The first month of Labour Relief Campaign Pakistan

I’ve been advocating that people contribute to the efforts of the Labor Party of Pakistan when they are donating to give aid to Pakistan in response to devastating effects of the flood. I’m reposting in full a report from the LPP on their efforts, which have been fantastic.  You should be able to click on the link below to donate.

The first month of Labour Relief Campaign Pakistan

The Labour Relief Camp first camp was organized in Lahore on 1st August 2010 at Regal Chouck Lahore. Earlier on 25th July 2010, we decided to launch a Baluchistan appeal.

It stated,

“Torrential rains have unleashed flash floods in different parts of Baluchistan over the few days.  Water levies broke leaving the people exposed to flood water. At least three villages in district Sibi have been destroyed. Houses, live-stock such as cattle’s and goats, household goods, clothes, shoes and other items have been destroyed. Residents of villages are currently without drinkable water, food, shelter and in need of clothes.  In particular, the situation is dire for children and women and they are in desperate need of food and clothing. Disease is spreading fast in the areas affected due to lack of drinkable water. In particular, flu, fever, diarrhea, cholera have been noted and are spreading.  The government’s response has made matters worse. They failed to act immediately, leaving tens of thousands of people unaided.  They came after twenty four hours to the make-shift camps with paltry amount of food bags to distribute. The gap between the food being distributed and the large number of people desperate to eat led to fighting breaking out making matters even worse for these desperate people. Rubina Baluch, Women Secretary LPP Baluchistan, who is a resident of one of the affected villages said, ‘there is absolutely nothing left here – food, water, and clothing – and we are in desperate need of these’.  At least, 10, 000 people are said to be in suffering in these grave conditions”.

Perhaps this was the first appeal by any political group in Pakistan to ask people to help the victims of torrential rains in Baluchistan.

After an informal consultation with several social and political groups in Lahore, we decided to set up the first camp. Already a group of 42 activists including 35 women belonging to Labour Education Foundation were trapped in Kalam, Swat valley. The flood in river Swat had flooded away all the bridges and the road links were delinked from the rest of the country. They were eventually evacuated by a military helicopter after 8 days of ordeal.

The camp in Lahore was supported by many activists and on the first day, we collected nearly 18,000 Rupees within two hours. Next day, it went up to nearly 50,000.

A LRC committee was reestablished with 8 members from eight different organizations. They included, Cindy Kariaper, Pakistan for Palestine, Farooq Tariq Pakistan Kissan Rabita Committee, Qalandar Memon Labour Party Pakistan, Bushra Khaliq Women Workers Help Line, Khalid Malik Labour Education Foundation, Ammar Jan Progressive Youth Front, Khaliq Shah CADTM Pakistan and Niaz Khan National Trade Union Federation. The committee decided to meet at least twice in a week to discuss all aspect of the campaign.

The LRC committee agreed to campaign on two fronts, collecting funds for the immediate relief and to change the priorities of the national budget demanding a total no to repayment of foreign debts and reduce the military budget, no cuts in development budget and no new taxes, no new loan, but grants and aid.

On 7th August, we issued a new appeal and here is a part that we wrote,

“Please donate to Labour Relief Campaign to help people of Pakistan is facing worst ever floods of its history. Torrential rains have unleashed flash floods in different parts of the country since last three weeks. Water levies broke leaving the people exposed to flood water. More than 12 million people have suffered due to these floods. More than 650,000 houses have collapsed, mainly in villages. Thousands of acres of crops have been destroyed due to flood water. Houses, live-stock such as cattle’s and goats, household goods, clothes, shoes and other items have been destroyed.  Residents of villages are currently without drinkable water, food, shelter and in need of clothes”.

Five days later, the situation has even more worsened and it was estimated that over 20 million people are affected by the flood by then,

We wrote on 12 August,

“The flood is still on dangerous levels in several parts of Pakistan. The numbers of people affected by the flood have crossed 20 million. More torrential rains are forecast by the weather department. This is been considered one of the most devastating flood in world history. The UN has once again appealed for donations for Pakistan. But there has been a very slow response internationally to help Pakistan in this period of great devastation. After destroying most of Khaiber Pukhtoonkhawa and Southern Punjab, the water has now washed down the Indus River Valley, causing a deluge in Sindh. The water has been powered by unusually fierce monsoon rains that began in country’s northern areas some three weeks ago. Roads, bridges and other infrastructure have given way, overwhelming the government’s ability to cope. At this point an estimated 1,600 have been killed with another 5 million left homeless”.

Camps were set up in different parts of Pakistan including Rawalpindi, Mardan, Hyderabad, Moro, Karachi, Sanghar, Layya and Sibbi.

We send the appeal to all our international friends and by then, the world was awakening to the most catastrophic incident of Pakistan history.

