By Shahid Javed Burki
THERE is a growing perception in the West that the Pakistani state is not only weak but is fast failing. This impression has been created by the state’s inability to ensure security to its citizens and its failure to bring the economy out of the crisis into which it plunged at the end of the period dominated by President Pervez Musharraf.
Not only is the country prone to crises and disasters. It continues to go hat in hand to the donor community whenever it is hit hard by natural or man-made calamities. Among the several crises the country is currently faced with is that of looking after the people displaced by disasters.
Pakistan now is the site of the largest concentration of refugees — “internally displaced people” according to the jargon of the times — in the world. There are millions of IDPs living in miserable conditions. Some of them were displaced as long ago as the first Afghan war when the Mujahideen fought the invaders from the Soviet Union.
Some were rendered homeless by the Kashmir earthquake. Some left home because of the actions by the military against the insurgents operating in the districts of Swat and Buner and in the tribal agency of South Waziristan. Many more were displaced by the great floods of 2010. Islamabad has made it clear that it does not have the money or the institutional capacity to look after these people. It keeps appealing not only for official aid but also for private help.
Throughout its history, Pakistan has dealt with problems posed by displaced people. The country began its life as an independent state by receiving millions of refugees from India. In 1951, at the time of its first census, one out of every four person counted was a refugee. The country was overwhelmed but it was able to resettle all those who had arrived from across the border. The state did remarkably well in carrying out that operation without receiving any foreign help.
The war against the Soviets in Afghanistan produced at least three million refugees. While some of them were housed in hundreds of camps established all along the border with Afghanistan, many slipped into the major cities. Many went to Karachi which now has a large Afghan population.
The Kashmir earthquake again produced countless refugees but most appear to have gone home after being assisted in the rebuilding of their homes and lives. They were helped by the state as well as NGOs, some of which were associated with extremist Islamic groups. The military operations in 2009 again produced some two to three million displaced people. Their rehabilitation has been left mostly to the armed forces as well as the United Nations.
Counting all these together, it would appear that Pakistan has had to deal with the problem of looking after several million people at various times over the last six decades. What was the impact of these movements of people and how the state dealt with them is a subject that needs to be researched. That said, one thing is clear. Each large movement of people has had a profound impact on Pakistani society — on its economy and political system. This will also be the case in the most recent movement of people.
The floods this year and the common feeling that millions of people were left to their own devices as their houses were washed away and their land inundated strengthened the impression of the helplessness of the Pakistani state. Appeals for help went out not only from the overwhelmed Pakistani government but from scores of important people who have visited the country since the mighty Indus burst its banks in July.
In early September actress Angelina Jolie captured the world’s attention by visiting several refugee camps housing the flood victims. “Ambassador Jolie is in Pakistan highlighting the suffering of flood victims and the need for continuing aid for the displaced,” said the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on whose behalf the popular actress visited Pakistan. Each time she has been here as UN ambassador, she has met a different set of internally displaced persons. This time she donated one million dollars to help the Pakistani flood victims.
Their money will go to the UNHCR and help that agency cope with the millions who reside in makeshift camps that have sprung up all over the country. Private donations are also going to official agencies and NGOs. The World Bank and the IMF have set up booths in their atria indicating that they will match the contributions made by their staff and other visitors to their Washington offices as well as the offices spread across the globe.
Newshour, a popular news programme shown nationwide in the US by the Public Broadcasting Service, had a segment in its coverage on Sept 15 showing the work being done in Multan by an Islamic charity which was said to be linked to the Lashkar-i-Taiba. Several people who were said to have been saved from starvation credited the charity in reaching them in their hour of need.
“Without their help we would have starved,” said an old man, the father of 10 children. His house was destroyed, his animals swept away by water, his land rendered uncultivable for several months. He had no source of income and was entirely dependent on charity. The government, he said, was absent from his area. The only people who had come to help were those from the Islamic charity.
This kind of coverage is now common in the western press and mass media. There is a growing belief that once the waters recede and people return home, all they may remember is the help they received from the Islamic groups who brought not only food and medicine but also the message of state failure. This could have political consequences for years to come.