IMF “aid” means permanent indebtedness for Pakistan

The International Monetary Fund is talking about easing the terms of the loan it is granting to Pakistan, but the fact of the matter remains that it is still a loan with interest.  Adding to the already bloated $50-something billion dollar debt that Pakistan has, new loans will only mean that the country is permanently saddled with debt.  A third of Pakistan’s yearly budget goes to debt repayments, and this means that serious development projects that could benefit the people of Pakistan (40% of whom live below the poverty line) will never really happen.  Pakistani Finance Minister Abdul Hafeez Sheikh told reporters in the US that Pakistan wants to take the loans because, “We want to continue to demonstrate our resolve to take difficult decisions.”  What he means that the leaders will take the money while the poor will make the sacrifices – hardly a difficult decision.

Take, for instance, what Pakistan was asked to do in exchange for loans in 2008 (when the country was on the verge of defaulting):

Compelled to accept the help of the IMF, it has received so far a total of 11.3 billion dollars in loans with particularly harsh conditionalities: the sale of a million hectares of farmland, an end to government subsidies on fuel, an increase in the price of electricity, drastic cuts in social expenditures, etc. Only the military budget has been spared. Finally this loan has made living conditions even more difficult while jeopardizing the country’s sovereignty.

One of the other reasons to be suspicioius of the international aid agencies is because they’ve helped direct quite a bit of the construction of the irrigation network that threads through Pakistan now, and little of it has helped the current situation.  I’ve been trying to talk about the infrastructural issues in Pakistan, and doing a clumsy job of much of it (since I’m not an expert about them), but I found the following summary of the problem insightful and provocative:

Third, the way we have (mis)managed the Indus — and countless other rivers around the world — for the past century has provided various short-term benefits, but at a major long-term cost that we are now having to pay.  We have ended small- and medium-scale flooding on many rivers through building dams and embankments. But in doing so we have greatly increased the scale of, and our vulnerability to, very big floods. This is a really bad idea in an era when megafloods are becoming ever less “extreme” and ever more “normal.” Increasing resilience to floods in Pakistan, the US, and just about everywhere else is going to require reversing our river management mistakes through restoring rivers and floodplains, including by taking out embankments and dams.

I can’t recommend enough the work by Daanish Mustafa which explains the social and ecological consequences of the massive irrigation network in Pakistan and its relationship to flooding in the country.

At the same time, the American military’s efforts have not made things substantially better.  Even though the troops are dispensing aid in some places, most Pakistanis are talking about the fact that the flood control priorities have put American interests above Pakistani ones:

Mr. Ejaz Jakhrani, Minister of Sports explained that “if the water was not diverted, the Shahbaz Airbase would have been inundated.” He was assigned to protect it, former Prime Minister Mir Zafar Ullah Khan Jamali saying that doing it meant demolishing the Jamali bypass and letting the town of Dera Allahyar drown. He added that “if the airbase was so important, then what priority might be given to the citizens.” He blamed “minister Jakhrani, DPO and DCO Jacobabad for deliberately diverting the course of the floodwaters toward Balochistan.”

Media reports said in 2001, the Musharraf government gave America control of Shahbaz to wage war on terrorism, the presence of army soldiers during the Jamali bypass breach a clear sign “that the Pakistan army (was) ordered to save the airbase.” It meant flooding out hundreds of thousands of people, now stranded on their own without help.

At least one index of the cozy relationship between the American and Pakistani army during the last several weeks has been the shift in the tenor of how Pakistan is described.  Military attacks have continued almost unabated while the flooding has been going on, and it prompted the Americans to announce their deep respect for the Pakistani army’s support:

“The collaboration, the cooperation, the support, the protection, and the friendship and I use that word very deliberately extended to us by our Pakistani partners has been nothing but impressive,” Army Brig. Gen. Michael Nagata told Pentagon reporters during a video -teleconference.

