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Saturday September 24, 2022

Reconsidering power in a crisis

September 05, 2022

The floods are a major catastrophe the scale and consequences of which will take time to become embedded in the national consciousness. A trauma and crisis such as these floods plays a key role in pushing along the evolution of institutions, habits of thinking and approaches to policy. The good news is that we have agency to intervene in and to shape this process. This article argues that in responding to this national trauma, we should reconsider our ideas about power, sovereignty and cooperation with reference to three specific issues.

First, it may be time for Pakistan to reconsider a broader coalition with other South Asian countries, including and especially India. At the governmental level it means reviving the Saarc project, and closer connections between scholars and activists. There is an argument being made in the public discourse about the floods: since the global climate crisis is disproportionately caused by developed or industrialized nations (broadly referred to as the Global North), they should pay reparations or at least bear the costs of relief and economic recovery.

The argument is not unreasonable, but Pakistan is not alone in South Asia in facing the risks associated with climate change (see the Climate Risk Index by Germanwatch). The reluctance to trade within India should be revisited within this framing of shared regional vulnerability.

People concerned about sovereignty when it comes to regional cooperation should ponder the case of the European Union (EU). Sovereignty is shared in a globalized world, something former UK prime minister John Major tried to remind people of prior to the UK’s referendum on exiting the EU (aka Brexit). As Major argued, the UK didn’t surrender sovereignty to Europe by joining the EU.

It shared its sovereignty and also shared in the sovereignty of the other EU countries. Having taken a step to close itself off from the European project, the UK is coming to the slow, painful realization that the so-called ‘Brexit dividend’ isn’t likely to materialize. Our view on sovereignty is a more general problem we need to resolve: Is holding onto a dream of absolute sovereignty viable and desirable or are we open to considering moving towards a shared sovereignty view? These questions are also related to whether we want to remain a closed society internally: do we want to keep shutting down YouTube to keep people from listening to opposition leaders’ speeches and shutting ourselves off from each other in gated housing societies?

Second, we should imagine a region whose devastation from floods and other climate change related disasters is compounded a thousand times over by nuclear war. The thought of nuclear war between two nuclear armed neighbours in a region rife with climate change risk should be a sobering thought. But there are risks even if one disregards the weaponization of nuclear power.

The Fukushima nuclear accident took place just over a decade ago, and it has only been two years since the explosion in the Port of Beirut brought images of a mushroom cloud to news and social media across the world. It would serve us well to ponder these incidents and how we might cope (or not!) in case of a nuclear power related accident or nuclear war.

At the very least, we should consider mechanisms to discuss problems related to existing nuclear power (military or otherwise) in the region. Besides imagining a nuclear winter, it would also be helpful to imagine a South Asia in which Pakistan and India are actively engaged in disarmament talks and leveraging their own agreements to push for global disarmament.

Third, we need to reconsider the current distribution of power and its economic implications internally. Many power imbalances exist in Pakistan along different lines: class, gender, regional, urban-rural, ethnic, sectarian, religious etc. Note that by destroying the lives and livelihoods of the already impoverished, the current floods have already brought about a major redistribution which further entrenches the existing centers of power. Yet, there is nothing necessary or inevitable about this. Elites can and should redistribute power willingly. Centres of power in this country – landed elites, industry, real estate, elected officials etc – have important decisions to make: willingly redistribute and share power, or have change forced on them by a crisis-ridden environment. The latter kind of changes will not be of their own choosing.

It doesn’t help the federal government that it doesn’t have the sort of broad mandate which is required to push through such broad social reforms. With reference to the floods, the federal government should recognize its limited mandate and embrace the power of decentralized relief, rescue and reconstruction efforts.

It should complement, support and encourage them with its own organizational heft. An all hands on deck approach will work best. There needs to be a way for people who don’t have the relevant permissions, whether it’s international NGOs or people trying to use mapping and GIS tools, to be able to do the work which will help the overall effort. In doing so, the government would recognize and support the agency of the public.

This is key for the government to understand: cede some control willingly, because you are not in control to begin with. Let the goodwill of Pakistani people towards each other work in the favour of the country.

The Pakistani people, if not the Pakistani state and government, also enjoy goodwill globally. That goodwill should be accepted and leveraged. It should also remind us that we are not alone. Despite the birth of our country in conditions of trauma and social upheaval 75 years ago, we need not live on edge today as if the world is against us, ready to pounce on us at any moment.

This will not be easy: old habits die hard and we have been in the habit of viewing everything through the lens of security threats to the point of blinding us to other vulnerabilities. The present trauma of climate change and the ensuing human price that Pakistan is paying can lead to a different response, one of openness and cooperation rather than isolation and disengagement.

The writer is an economist. He tweets @khand154

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