Beyond Self-Flagellation: We Need Government, Stupid

Posted on August 30, 2010
Filed Under >Mosharraf Zaidi, Disasters, Economy & Development, Environment, Law & Justice, Society
21 Comments
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Mosharraf Zaidi

(This article was first published in The News. The cartoon is by Feica and was published in Dawn.)

There is a lot of criticism of the Pakistani discourse that relates to ideology and identity.

If you question drone attacks, there are those that will immediately label you a Taliban-supporter. If you question Pakistan’s need to fight, kill and capture terrorists, there are those that will immediately label you an American stooge. If you spell Ramadan correctly, you’re an Arabist. If you enjoy classical music, you’re a covert Hindu. You want to make a fraaandships with India? RAW agent. You want to honour the dedication with which the Guardians of the Two Holy Mosques care for Makkah and Madinah? Wahabbist fundo.

These labels are great fun. Mostly, they’re the domain of folks that are too busy to discern between the layers of complexity that defines the average person in the 21st century. Multiple identities make these labels rather obsolete. The problem with these cute little games we play is that they obscure from view the very real cancer that is the true bane of the Pakistani discourse. While we argue over these trivialities we miss the most pertinent weakness within the broad conversation about, within and relating to Pakistan. Simply put, the Pakistani discourse is a fact-free zone.

The Pakistani public square is this common and shared space—across our airwaves, in our newspapers, at the chowk and outside our chaardeewaarees. Here your ideology—left, right, center or all over the compass, doesn’t matter. Your faith mantra. Your aqeeda or your qaida. Doesn’t matter. Sure, they matter deeply at the interpersonal level. They matter existentially at the personal level. They matter at the academic level. But in the public discourse, these things are not of primary importance.

What is of central and primary importance is the baseline of facts around which our engagement is constructed—as people, as citizens, as voters, as taxpayers, as sons, and brothers, sisters and daughters, fathers and mothers, and friends and lovers. On this count, it is hard to be anything but deeply worried about the state of our democracy and our humanity. This baseline is a dry and arid desert of facts.

This is dangerous and worrying. It is especially dangerous in the context of a recent public lynching and a newly uncovered sports betting scandal have given new fuel to one of the most archetypal Pakistani national pastimes. It involves a baseball bat, but no ball. It’s the Pakistani sport of self-flagellation.

We seem to relish in taking a baseball bat to ourselves and viciously maul the very idea of being Pakistani. We find every nasty word in the dictionary to debase our collective identity. We’re angry and we want the world to know!

Of course, in the case of what happened in Sialkot and the Shoeless Joe Jackson impression that Salman Butt has been doing in the UK—we have enough facts to be outraged. Enough baseline evidence to ask questions and demand answers.

Too often though, we are so hungry for accountability, so angry at the morally rudderless leadership we elect and appoint, so desperate for some kind of release from what seems to be an endless succession of bad news that we conflate things. I have lost count of how many times a noble and desperate expression of anger about Sialkot or spot fixing has segued into Pakistan’s catastrophic floods.

This conflation creates the cancerous problem of repetitive self-flagellation. The truth is that Pakistan has much to be sober and introspective about. But conflating all our frustration with one aspect of being Pakistani does not naturally, or linearly lend itself to justifying a similar frustration with all aspects of being Pakistani.

For decent and reasonable people, this should be clear as day. But in addition to being decent and reasonable, I suspect most of us are passionately patriotic. Love is blindness and we are blinded by our love for this country, to the plain fact that while the roof is on fire, we do have fire extinguishers, right here in Pakistan.

There is lots to be panicked about, but there’s plenty to suggest that Armageddon is not quite here, yet.

Flood relief is on-going, even as the floods, now in their second month, continue to ravage Southern Sindh. Truckloads of ordinary Pakistanis, by the thousands, are driving into places that are no vacation. They’re delivering medicines and food and shelter. Not far behind are Pakistan’s array of NGOs, and the international NGOs that support them. Money for both comes from ordinary people around the world, and in Pakistan. It also comes from donors—bilateral and multilateral. The UN system works ‘round the clock, trying to keep up with the frenetic pace and scale of the disaster. Other countries, both those that are maligned here, and those that are loved, are supporting the whole endeavour with money from their taxpayers. Its all a wonderful system of benevolence.

We know this already. So what’s the fact-free part of all this that I want to bring to your notice today? It is what underpins the entire system of relief and recovery, and eventually reconstruction. It the Pakistani government.

Ignorance of the Pakistani civilian structures’ role in all this is dangerous. We have spent so much time and effort, hating on Pakistani state structures that we can’t seem to acknowledge the most obvious and simple facts. Without government, almost none of the current pace and scale of relief would be possible. Even if we leave the military out of this, and just look at the civilian administration cross-country.


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Pakistani government schools are the backbone of relief efforts in most locations. Pakistani government officers, like the many DMG officers that serve as District Coordination Officers, are the sharp end of the Pakistani response to the floods. Their subordinates, both within the provincial services and below in the cadres that are district specific, have risked their lives in many cases to do what government should do—to serve and protect Pakistanis. Are they getting some help from donors? Of course they are. Who are they talking to and coordinating with? It’s the government, stupid.

Is the military a central part of the response to these floods? Of course it is. The jawaans that serve and protect their entire careers have flashed into action. What is the military? It too, is the government, stupid.

The National Disaster Management Authority is a new organization, operating in a new post-18th Amendment administrative environment, and deeply political environment. It is far from perfect, but the politicians, the donors and the international organizations trust the NDMA, because it has credible leadership. What is the NDMA? It’s the government, stupid.

Pakistan needs massive amounts of humanitarian relief that is best delivered by NGOs—Pakistani and international. And it will need massive funds to reconstruction. But the thing Pakistan will need most desperately as we go forward is government. Doesn’t matter what family’s prince and princesses we elect. The actual operational business of government will be done by the same people doing it now. It might be a good idea to stop demonizing the civil servants and public employees that keep this place ticking. They are the government, stupid.

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21 responses to “Beyond Self-Flagellation: We Need Government, Stupid”

  1. Azra Talib says:

    Thank you for sharing your feelings and thoughts over the grave issue of security of Pakistanis and future of Pakistan. We just have to say that despite our differences of various types, its a high time to unite for just one goal to save and build our nation from the enemies within our country and outside. Unity is strength, despite all of us know it, we are continually failing to build a consensus among us.

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