Aug 21, 2010

Compassion fatigue?

Babar Sattar
The writer is a lawyer based in Islamabad.
The floods have adversely affected almost ten per cent of Pakistan's population. Millions have been rendered homeless. Millions are without food and water. While it is still too early to make an accurate estimate of the aggregate quantum of losses inflicted by the floods, this natural disaster is threatening to snatch away the right to meaningful life and dignity of over ten million Pakistanis and push them into abject poverty. Has our response as a nation to a catastrophe of such enormous proportion been wanting? Are we so used to poverty and inequity in our midst that stark human suffering doesn't move us anymore? Are we legitimately angry that our state and our government have let us down? Is our sense of entitlement over the responsibility of the international community to come to our rescue warranted?
Many of us wish to hold Asif Zardari and the PPP-led government responsible for the floods and the damage they have caused. Reading these opinions one gets a sense that somehow the losses being inflicted by the floods would have been miraculously reduced had there been an honest and competent government in office today. Those afflicted with the victimhood syndrome wish to highlight the indifference of rich countries evident in their refusal to donate generously. The international media on the other hand is beating up on Pakistan's tainted image as a cause for donor reluctance. Many of the religiously inclined explain the floods as God's wrath and response to our sinful ways.
Rationalising loss and suffering is never easy after all. The innate human response always is to find someone to blame. But if we wish to help the flood victims, anger and finger-pointing will not do. Let us hope that our seemingly inadequate response towards this disaster has been caused by our lack of understanding of its magnitude. The destruction caused by the floods has been an unfolding narrative. And our consciousness continues to be affected every single day by visuals, news reports and individual accounts of losses, misery and suffering. But let us also acknowledge that hurling abuse at Zardari or international donors is not an appropriate way for able and affluent Pakistanis to respond to the photo of a man walking through chest-high floodwater with two kids under his armpits and a chicken tied to a string around his neck.
The state of Pakistan does not provide a social safety net for the unfortunate. Millions of Pakistanis are hungry and malnourished but lack of food security is not seen as an infringement of the constitutionally guaranteed right to life. Over the last few months there have been dozens of cases where desperate individuals killed their families and themselves after failing to make ends meet. Such news makes people upset. But we have not seen any considered response from the state and its institutions – especially parliament – to provide unprivileged citizens with minimum financial guarantees and basic social security. As a state, Pakistan leaves the poor and the unfortunate to their own devices.
Over the last 63 years our state has neither planned for nor invested in protecting citizens' right to a meaningful life. The most fundamental obligation of the state – to provide for the physical security of citizens – has now been privatised. People with means are expected to arrange private security guards to ensure their safety. The rest are at the mercy of their fortunes and circumstances. The extent of provisioning for the health and education of ordinary citizens is ludicrous. Every time there is a manmade or natural disaster we find our state response inadequate and its machinery paralysed. Why then are we surprised at the ineffectual response of the state in dealing with the harshest floods that this region has witnessed in over 80 years?
The Zardari-led regime suffers from a credibility deficit. Simply put, the government as a whole seems neither sensitive to people's needs nor sincere in addressing them. But imagine for a minute that the ruling regime had more integrity, vision and sense of purpose, would that have compensated for 63 years of misdirected priorities? Would the floods have caused less devastation if we had a government that was more responsive to citizen needs and expectations? Our sad reality is that we do not have the luxury to look towards the state or the government for initiative and leadership to deal with the mammoth challenge reared by the floods. For now we will have to continue to rely on our makeshift social safety net weaved together by the compassion and kindness of the affluent within our society towards the less fortunate.
We are a society that strongly believes in charity. We always come through for one another in times of crisis. Our tax-to-GDP ratio is probably one of the lowest in the world, but our individual resource-to-charity ratio is probably amongst one of the highest. We have traditionally been unwilling to give to the state because we don't trust our governments. But we don't falter as a society when it comes to giving to the underprivileged. In the immediate aftermath of the 2005 earthquake, the international media and donors continued to pontificate over why the world gave the earthquake victims less than the tsunami victims. But as we stood united as a nation and our collective sense of concern and kindness for fellow Pakistanis glued us together discussions about international donor fatigue became irrelevant.
Once again the meagre aid pouring in from around the world and the difficulty of raising funds for the suffering multitude in Pakistan are becoming a story as big as the havoc caused by the floods. Should we really consume our energies at this time wondering why the world doesn't love us enough? Let us focus instead on what Pakistani nationals and expats can do for fellow nationals. A starting point can be how much time and resources we individually committed to relief operations after the 2005 earthquake and whether or not we are doing more this time around.
Let us start a healthy competition within the private sector in Pakistan with organisations setting up matching grant and donation programmes for flood victims. Let us make lists of large-hearted organisations and individuals in Pakistan to celebrate the altruistic spirit that sustains us as a nation instead of chiding other nation-states for not being generous enough. As a nation let us not reinforce the psyche of dependence and disempowerment that afflicts our state by linking the fate of flood victims to the generosity of governments around the world. Let us be grateful to all those who feel for our fellow citizens, but let us not derelict our responsibility to take charge of our fate and circumstances.
Times of crisis throw up opportunities to learn lessons, make amends and initiate reform. In the medium term we need to struggle to reorder our state priorities with the knowledge that the reform we desire will not be top-down but bottom-up. We must not continue to allow the state to be oblivious to the needs of citizens and force the poor and the needy to rely on the voluntary acts of kindness of the more fortunate members of society. And while we challenge our public office-holders to rise up to our expectations, we must understand that we cannot rely on products of a chequered political process to singularly usher progressive change.
But in the immediate term we need to prove to ourselves as a nation our soul and our spirit is not broken and an inequitable state and a complacent government have not transformed us into a callous society.

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