Ali Sethi had a fabulous piece in the New York Times talking about just how much the American military looms over all of the decisions made about the flooding in Pakistan:

The answer came in evasive, fragmented sentences: there was an airbase on the Sindhi side of the highway. This was where the military’s newest F-16 fighter jets were parked. But local residents believed that the base also housed the notorious American drones used to kill Islamist militants in the mountains. If true, this meant that the military was getting tens of millions of dollars a year in exchange, none of which trickled down to the local population.

The armed forces were going to save the base at all costs, he explained. But they didn’t want to draw attention to their own role — or to their interest — in the diversion of the water. Hence the presence of the land-owning politician; if there was any fallout, he would take the blame, and the soldiers would appear to have acted on his personal wishes.

The commissioner and then the police officer departed for the highway, leaving our TV crew behind in the room. Could we break the story we had just heard?

“I don’t think so,” said one reporter. “You don’t want the intelligence agencies to come after you.” The last time he had broken such a story, he said, a whole team of officers from the feared Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence had come to see him in his office.

In addition to the American military, people with close connections to politicians are also finding that their property is preserved and their rehabilitation is happening faster, leaving those without connections in the lurch:

But the elected representatives were busy submitting proposals for losses in their areas only, while people were still trapped and seeking help for evacuation and rescue operations. These representative MPAs had not even visited the flood-hit areas of their districts concerned from where they had been elected. The people have started suffering from psychological ailments due to the unjustifiable distribution of food among the affectees. On the other hand, gastroenteritis has killed more than 11 people in Balochistan, including women and children, but the provincial Health Department has devised no plan so far to stop such epidemic diseases throughout Balochistan.   The politicians have been busy in hatching conspiracies against each other, but the issue of flood is left ignored. Now is the time to support our brothers and sisters, but unfortunately the elected representatives have left the masses in the lurch.

Near Thatta, where the flooding has just hit again, the pattern is repeated.  Canals are breached to preserve prosperous areas, while poorer areas are seen as expendable:

Also, Kirthar Canal breach has inundated at least 150 villages, as breach at SM protective embankment was persistently broadening. The flood torrent sustained mounting pressure at Loop Bund, as the population living near the dykes started mass exodus towards Thatta for safer places. The breach that was caused in Loop Bund to spare Daro, Bhuttoro, Banu and Sajawal the inundation is rapidly entering catchments area. While, the floodwater, forcing out of a third breach at Loop Bund in the other part of dyke, is fast-paced gulping Kot Aalimon and Laiqpur.

The Economist, no great friend of the poor, concurs:

Overall 1.2m homes have been damaged or destroyed. Some 800,000 people remain cut off from all help. Even where the government or aid agencies are present, the help is patchy at best, with many left to fend for themselves. Now dark (and plausible) accusations are circulating: the well-connected chose which areas were purposefully flooded to relieve pressure elsewhere; aid is being diverted to constituencies of powerful figures; woefully feeble flood-protection infrastructure was left badly maintained.

The consequences of all of this are that the flood control infrastructure has been wrecked:

More than 150 major irrigation structures have been damaged or breached across the country during the floods and an assessment is in progress to estimate their repair and reconstruction cost.

According to a preliminary report prepared by the Federal Flood Commission, floods have affected an area of 130,000 kilometres, damaged one million houses, rendered 14 million people homeless and affected 4.4 million acres of cropped area.

And Mohsin Hamid, who has been up until now very good on the flooding, published a piece in Dawn which was oddly liberal in its tone (defending the state and the army working together, calling on people to pay their taxes, etc.).  He did make the following point poignantly:

No, the real narrative of Pakistan is one that has nothing to do with the outside world, or geopolitics, or conspiracy theories. The real narrative of Pakistan is the story of a country where a fabulously wealthy elite, as well as a large and growing middle class, refuse to commit sufficiently to helping the majority of their brothers and sisters who remain desperately poor.

The suffering of the Pakistani majority is usually concealed behind sordid dramas enacted by our venal politicians, hypocritical nonsense about our country’s eternal blamelessness, and carefully choreographed nationalistic, ethnic, and sectarian myth-making. But the floods have washed away these illusions and confronted us with our hungry, wet, fearful truth: Pakistan is a land that lets its people suffer.

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