Clutching at straws? - Kamila Hyat - Saturday, August 21, 2010

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There has been much comment about the limited donations coming in, from both people in the country and governments overseas, to help Pakistan cope with the most devastating natural disaster in its history.

The major Middle Eastern states, with the exception of Kuwait, have not really stepped in as they have done in the past on more than one occasion. Many also note the spirit that marked philanthropic effort after the quake of 2005 seems to be missing this time around. This could be a misconception. The range of territory that the floods cover and their scale is so wide that it is possible relief attempts are barely noticeable amidst the vast ocean of misery. People everywhere do seem to be trying. But nothing will be enough given the magnitude of what has happened. It is also possible that people's capacity for giving has been reduced as a result of consistent inflation and the effects of an economy that has remained stubbornly depressed for a very long time.

There are of course other factors too. The lack of credibility of the government combined with President Zardari's ill-timed trip to Europe and all the flak he took for this are among these. There is also the underlying sense of despondency that makes it hard for people to motivate themselves into any kind of action.

We do not know what the full repercussions of the flood will be. There are, however, growing signs of desperation. The swift agreement by the prime minister to the commission to oversee relief activities suggested by Mian Nawaz Sharif surprised almost everyone -- perhaps most of all the PML- N chief himself. It was thought the decision to tackle floods jointly might be a move to try and draw in more donations and also deflect the criticism directed the way of the government. There is already anticipation that the floods may prove the last straw for a floundering set-up – and result in a process of destabilisation that could lead to the government being unseated.

This of course would be immensely unfortunate. The ouster of yet another government before its time, regardless of the many flaws in its working, would not do Pakistan or its people much good at all. At the present many may be desperate to somehow find good governance. But there is no guarantee at all that a new period of political uncertainty would lead towards this.

Even though the management of the crisis has not been particularly impressive, there must be some sympathy for the administration. The mob attacks on vehicles attempting to take food to victims could just be a hint of what lies ahead. There could just be anarchy. The cholera outbreak mentioned by the prime minister in his address to the nation has been denied by health officials – but it is hard to believe that disease does not lie ahead. The floods also roar on, with reports suggesting they could in time affect more areas. Some in Balochistan have indeed already been invaded by water, with agencies now attempting to manage matters simultaneously in all four provinces as well as in Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan.

As the government reaches out from what could be a sinking boat to clutch at the few straws it sees floating by, the government must realise if it is to have any hope of saving itself, far more is needed. The demand by the PML-N that money from the exchequer be put into the flood kitty should not have been required. Money for this should have been allocated anyway. A far more stringent austerity campaign is also required, with continuing foreign trips wound down and all official expenditure curtailed. Flood victims were seen making pointed comments about ministers whizzing past droves of desperate people in plush vehicles. Some have attempted to wave at fist-shaking hordes – apparently mistaking anger for excitement over seeing their leaders. Our politicians live somewhere up in cloud cuckoo land, oblivious to the real feelings of people and the extent of their distrust or even hatred. In the end this could prove to be their downfall.

It is also necessary for the government to move more strongly into the lead. Helicopter trips over flooded areas serve only the most limited purpose. The general perception is one of large-scale mismanagement and a kind of disarray. Things need to be brought under some kind of control. If this is to happen, the involvement of people is essential. Most are shocked by the scenes on TV screens and mental images of the plight of people in places cameras cannot reach. Some relief efforts have been made, but these are scattered and as such ineffectual. Teams of carefully-dressed housewives distributing packets of chips and biscuits among starving children will not get us very far at all. Neither will the piles of warm clothing rather bizarrely donated at at least one centre in Lahore, even though we have an emergency that has unfolded at the hottest time of the year in most parts of the country. The students and other young people who were extremely visible in 2005 seem to be missing this time around. An effort will need to be made to bring them and other organised groups on board.

The administrative setup will need to demonstrate what it is capable of. It cannot sit back and wring its hands. Even though conspiracy theories are said to abound – the simple fact of the matter is that the flood is not the creation of any group of men. It is not a plot unleashed to damage the government – as some members of the PPP would have us believe. But the degree to which it succeeds in managing the crisis may determine the future of the government and the future of a democracy that once again seems to be perilously close to toppling over.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor. Email: kamilahyat

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