Post-earthquake Issues
By Dr Shireen M Mazari

 

The October 8 earthquake brought many issues to the fore, while an equal number of issues that had threatened to dominate the political and economic space of the country were relegated to the backburner. For instance, the controversy over the local government process and the contemplated manner of the naib nazim elections (through an open show of hands) all got pushed away from public notice.
The growing noise over rising oil prices has also abated in the wake of the earthquake, although there is a certain absurdity in the way in which the oil companies are fleecing consumers with the seemingly tacit support of the state. After all, should these companies have been allowed to raise their fuel transportation costs from Rs2 per liter to Rs10? And does the prevailing petrol price of Rs56.73 per liter make any sense when the international price has fallen from $67 per barrel to around $60? The whole argument for the price hike to Rs56 was the $67 per barrel price. Is it not absurd that when international oil prices rise, local fuel prices also increase but when oil prices fall internationally there is no similar dip locally? At any rate, this certainly shows the strength of the oil companies’ lobby in this country. Big business has big clout.
But all this has receded into the background with the country trying to cope with the sheer scale of the human tragedy. The major issues in the immediate wake of the earthquake were related to the provision of aid and assistance. And, true to our national proclivity, there was an immediate rush to critique the military for a slow response among a myriad other allegations. It was as if the earthquake provided everyone with an opportunity to indulge in army-bashing with no one wanting to understand the massive devastation suffered by the military itself in AJK. Of course, there have been serious problems of logistics and the bad PR job done initially by the state. But surprisingly, no one has had much to say regarding the whereabouts of the AJK political elite --- barring Sardar Sikandar Hayat and his family members who were visibly present in Muzaffarabad throughout the early days.
In a similar vein, while everyone has been appreciative of the work done by individuals as well as local and foreign NGOs, little attention is being paid to the manner in which the UN is seeking to disburse the international donor funds it has received. The usual game seems to be creeping in whereby foreign NGOs are being given preference along with a few local favorites, while many completely local NGOs working in specific locations are being totally ignored despite their tremendous work. As a result some bizarre decisions have been made, including one involving the Norwegian grant and the assessment sent by the UN-IOM as recommendations to Norway. Included in this is a request for $400,000 sent forward by MDM Cyprus for the Rawalakot area. Interestingly, MDM Cyprus has no presence so far in this area at all, and this amount had been sought by a Kashmiri NGO that has an established presence in the area as well as a visible assistance program in terms of shelters and related facilities. Also, theirs was the only school that did not collapse in the area so no child was lost. However, foreign NGOs bring in foreign consultants and so some of the money donated by foreign donors actually finds its way back to them indirectly.
But we also have a fascination with all things foreign, especially foreign consultants and foreign teachers who have been hired to teach us our own history. At least we feel that if we reach out to these groups, foreign donors will be more willing to part with their funds. After all, how else are we to understand the hiring of the wife of John Wall, the World Bank’s country director for Pakistan, residing in Islamabad. She was paid 64 per cent of the entire cost of a project in consultancy fees. It should not be a surprise for us to discover the flow of funds from the World Bank to the Ministry of Special Education.
We are also a society that is prone to rumors but they should not be ignored totally because sometimes hearsay does translate into facts. For instance, it is rumored that a senior World Bank official has also used his stay here to purchase cheap property in Lahore’s Walled City, thereby causing a major hike in the price of real estate. These are of course the stories one hears in Lahore but no tale can be dismissed simply as a figment of the imagination, although misperceptions can arise. The question is whether international civil servants or diplomats can purchase property in Pakistan while on official duty in the country? One wonders exactly what the law is, especially in relation to what should rightfully be protected heritage sites.
Talking of things foreign, one continues to be plagued by the question why Australian Prime Minister Howard chose to visit Pakistan earlier this month? After all, Australian assistance for the earthquake is minimal and Mr. Howard did not make any major grant commitments. Nor has he been particularly favorably disposed towards this country, so why the visit at this time? Could some Australian business interests be involved given that BHP Billiton is already seeking access to zinc in Balochistan? There are rumors that the earthquake has revealed mineral deposits in AJK. Could Howard have come to give BHP Billiton’s case a boost?
Finally, as we remain engulfed in dealing with the earthquake aftermath, our detractors have begun to spew their poison against us once again in a concerted manner. While India continues its hackneyed refrain of ‘infiltration’, its US apologists like Selig Harrison have begun a campaign against Pakistan and its efforts to acquire modern weapons systems from the US. He has called the F-16 deal “disastrous” for the US because it has “damaging strategic consequences” for the US in terms of its “strategic partnership” with India. According to him, “The size and character of American military aid to Islamabad should reflect Pakistan’s transitory importance to the United States as a regional power adjacent to Afghanistan.” So he suggests that US military aid to Pakistan should remain confined to equipment directly related to operations against al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
At the time of the war against Soviet occupation, Mr Harrison also spewed poison against Pakistan in a very vocal fashion and he is doing it again. He has identified what one feels is the common US perception of Pakistan -- a state of “transitory importance” -- regardless of the present rhetoric coming from the Bush administration. So let us not allow our gratitude for humanitarian relief to cloud our assessment of long-term US and NATO interests in the region. Perhaps it is time to be more attuned to the massive propaganda blitz that we are being subjected to through diverse media tools while we are particularly vulnerable in the aftermath of the earthquake.
(The writer is director general of the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad. Courtesy The News)

 


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