs working in the education, health and economic development sectors has also grown. Many groups have emulated a worthy model set by the Edhi Foundation run by Abdul Sattar Edhi. Edhi represents what is best and good within Pakistani society and has set a high standard for others to follow.
While Pakistani organizations hold the key to the nation’s future, international friends of Pakistan can help. Senator John Kerry(D-MA) has recently proposed the "International Professional Exchange Act of 2010" in which he suggests funding be made available for a two-way exchange of young professionals like teachers, public health workers and civil society participants between America and Muslim countries. "This legislation is designed to help build professional capacity, strengthen civil society, and improve ties between the United States and Muslim-majority countries," he said in a recent public statement. The success of the Fulbright program in Pakistan and elsewhere proves that exchange programs can be an effective way of strengthening the links between the United States and the rest of the world. Nowhere is this more urgent than in Pakistan. Exchanges like the one Kerry supports acknowledge that the United States has as much to learn from the young people who come to live and work in our society as others do from us. Facilitating exchange programs between the civil societies in Pakistan and the United States will allow for a two way transfer of skills and cultural understanding while strengthening the work of NGOs that are a source of hope and tolerance in society.
Service exchanges between Pakistan and the United States should be supported as an invaluable opportunity for the development and strengthening of people-to-people links that are sorely needed for both countries to achieve a lasting relationship based on shared objectives and ideals.
Wendy Chamberlin is president of the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C., and a former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan (2001-2002). Qursum Qasim is a former research associate at the Middle East Institute.
Assertions and opinions in this editorial are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.