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The other side of despair
Ali Asghar Khan
Tuesday, June 02, 2009
From Print Edition
"Where does one go from a world of insanity? Somewhere on the other side of despair." --T S Elliot
Amidst the insanity, the brutality, hate and intolerance, there remains an overwhelming desire for peace and security. In the face of daunting issues and powerful actors, many may doubt their ability to contribute to change and question the relevance of making an effort. The importance of raising citizen concerns individually or collectively for creating checks and balances is greater now than ever before. We as citizens must demand that the manner in which we resolve our problems reflects our reality and our interests. For ordinary citizens to abdicate this role under the present circumstances is simply suicidal.
Hypocrisy, fast becoming a national pastime, should no longer be tolerated. It must be exposed. Despite slow progress, if efforts continue for the establishment of a tolerant, equitable and just society, opportunities for change will definitely appear. There should be no doubt that the use of force, exerted by hordes or by the state, to define the national agenda is not an option. This must be resisted. The ruling elite must lead through example and sacrifice -- the people will respond.
The nation today needs to feel that it is at least heading in the right direction on the long road to recovery. Ironically, most of our leaders have been found sadly lacking the will to engage with and guide the nation. Emotionalism and adventurism have been their tools using imageries of hate and destruction rather than tolerance, peace and development to motivate people.
Admittedly, in an environment of terror where the scale of exploitation and injustice is so great, it is not easy to focus on the causes rather than the symptoms. But with creativity, the issues that are causing the rupture of our social fabric can be expressed effectively so that people sit up and take notice. The lawyers' movement over a two-year period proved this point effectively and rekindled hope. It brought back images of the nation uniting and responding to the daunting challenges it faced following the 2005 earthquake.
The spirit of sacrifice following that natural disaster was not fully tapped. By using parallel military-dominated structures the government missed an extraordinary opportunity to engage citizens in rehabilitation efforts. Even those that were directly affected were neither consulted nor heard. The begging bowl was brought out and policies, some to the detriment of survivors, were adopted on the advice of those not familiar with ground realities. After more than three years, survivors of the quake continue their daily struggles and many aspire for justice from the pain inflicted by unresponsive and cumbersome policies.
The present anarchy is an even greater challenge. Unlike the earthquake it may not allow an opportunity to pick up the pieces. If we as citizens across classes, political affiliations and ethnicity choose not to respond adequately, the hate and terror may not subside and the after-shocks may be felt for generations. Effective measures must be taken immediately.
The agonizing condition of those displaced by the ongoing armed conflict suggests that adequate arrangements were not in place for the anticipated exodus. And the displaced appear luckier than those still in the war zone left to face the consequences of a battle that is not of their making.
It appears that mistakes are being repeated. Yet again a parallel structure, the Special Support Group headed by a serving general has sprung up, side-lining existing governance mechanisms. In Mardan alone, there are nearly 1,000 female and male councillors. They have better knowledge of the situation and also have access to data. More importantly, they are accountable to their constituents. Many are making Herculean efforts despite limited resources to reach people and provide relief.
The government must respond, facilitate, and capacitate them. Make the union council offices the hub of activity, of collection and distribution. Give them assistance not only with relief but in terms of staffing and equipment. These are the investments that will and should remain to serve the area, its people and their guests. Instead of distributing food from centralized locations which not only create long queues and hardships for families, especially those headed by women, each union council should have its own distribution point. Accountability mechanism must of course be put in place and a monitoring agency established to confirm correct distribution. Exemplary punishments for corrupt acts and practices must be imposed. The writ of the state established in a manner that is meant to serve, not control, its people.
We need to prepare for the return of these families to their own homes and the structures of governance must be in place to respond to the situation that they will find themselves in. To rely on the military to play more than a supporting role to the civilian administration and governance structures will be self-defeating. We need to establish practices of good governance, ensure justice, and keep a strict control on exploitation and corruption. We must focus our attention on the affected areas and their surroundings. The law enforcement personnel must be selected carefully and be accountable. We have a shining example of the motorway police that proves that this is possible. The courts must be easily accessible and must work under emergency conditions. All respondents must be treated equally and special procedures set up for the more vulnerable. Provision of services, in terms of infrastructure, health and education must be put on the fast track and opportunities for livelihood created.
This must start today with the structures of governance and systems planned and put in place almost like a government in exile. All the government departments put on high alert to develop their strategies and to identify their teams. The government departments whether it is the police, the PWD, water and sanitation departments, public health, social welfare and so on must be asked to develop their response on a scale that is appropriate to the situation. The local government institutions must be brought on board, their strengths and weaknesses understood and measures should be in place to start work even before the families begin to return. Rather than asking people to return now, the advance party of the civil machinery must set up the systems needed to receive these families and respond to their issues prior to their arrival.
History teaches us that most tragedies develop where inequities exist. Inequities that lead to expression of rage and are exploited by vested interests. It is these underlying causes that we as a nation must seek to address through a more equitable model of development. It is time to raise questions, to debate issues, and to collectively define a new social order. The nation must set it goals, draw timelines; decide its own strategy. These decisions must not take place behind closed doors or in foreign capitals, influenced by the strategic interest of others. It should be developed in consultation with the people.
The way forward is not through exclusion, but through creating spaces for the marginalized and opportunities for them to interact with the state. The process of consultation needs to be empowering, the dialogue effective and the patron-client attitude discarded for a more equal expression of roles and responsibilities. We as citizens must get involved in the process. We must focus on better governance, access to information, and on accountability. We must question the use of resources and the manner in which the poor in our nation finance the privileges of the rich. We must review our foreign policy, question the rationale of aid and its utilization, the military's budget, and, its role and relationship to a democratic dispensation.
The alternative to questioning and debate is to wait for conducive conditions that may in their own course bring about the changes we most yearn. History has repeatedly proven that these conditions seldom appear -- they need to be created. Today, as citizens we need to go to the other side of despair, to create our spaces and most of all make sure that we are heard.
The writer is executive director of the Omar Asghar Khan Foundation. Email:
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