The floods in Pakistan, undoubtedly unprecedented, have exposed the chinks in the so-called ‘steel frame' of the state.
Damned if you do, damned if you don't. That politics is a tightrope walk and there can be no one-size-fits-all solution to a crisis was the lesson for Pakistan's politicians as they struggled to deal with the flood situation facing the country over the past fortnight.
If President Asif Ali Zardari came in for stinging criticism for jetting to France and the United Kingdom as millions were being rendered homeless by unprecedented rainfall and consequent flooding back home, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif's overdrive in reaching out to the masses in his province drew flak for distracting relief workers and slowing down the pace of rescue operations.
Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani sought to match Mr. Sharif in visiting the flood-hit areas — including a medical camp at Mianwali in the northwest of Punjab “for his eyes only.” But that Mr. Zardari's visit was ill-timed is a view shared by even the international community present in considerable strength in Islamabad, thanks to the global war on terror.
Even before he set out on his tour, Mr. Zardari was under immense pressure to call off the U.K. leg in view of British Prime Minister David Cameron's “Pakistan-is-exporting-terrorism” comment in India. Mr. Zardari, however, dug his heels in and all the President's men touted the merits of diplomacy over a kneejerk reaction to the charges levelled against Pakistan.
While there was some merit in that contention, the magnitude of the floods did provide him an opportunity to call off the U.K. tour without triggering a diplomatic row. The fact that he did not grab the opportunity but jetted off to his sprawling chateau in northern France before landing at the Heathrow Airport — dressed casually in jeans and jacket with family in tow — rubbed salt into the wounds.
The News — The Jang group's English newspaper — had a telling front page last week. On the top fold was a photograph of a French Air Force helicopter preparing to drop Mr. Zardari off over his property — Manoir de la Reine Blanche (the Manor of the White Queen) — and the bottom fold had an advertisement, of Mr. Sharif offering his shoulder to a frail bare-chested man in grief, placed by the Punjab government.
Not that Mr. Zardari could have done much by being present in Pakistan — something that was evident from the criticism Mr. Sharif drew for his efforts — but symbolism counts for something in politics. As if this were not bad enough, the Prime Minister has now said parliamentary delegations will be sent abroad to convince the international donor community to loosen its purse strings. Given that the floods have got extensive coverage in the international media — — questions are being asked what purpose such “junkets” will serve apart from eating into the country's foreign exchange reserves.
It has been acknowledged that aid has been slow in coming from not just the government but also the United Nations. This is in sharp contrast to 2005, when there was a huge earthquake, and even last year when aid was collected for the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) of the military operations against terror groups.
Criticising the Prime Minister's announcement, The Dawn newspaper, in its editorial, said on Wednesday: “There is no doubt we need aid that matches the extent of devastation. But higher aid commitments will not flow from the politicians' begging missions…, we should convince the world that we are doing all we can to help ourselves and that donor agencies should have trust in our ability to utilize the aid effectively and promptly.''
Though some leading lights like the former bureaucrat-turned-politician, Shafqat Mahmood, feel that international donors may be waiting for a proper assessment to see how best they can help, the harsh reality is that the humanitarian community working in Pakistan for the over million IDPs has been facing a resource crunch; resulting in the closure of some projects.
In fact, according to the U.N Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, only about 49 per cent of the required $537 million has been pledged/received till date despite repeated appeals. This is in sharp contrast to last year when 40 per cent of the required funds had come in by April. At least in the case of IDPs in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the donor community had the excuse that their plight was not visible as media coverage in these parts is restricted.
Now the plight and scale of the devastation have been flashed the world over. Yet, the aid to deal with the deluge is only trickling in and the U.N. agencies labour the point daily. Part of the problem is recession because of which many countries have slashed aid spending. Within Pakistan, since the floods have affected the rich and the poor alike and inundated practically all of the country, host communities who reached out during the IDP crisis are themselves homeless this time round. Add to this the month of Ramzan when prices as it is go through the roof in advance, stretching household budgets.
Besides, argues Lahore-based lawyer Asad Jamal, there is a greater distrust of Pakistan today than ever before. “When Mr. Cameron talks about the double game Pakistan has been playing, it must reverberate in world capitals. I mean if the world is thinking ‘Pakistan and the people of Pakistan are themselves not serious about making corrections, why should we be bothered'?''
Add to this the credibility issue. “The Earthquake Reconstruction & Rehabilitation Authority — established after the 2005 destruction — has not been questioned for the alleged bungling amounting to billions. Why would the world come forward to offer financial help,” asks Mr. Jamal adding the ruling order is so much under attack from all quarters — the Opposition, the judiciary, the media, the U.S., the Taliban and the forces — that it remains ever pre-occupied with protecting its flanks. “It would be less inefficient if it did not have to outsource major decision-making processes to the ultimate source of power, the state within state. I mean consider the enormity of problems the government has faced since 2008. This is an ungovernable country at the moment.”
The federal government is also taking much of the stick because of Pakistan's over-centralised past. “The 18th Amendment and the 7th National Finance Commission Award are historic milestones as they brought fundamental structural changes and corrected the historical imbalance/injustice by giving much of the Centre's financial and administrative resources to the provinces but whether the States are ready to deliver is a different question. The floods are an example of the ultimate responsibility being that of the provinces, but the federal government is getting all the flak because people are not used to putting pressure on provincial governments,” said a government official.
While the political class can only lead from the front and it is the administrative machinery that should have got into the act, the floods — undoubtedly unprecedented for any kind of preparation to be equal to the task as Pakistan received an equivalent of the annual rainfall in four days — exposed the chinks in the ‘steel frame.' Primarily because the former President, Pervez Musharraf, introduced changes in the district administration system in the name of devolution and weakened the ‘steel frame' from its core, points out Mr. Mahmood.
In the place of the District Collector or the magistrate who had near-ministerial powers over all departments, including revenue and police, Gen. Musharraf brought in an elected Mayor and created the office of District Coordination Officer that eroded the existing control mechanisms and affected the structural ability to respond. “When I was in service, we used to have annual flood plans but this time the system seemed to respond after nature had struck and not in anticipation of the monsoon,” says Mr. Mahmood.
With the floods drowning the hopes of an economic revival of the terror-torn country and the charities run by militant organisations moving quickly to fill the vacuum as the administrative machinery and international aid structures sputter into action, there is a lurking fear of what the future holds for an already blighted nation.