Rebuilding lives - Zubeida Mustafa - January 12, 2011

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THE year 2010 will go down in history as the year of the great deluge when the fury of the Indus devastated large tracts of land, sending 1,600 people to a watery grave.

Unlike the earthquake of 2005 the worst wasn’t over after the floods peaked in September. Problems lingered on as greater misery followed.

How did Pakistan cope with this crisis? We got partial feedback on the question at the eleventh Akhter Hameed Khan Forum held recently in Karachi to honour the memory of the great social activist whose legacy lives on. It is heartening that four institutions — the Orangi Pilot Project-Research and Training Institute, the Orangi Charitable Trust, the Karachi Health and Social Development Association, and the Rural Development Trust — continue to spread the message of their founder.

These institutions help to provide service to the people on the basis of self-reliance and the principle of work with dignity. The forum focused on the experiences of OPP’s partners — more than 150 community-based and non-government organisations — in flood relief and rehabilitation operations.

The participants had many stories to tell; stories that inspire and also stories that sadden. What gives hope for the future are the accounts of the resilience of flood survivors. They incurred huge losses but continue to fight back. They still have to be rehabilitated fully while life has not been normalised since many of the survivors lost their source of livelihood. Many lessons emerge from this calamity, not just in disaster management but also about human nature.

When disaster strikes, people have learned not to wait for the government agencies to come to their rescue. The victims draw on their own reserves of energy and initiative to tide over the crisis. The immediate relief and assistance they have received has been from fellow citizens and not the slow-moving official agencies that have bureaucratic red tape to cross before they reach the people on the ground. Then there are middlemen diverting a chunk of the funds, which only makes the operation resource-starved.

The fact is that people have learnt to manage in these dire times. But the government is still needed because there are not enough resources on the ground and the bigger projects that cater collectively to the needs of a community require massive funding that individuals do not possess. It has been seen that when the community displays self-reliance and tries to help itself, private donors have stepped forward to extend a helping hand. In fact this holds true for any development project undertaken with integrity and which is feasible. One would, however, prefer it if an honest government that cares were to be the saviour.

It also emerged from the speeches at the forum that relief and rescue work at the grassroots can be undertaken if a community service infrastructure is already in position when disaster strikes. Volunteers simply expand their operations to undertake more duties. This exercise enhances their confidence and helps them test their potential. But it is simply not possible for anyone to create a structure out of nothingness to provide assistance at short notice.

That is why in any area where the administration barely exists or is ineffective not much can be achieved. This also shows why the local government is so important for a country as expansive as Pakistan. A good local government provides the structures at the grassroots.

The most worrying message to emerge from this exercise was that there is a disconnect between the community and the state. The latter is simply not responding to the needs of the people and is not in a state of preparedness to meet the needs of the population.

Why is this a seminal issue that requires Pakistan to seriously rethink its approach to public governance? By leaving people in isolation with no links to the state we have yielded public space to extremist, orthodox elements that are playing havoc with the nation. They are attempting to fill the vacuum by providing services such as healthcare, education, shelter, etc. By interacting continuously with the people their charities have penetrated a large section of the population to win hearts and minds.

The liberals — they are not insignificant in number — have responded overwhelmingly to the state’s failure not by providing alternative options to the people but by adopting an advocacy role that seeks to push the state into reforming itself, which it does not have the capacity or the will to do. This creates space for the fanatics who gain ground by default.

The OPP, however, also has something to teach us. By engaging with the people on the popular level with dignity and providing them support in their developmental efforts, organisations can show them the path of enlightenment. When I asked the OPP-RTI director Parveen Rehman about the reaction of her community workers to the horrendous killing of the Punjab governor last week and the vociferous debate on the blasphemy law that has ensued, she told me that there was not a single one of the CBOs who she worked with that approved of this fanatical act. The consensus among the stakeholders is that everyone has the right to hold his own opinion on any issue and no one has the right to kill another person.

All partners who work with the OPP-RTI may not see eye to eye with one another on every issue, but extremism of any kind is totally unacceptable to them. Busy as they are rebuilding the lives of people drowned in poverty in this world, they have learnt the values of compassion and humanism that leaves them no time to enter into arguments on questions that seem so irrelevant to their day-to-day problems. Moreover, someone who is investing his energies in sustaining life would not want to destroy it.

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