Mar 1, 2010

Hunger pains

Dr Abid Qaiyum Suleri

Despite the claims and efforts of our economic managers to bring macro-economic stability in Pakistan, the miseries of a common person don’t seem to end. Six "F" crises (Food, fiscal, fuel, frontiers, fragility of climate and functional democracy) are getting aggravated with every passing day.

The effectiveness of government’s response to 6F crises is dependent on how it prioritises among four levels of securities i.e., individual, national, regional, and global security. It goes without saying that huge influence of Khaki presidents and Khaki backed civilian governments has resulted in "national" security taking priority over all other security concerns. On top of this, the "establishment" has complete monopoly over what it defines as national security interests and also in deciding on who is posing threat to those security interests.

However, one needs to understand that neither the "six F crises," nor the four levels of security mentioned above are mutually exclusive; rather they are interconnected and cumulative. Their interconnectedness has made it extremely difficult to address the national security when other levels of security are being compromised.

Various groups find it extremely easy to create parallel states within the state, when the "national" state fails to take care of individual security and cannot provide basic services such as food, shelter, health, and education to everyone. Growing militrisation in Pakistan can be understood in this context. Generally "militants" are perceived to be Islamic hard-liners. However, many "militants" are those who are outraged by chronic hunger, endemic corruption, unfair courts, and the government’s inability to supply basic services.

Socio-political instability in Pakistan emerging from individual insecurity may affect regional as well as global security providing an excuse to external actors for interference — such as the drone attacks by US forces.

Food insecurity and militancy

Food security ranking of 131 districts in Pakistan, according to FIP 2009, indicates that 48.5 percent of the total population in 76 out of 131 districts of Pakistan is food insecure. The population in another 26 districts is on borderline and extremely vulnerable to any external shock.

The 10 most food insecure districts according to this report include Dera Bugti, Musa Khel, Upper Dir, North Waziristan, Muhmand, Dalbidin, South Waziristan, Orakzai, and Panjgur. Other worst food insecure districts, according to FIP2009 are Bajur, Laki Marwat, Lower Dir, Shangla and Malakand etc. The international community might not have heard of these districts in the context of food insecurity. However, many people would easily recall that these districts are perceived as the "axis of evil" within Pakistan. There is no empirical evidence to prove that food insecurity is the only cause of militancy in the above-mentioned districts. However it is an established fact that food insecurity leads to violence and conflict.

Recognising food insecurity as a major cause of militancy and violence, many analysts believe that in Pakistan, a mullah-marxist nexus is operating where religious forces are exploiting the (anti-elite) feelings of lower and lower middle class food insecure people, motivating their unemployed youth to commit suicide attacks against innocent people.

Compromised security at one level (individual security in our case) compromises security at each of the other levels (national, regional, and global). Food scarcity heightens the potential for conflict, which translates into a security threat. Individual cases of relative hunger, marginalisation, and poverty can turn into collective deprivation. This collective deprivation when gets an identity be creed, gender, class, or nationality, always leads to class conflict and ultimately to violence.

The Baloch national movement offers an example here. Dera Bugti is the worst food insecure district in Pakistan. Natural gas was discovered in Dera Bugti back in the 1950s, and since the 1960s has been supplied to the rest of Pakistan for domestic and industrial consumption. Only in 1984 was Questa, the Balochistan capital, supplied with natural gas. Chronic food insecurity in Balochistan and especially in its gas producing districts aggravated the sense of marginalisation and deprivation to an extent where many Baluchis started believing that Punjab and Sindh provinces were exploiting their resources. As a consequence, Balochistan has seen the rise of many anti-federation movements. A widely publicized reaction to the perceived hegemony of the federal government was the 2009 kidnapping in Quetta of John Solecki, the regional head of UNHCR, by a nationalist group the Balochistan Liberation Union Front.

Extraordinary behaviours

The point that one needs to understand is that a high prevalence of food insecurity leads to intensified "extraordinary behaviour" of individuals. These extraordinary behaviours may include anti-social activities, working as bonded labour, selling of kidneys, selling of children, and committing suicides. Half of the total population of Pakistan, where 22 percent of the elites own 85 percent of the farmland, while 78 percent of the population own only 15 percent of the land, is behaving extraordinarily. This situation results in large numbers of individuals who might do anything in sheer desperation and frustration.

For many desperate individuals, shrines and madrassas are the complete solution for the problems they face in their day-to-day lives. They go to shrines for spiritual healing when the public health system fails them and they can’t afford private healthcare. Most shrines, moreover, are assured places where one can get free meals that pilgrims and believers offer there. They send their children to cost-free boarding schools — madrassas — when the public education system cannot absorb them and again private education system is beyond their access. Madrassas also become handy where public schools simply do not exist. As a matter of fact, religious groups offer complete social safety nets that the government sector cannot, due either to fiscal constraints or to governance issues. Hence, people tend to have very strong belief in these institutions due not only to religious reasons but also to economic reasons.

While most of the madrassas in Pakistan are symbols of peace, tolerance, and harmony, there are quite a few which are being run by religious hardliners who believe in a particular version of Islam. On many occasions, they have challenged the writ of the state, declaring state institutions as un-Islamic. They can easily get support from the poor and marginalised sections of society who are often let down by Pakistan’s inadequate public service delivery system. Chronically food insecure people who are often illiterate and marred by poverty become an easy prey and can be brainwashed by their leaders who offer complete economic security to their dependents, assure them a confirmed place in heaven, and turn them into suicide attackers to eliminate the perceived nexus of imperialist forces led by United States.

According to the law enforcement agencies, a suicide bomber is paid up to US$12,000, an amount that would be sufficient for his dependents to live a decent life. These groups behaving extraordinarily create socio-political instability, jeopardise the country’s economic activities, and threaten all foreign direct investors, but also pose a challenge to regional and global security.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the United States provided around $11 billion to Pakistan in the shape of budgetary support, economic assistance from USAID, military assistance, and Coalition Support Funds from 2002 to 2008. This money, if spent judiciously and with a political will, could have alleviated millions from extreme poverty and chronic hunger, thereby saving Pakistan from growing militancy. Alas, it was not.

Paradigm change

So what needs to be done differently? First, the situation requires a change in paradigm where individual hunger is perceived as a national security threat. Such a paradigm shift would result in greater resources being channelled to improve food security. It would also result in reprioritization of public spending, so that social development would be given priority over national defence, and the benefits of such spending would accrue to individuals and not only to the state.

Second, perceiving hunger as a national, regional, and global security threat, UN agencies, bilateral donors, and international financial institutes should realign their strategy in Pakistan to turn the pain of hunger into opportunity for social transformation, better awareness about human rights, women’s empowerment, girls’ education, adult education, and exposure to a secular face of the world. The international community should start investing in developing the social and human capital of the chronically food insecure people of the FATA, NWFP, and Balochistan. This would not only directly aid those harmed because of ongoing military operation, but also go some way towards fostering a more stable environment.

It is about time that the government of Pakistan and its international partners step up activities that ensure distribution of food to those in need, increase food absorption capacities in conflict hit and conflict prone zones, and institutionalise an independent impact assessment system in place to assess what worked and what did not work vis-à-vis social sector development.

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