Sep 4, 2010

Opportunity in tragedy

Dr Farzana Bari
Every disaster presents opportunities. There are several strategic opportunities offered by this flood. People's social and economic positions resulting from such factors as class, gender, ethnicity, caste, race and age determines their vulnerabilities and risks in disasters. That is why it is invariably the poor, women, children, the elderly and the sick who suffer the most from calamities. It is more difficult for poor people living in high-risk zones to protect themselves and recover from the adverse effects of disasters. The majority of people affected by this flood in are the rural poor, with 15 million out of the 20 million victims belonging to rural areas.
Most of the districts that are badly hit by the flood fall in the bottom quartile in terms of poverty and social development indicators (e.g., Swat, Dir, Muzafargarh, Dera Ghazi Khan, Rajanpur, Layyah, Shikarpur, Jacobabad and Jafarabad. In any case, inhabitants of the riparian belt are one of the most marginalised and under-developed in the country.
Food scarcity and inflation in food and essential items are another factor which is going to accentuate poverty in the post-flood phase . With the destruction of I3.2 million hectares of standing crop of wheat, cotton, rice, sugarcane and vegetables, it is important that the government distribute seeds and fertiliser, introduce land reform and distribute state land among the flood-affected in the rural areas to ensure greater food security and efficiency in agricultural- sector productivity. Similarly, employment generation in the flood-affected areas should be ensured by making local communities responsible for the reconstruction of physical infrastructure in their areas. Local people should get to work on infrastructural development projects and monitor the projects to check corruption and ensure transparency.
Furthermore, sustainable employment opportunities in the flood-affected areas should be created through setting up agriculture-based industry, instead of doling out petty cash to the poor. The financial resources of parallel safety net programmes allocated for the current financial year, such as the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP, Rs44.5 billion), Waseela-e-Haq (Rs2.07 billion) the Bait-ul-Mal, Rs1.66 billion), the Poverty Alleviation Programme (Rs1.5 billion), Microfinance (Rs 21.7 billion), the People's Works Programme (Rs31 billion), the Punjab Food Support Programme/Sasti Roti (Rs735,000) should be pulled together and be used for food for work programmes in the flood-affected areas. This comprehensive approach will help reduce poverty in the country.
The pervasive gender inequalities in our society not only reflect the sorry state of human rights but also hamper the development of the country. The reconstruction phase presents us with new possibilities of reorganising gender relations through empowering women by giving them join ownership of land, houses and livestock.
This will positively impact gender relations as it has been witnessed in the case of the post-floods reconstruction in 1992 when an NGO (Pattan) gave joint ownership of houses in some villages of Muzafargarh. An impact-assessment study conducted later in these areas showed that women felt tremendous sense of empowerment and had confident due to joint ownership and were able to negotiate better relationships with their husbands and in-laws.
It is critically important to integrate a gender perspective and involve women at all levels of policy, planning and implementation at the national, provincial and community levels in the rehabilitation/reconstruction phase. UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (of the year 2000) recognises the disproportionate effects of conflict and disaster on women and the need to take the gender factor into consideration in all areas of policy and planning.
The massive destruction of the flooded forces us to revisit our budget and national priorities. Instead of borrowing more loans we need to rationalise our expenditure and find ways to mobilise domestic resources through improved revenue and tax collection for reconstruction. We have allocated Rs442 billion (3.5 per cent of the GDP) for defence in the 2010-11 budget, and only Rs22 billion for education, and Rs18 billion for health. The savings from the reduced defence budget should be spent on the development of the social sector. The government should also tighten its belt by reducing unnecessary expenditure and raise revenue through imposing taxes on wealth and property. The government should also consider introducing flood tax in districts that are not affected by the flood.
Lastly, Pakistan now qualifies on the moral and legal ground to stop payment of its foreign debt ($54 billion). Under the principle of "the state of necessity" enshrined in Article 25 of the International Law Commission that stipulates that in case of "actual threat or a prospective peril to a state's essential interests, the state is excused for not performing an international obligation." Pakistan's economy has already suffered the loss of $42 billion due to the war on terror and now the colossal economic damaged of another $40 billion (according to preliminary estimates) caused by devastating flood. Therefore, it would be justified for Pakistan to refuse to pay back its foreign loans. Furthermore, all the foreign debts incurred by various regimes, mostly by military dictators did not benefit the people of Pakistan. Therefore, these were "Illegitimate debts" and the nation has no binding obligation to pay back these loans. The government of Pakistan should appeal to the international community and the IFIs to cancel these loans, as they did in the case of Haiti.
In the public consciousness, Western powers are hypocritical and have shown double standards. The support of the West to military dictators in Pakistan systematically weakened the institutional structures and democratic culture of the country. Cancellation of loans will provide an opportunity to the West to undo this perception by showing their commitment to humanity.
This disaster has provided us with the opportunity to make a new Pakistan. Our ruling elite should know that if they miss this opportunity to help less fortunate Pakistanis they will no doubt let millions of lives suffer and plunge this country into greater turmoil. The social consciousness of our marginalised has already been shattered and if no help is offered there is no doubt that hate and hostility will fester throughout the nation and will destabilise the country.

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