Filed Under MEDIA COMMENTARIES
ARTICLE (August 16 2010): Floods have wreaked havoc in the lives of more than 14 million people, with the number rising, and have further eroded Pakistan’s already inadequate infrastructure base.
The government, so argue analysts, has outsourced flood rescue and relief activities to the armed forces – its second decision to further empower the army, the first being its decision to allow the army sole responsibility with respect to the war on terror, including when and which areas to launch army operations in.
The government, in defence of these two decisions, is presenting arguments that are relevant in established democracies, which Pakistan, by any stretch of the imagination, does not represent. It argues that the country’s armed forces are part of the federal government, a truism for most democracies, though it leaves many a Pakistani nervous. And that the army is best suited to take decisions related to its ongoing military operations in Taliban strongholds, though the issue of which Taliban group to support is certainly becoming a political one; and in the case of providing relief to flood victims, the argument is that the army is the only institution logistically poised to most effectively carry out rescue and relief operations with helicopters, boats, rations, engineers to replace the damaged bridges ensuring connectivity etc.
So what effectively are the federal and provincial governments doing to alleviate the lot of the people affected by floods? There is considerable evidence of a vicious blame game launched by different political parties against each other. Some federal ministers have trivialised the funding demands of provincial chief ministers by pointing out that subsequent to the National Finance Commission agreement responsibility lies with the provinces. In the next breath, these same ministers acknowledge that the scale and extent of the disaster is beyond the country’s capacity and pleas for foreign assistance are being openly made.
Several countries most definitely led by the United States, have already sent planeloads of equipment, including helicopters, boats, water filtration plants, and prefabricated steel bridges and, of course, food. In addition the US has pledged 55 million dollars and 16.2 million dollars through UN agencies. A month’s ration of food has been provided by the US to feed 168,500 people through partnership with World Food Programme. Defence Secretary Robert Gates stated on Wednesday that the “USS Peleliu”, an amphibious assault ship, located at present off the coast of Karachi and its 19 helicopters would also join the disaster relief effort. The six American military helicopters already on loan to Pakistan to assist in the relief effort would, however, return to missions in Afghanistan.
President Asif Ali Zardari, in his article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal last week, claimed credit for this assistance and maintained that “the US government, with which I was in touch by telephone, has pledged 35 million dollars in relief funds and made helicopters available for rescue efforts.” However, while the US could be contacted on phone to support relief efforts, the recalcitrant French and the British governments required a presidential visit before supporting relief efforts, as the President left for his ten day two nation tour on the 1st of August as scheduled at a time when 408 people in Khyber-Pukhtoonkhwa had already died due to the floods and the scale and extent of the disaster had begun to unfold.
President Zardari in the article explained the reasons for his insistence on taking the four tour: “I chose to use my travels to mobilise foreign assistance – money, supplies, food, tents, medical care, engineers, clean water and medicines for our people. The British government pledged 24 million dollars in aid.” This amount remains unverified by the British government and the figure on various websites is 5 million pounds (7.8 million dollars). The President did not identify the amount of French assistance as a consequence of his visit in his article, perhaps because it remains so little – 300,000 euros – surely the trip to Paris costing a lot more than that. The French support is less than the 700,000 dollars that the Brazilian Ambassador presented to this country the other day and just a little more than what has been donated by Telenor Pakistan right in this country. However France and Britain are also part of the European Union that has extended 10 million euros of assistance.
Significantly the DEC (Disasters Emergency Committee), a private UK charity, has collected 10.5 million pounds for the affected persons and this amount is rising too. Hillary Clinton also launched a campaign to collect donations for the flood affected persons from the US public. One doubts if the millions of American and British citizens donated huge amounts for our flood victims because they were impressed with President Zardari’s appeal during his ten-day foreign tour, as little, if any of this amount, has filtered into the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund, which has the appallingly low amount of only 4 million rupees. In sharp contrast the Punjab Chief Minister’s Fund has 27 million rupees. There is general agreement that it was the horrendous pictures on their television screens that accounted for the foreign private sector’s generosity.
Be that as it may the United Nations has launched an appeal for 459 million dollars with only 198 million so far pledged. Total pledged assistance to Pakistan is around 210 to 215 million dollars, not enough to meet the emergency needs of the affected persons. There has been no pledge for reconstruction and rehabilitation as yet.
Saudi government has opened an air corridor targeted to continuously provide relief goods for the affected persons till the end of the rescue and relief phase. And UAE has supported the flood affected persons which, according to PPP loyalists, is the outcome of the one-day stay of the President in that country en route to France and Britain. But enough has not been pledged to complete rescue and relief activities leave alone launch the much more arduous and expensive rehabilitation and reconstruction phase.
Perhaps, as a tacit acknowledgement of its own failures that most certainly have cost it considerable domestic political support as well as foreign support, which is finding its way into the country either directly, as in the case of the US marines assisting in rescue and relief operations, or indirectly though UN agencies or domestic charities like Edhi instead of through the PM Relief Fund the federal government has finally taken three major decisions.
The first one involves seeking assistance from the World Bank to take the lead in formulating a needs assessment study that would identify the actual losses. It stands to reason that the World Bank does not have the staff or the wherewithal to undertake such a study without extensive local support. The government reckons that without outsourcing this study the donors would not be convinced of its veracity given the Zardari government’s poor ratings in terms of governance. So who is taking up the slack? Three of the most prominent groups, Jamaat-e-Islami, Jamaat-ud-Dawa and Sipah-e-Sahaba have begun providing basics to the victims. And fears of a re-energising of the fundamentalists recruitment drive have resurfaced.
Second, it has been regarded as a photo opportunity by all politicians, though the PPP was a bit late in recognising this fact, with the President finally jumping into the game on Thursday 12 August about two weeks after the floods hit the country. The people have still not forgotten the Prime Minister’s visit to a first aid camp that was wound up a few minutes after his departure and which was captured by the electronic media which, so claim a growing number of skeptics, epitomises our politicians’ mind-set. It is little wonder that their reception in several relief camps was extremely negative. Hina Rabbani Khar, cried in front of the cameras for the plight of the flood victims and what she termed as poor response of her government, but she too was heckled by the affected persons when she visited a relief camp the other day. Her tears came in an air conditioned room and, of course, resigning on a matter of principle, failure of her government to act appropriately, was simply not on the cards.
And third the Finance Ministry has finally begun to revisit its budget statistics and to make adjustments, massive by any standards, in its expenditure allocations, with the development budget expected to be slashed and vague notice taken of the need to slash the bailout packages to loss making state owned enterprises like PSM. The floods are expected to slash GDP estimates by 1.2 to 1.5 percent – which, in turn, would have over 100 billion rupees implication on revenue generation capacity. Dr Hafeez Sheikh is quiet so far, however, one can only hope that he understands the need to formulate a mid term budget or else efforts towards reallocating expenditure priorities as well as revenue generation from other sources would be directionless.
To conclude, the government once again misread the gravity of public sentiment about its lack of performance in this latest crisis. This is the third time it misread the situation. The first was the extent of public support for the long march to reinstate the judiciary, and the second was certain clauses of the Kerry Lugar bill. But like in the first two instances the government has backtracked on the failure of senior PPP leadership to visit the affected persons. The list of course is led by one co-chairman, and President Zardari visited relief camps on Independence Day, though the other co-chairman has yet to return to this country to personally express solidarity with the victims and oversee relief efforts even though the British universities are on summer holiday at this time. http://www.brecorder.com/index.php?id=1091987&currPageNo=1&query=&search=&term=&supDate=