The South Asia Channel

From the floods, Pakistan’s next generation emerges

Rising waters have left people stranded on islands of mud. Men and women wade through torrents of disease-ridden water seeking sanctuary for the children they carry on their shoulders. Thousands huddle in the few remaining public buildings in the flood-hit areas. Around them the receding water lays bare the destruction wrought by torrents that smashed ...


Rising waters have left people stranded on islands of mud. Men and women wade through torrents of disease-ridden water seeking sanctuary for the children they carry on their shoulders. Thousands huddle in the few remaining public buildings in the flood-hit areas. Around them the receding water lays bare the destruction wrought by torrents that smashed everything in their path.

The floods, which have killed 1,600 people and made millions homeless, have exposed the Pakistani state’s shortcomings to withering criticism. But while the destruction vividly shows what is wrong with Pakistan, the reaction to it demonstrates where the country’s eventual salvation might lie.

Pakistan is beset by a serious lack of good governance. Analysts such as the scholars at the Pak Institute of Peace Studies have argued for some time that this absence is a driving force behind whatever support extremists in Pakistan can claim. In recent weeks, the Air Blue crash in Islamabad and the government’s poor reaction to the floods have drawn more attention to this fracture at the heart of the country. No matter how much aid flows into Pakistan from the outside, Pakistanis themselves must ultimately ensure the formation of governments that serve the people they claim to represent. And surprisingly, possibly the one positive thing to emerge from the floods is growing evidence that young Pakistanis – the educated sons and daughters of well-off families – are willing and able to show that collective action for the public good is not something that is only possible in other countries.

Just days after the scale of the flooding’s devastation became apparent, Pakistanis in their 20s and 30s began mobilizing their networks of friends and colleagues for the relief effort, often utilizing social media such as Facebook and Twitter. While President Asif Zardari was away from the country on his ill-advised trip to Europe and aid officials were saying international donations had been slow to arrive because people don’t trust the Pakistani government, young people across the country were organizing aid drops and going to the streets to collect donations.

One aid organizer who didn’t want to give his name said to me, "We were sitting in front of the TV watching these devastating scenes from our own country. A few of us thought that if no one is willing to help our own people – not the world community, not our own government – then it’s our job." One previously-established organization, Pakistan Youth Alliance (PYA) has raised 2.5 million rupees (about $30,000) in two weeks from street collections alone in Pakistan’s main cities.

But new groups have also been formed in response to the crisis. Two Pakistanis from Karachi studying law in the UK have set up Pehla Qadam (First Step) while on their holidays. Youth Catalyst Pakistan, created just before the floods to work on issues related to Pakistan’s young, has pivoted to delivering aid and has arranged for volunteer doctors to set up medical camps in afflicted areas.

Those abroad with family ties to Pakistan have also gotten involved as well. American Pakistani organizations, for instance, have created Relief4Pakistan, a donation campaign raising money for Mercy Corps‘ work in Pakistan.

The international media has given much attention to organizations with political aims using the floods to garner support. Many have reported  that Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a front group for the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba which is implicated in the Mumbai attacks, has been administering aid. Even the Pakistani army is suspected by some to be using the floods to gain popularity at the expense of the civilian government.

In contrast, the young Pakistanis organizing tents, food and medical treatment have shown no political ambition beyond wanting to do good for their country. However, their activities are stirring the social and political waters in Pakistani cities – where their volunteers live -and the rural areas – where they come into contact with the flood’s victims.

Bridging social divides

Jibran Nasir of Pehla Qadam explained to me how working to provide relief has challenged ingrained perceptions about ethnicity, class and gender in Pakistan.

"We have volunteers who are from all different backgrounds working together; Baluchis, Sindhis, Pashtuns, you name it… For many people, it’s the first time they are interacting with others from different backgrounds. It breaks down barriers," he said.

Pehla Qadam volunteers raised funds in Karachi even when the city was rocked by tit-for-tat assassinations between Pashtuns and ethnic Urdu-speakers known as Muhajirs. Nasir himself is half Punjabi and half Muhajir while his collaborator Ammar Abbasi is a Sindhi and a woman. Both are in their early 20s and study in the UK.

Others who had volunteered in flood-hit areas said it was a shock to see how refugee and poor communities had been living in the first place, but that it was uplifting and encouraging to connect with them on a human level. For the local communities receiving help, it was a welcome surprise to see individuals from ethnicities they considered hostile coming to offer help.

Tayyeba Gul, from Youth Catalyst Pakistan says she made a point of getting locals involved in the relief effort.

"We need their help and they feel good mentally. They feel like they are doing something useful and it helps to make sure they don’t get drawn into something bad," she said referring to extremist organizations.

A popular view is that these young expatriate Pakistanis are indolent, spoilt and worried only about their job opportunities abroad. This sometimes rings true, but it isn’t the whole picture. These young people benefit from being disconnected from the tribal and clannish politics of their leaders. More importantly, though, they are energetic, frustrated and keen to bring about change.

Some of those organizing the aid share the general negative perceptions of their peers. Nasir as well as Abbas from the Pakistan Youth Alliance say they want Pakistan’s younger generation of qualified and well-connected people to leave their insulated bubbles of foreign travel, chauffer-driven cars and plush social events and do something for their country and its people. It looks like more young Pakistanis are thinking the same thing.

"After I started, I found that quite a few people think like me," said Nasir. "After we set up we had people almost immediately thinking the same thing wanting to help… Yes, I was surprised" He added, "More well-to-do Pakistanis need to see the reality of people’s lives in this country."

In some way or another, all of the groups I spoke to are utilizing social networking technology to help their efforts. Kalsoom Lakhani, who helped set up Relief4Pakistan, said the venture was partly started to engage social media platforms "to mobilize donations in the most centralized way possible." Relief4Pakistan, like Pehla Qadam and other groups, uses Facebook and other social networking sites to overcome the trust issues that have plagued the government by showing donators where their mo
ney is going.

And while Pakistani media shows the army making food drops and government officials touring devastated towns and villages, much of the initial drive to deliver aid, set up camps and provide medical help was organized and coordinated by networks of young people utilizing this technology. Before the media was carrying appeals by well-known personalities or reporting donations by large firms, emails, tweets, text messages and Facebook groups were already mobilizing help.

Finally, while some groups will likely disband after finishing their relief work, others like Ali Abbas of the Pakistan Youth Alliance want to take things further.

PYA, which boasts 18,000 members, was founded in 2007 during Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s rule. The group’s general aim is to increase political participation amongst the population. After the military man left office, the group started working on social development issues and organized relief to the displaced people of Swat who had fled Taliban violence.

Abbas told me his motivation is simple: "We want to make people understand that they have a part to play in the destiny of this country."

Western nations have in the past been keen to support Pakistan’s small military and feudal-political elites. That policy has hampered the evolution of Pakistani society and failed the country while endangering the wider world.  But it’s not business as usual in Pakistan anymore. A new generation of Pakistanis who are less beholden to the dictates of traditional politics as practiced by their fathers and grandfathers are willing and able to prove their commitment to the future of their country. Out of floods, earthquakes and political catastrophes, these young people are changing the rules in Pakistan.

Amil Khan works in Pakistan for Radical Middle Way and writes as Londonstani on the Abu Muqawama blog. His book about the development of extremism, The Long Struggle, will be published by Zero Books in September.

Amil Khan is a former Reuters Middle East correspondent and author of The Long Struggle: The Muslim World's Western Problem.