In one month, we have raised the following

Lahore Rs. 654587 (cash)

Lahore Rs. 45000 (goods)

Rawalpindi Rs. 5000 (cash)

Hyderabad Rs. 184100 (cash)

Hyderabad Rs. 299550 Goods and medicine

Moro Rs. 766,190 (cash)

Karachi Rs. 450,000 (cash)

Karachi Rs. 250,000 (goods)

Mardan Rs. 70,000 (cash)

Sibbi did not have information

Sanghar no information yet

Layya no information yet

International appeal Rs. 371784

Confirmed commitments and information received

SAP Netherlands Euro 5000 (Rs. 550,000)

Olof Palme International Center Sweden SEK 50,000 (Rs. 589,500)

Cultural Life Buoy campaign NOK 10,000 (Rs. 138,000)

Yasmeen USA US$ 2000 (Rs.172,000)

Pakistanis in Denmark US $ 1000 (Rs. 85000)

A total in cash raised from Pakistan: Rs. 2,129,877

International Rs. 371,784

Commitments Rs. 1,534,500

Goods: Rs. 594550

Total cash, goods and commitments on 3 September 2010, 4,630,711 (US$ 54478)

Apart from the relief campaign, we have also launched a political campaign for non-payment of foreign debts of Pakistan. We held our first press conference in first week of August in Lahore and we said, “Pakistan must refuse to pay the foreign debts and divert the amount into the relief and rehabilitation of the flood affectees. It is high time to change the priorities of the national budget and all those suggestions to cut the development budget and spend on flood affectees be stopped. There is an easy way out. Stop paying the debts owed to International Finance Institutions, donor countries and clubs.

The press conference was the first voice in Pakistan on the issue. We contacted like-minded groups and parties to raise the issue and the idea was well received. Social and political groups in Islamabad met and decided to take on the issue. In Lahore, on 29th August, LRC organized a multi-party conference to oppose the debt retirement and 28 political parties, trade unions and social movements agreed to participate in this campaign. On second September several hundreds marched to Islamabad to demand non payment of foreign debts. One of the largest private television channel Dunia took up the issue on a prime time talk show, “Dunia Mery Aaghey” and invited one of the organizer of the demonstration to put up the case. There is now a beginning of the awakening of some main stream political parties to take up the issue.

Three more rallies will be organized to press for this demand. One such rally will be held in Lahore on 19th September from GPO Chouck to Punjab Assembly demanding an end of payments of debts while people are in danger of dying in the aftermath of the flood. In this campaign, we have got the material support of OXFAM.

Where the money spent?

We had decided to spend the amount on flood victims on selected areas where we have local teams to deal the question of distribution in more organized manner and also to the most needy ones. The initial three areas selected were Union Council Tully in Sibbi district of Baluchistan, Pir Sabaq union council of district Noshehra of Khaber Pukhtoonkhawa and Southern part of Punjab. We held in food items, kitchen items and construction material in two areas, while we were unable to do anything in Saraiki area. Lately, LRC has send amount to Hyderabad jamshoro, Moro and Thatha area of Sindh through Sindh Labour Relief Committee. The local teams in Baluchistan reported wide spread disruption in food item distribution and they had to take special measures to avoid that. they issue tokens of particular food basket after conducting surveys of three villages and then asked them to collect food from a special place designated for collection the food items. Same process was carried out in Pir Sabaq area where distribution of food items and construction material was done with a very disciplined manner. The main reason of smooth distribution was our local committees which included political and trade unions activists.

In Hyderabad jamshoro, we set up medical camps and distributed medicines through our doctors association. Here in Hyderabad, we were jointly working with Communist Party Pakistan, Aadersh, A Sindhi literary magazine. In Moro, our local relief committee was formed in association with local traders and trade unions. There were the most successful in collecting amount and good from an area which was itself affected. Through joint effort, they have won the sympathies of many in the city and are the main distribution group of the area. Several other organizations have contacted and asked help in distribution to the flood affectees of Moro and Dadu district. In Karachi, SRLC set up four camps and sent four trucks of good to Moro and at present busy in Thatha district to help the flood victims who are sleeping on roads and schools.

The International Response to LRC appeal

This was to give you some idea of our activity during the first month of our relief work. Most of the amount collected in Pakistan are from ordinary people. They have donated us generously. BY setting up camps and distributing aid to flood victims in some selected areas, we have tried to counter the influence of the right wing forces particularly the religious fundamentalists groups. Several hundreds activists of LRC are busy in collecting funds locally and we are also encouraged by different responses from abroad. Political groups associated with Fourth International in several countries particularly in Netherlands and England have send us amount already, while several individual and Left groups efforts in US have brought some cash to the relief. From Sweden, we have already received information of 50,000 Swedish SKR and in Norway, an initiative by actor Toni Usman for a theater show on 19 September has already won support of Norway artist association with leading actors of Norway taking part voluntarily to help the campaign. In Australia, Socialist Alliance is helping to collect funds and APHEDA, the official Australian trade unions international assistance is collecting funds for LRC.

We had the great arrival of South Asians at Lahore relief camp to collect funds from Pakistanis. Social and peace activists from India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka came to Lahore and brought some amount from their own countries and contributed to LRC funds. They have brought with this a consciousness of South Asian solidarity in real terms.

We appeal to all our international friends to continue collecting funds for our future planned aid and political activities. Apart from the campaign on debts, we have decided to organize peasant rallies in Sindh and Punjab to demand land rights and end of feudalism.

Social crisis stalks Pakistan

My piece in Socialist Worker on the flooding in Pakistan:

SOCIAL CRISIS STALKS PAKISTAN

The catastrophe is being shaped by powerful political and economic forces–and the most vulnerable have been left to fend for themselves, reports Snehal Shingavi.

September 3, 2010

People fleeing rising floodwaters with what possessions they can carry

People fleeing rising floodwaters with what possessions they can carry

IT HAS been nearly a month since the floods tore through the Swat valley in the northern part of Pakistan. The water has begun flowing into the ocean, and water levels have begun to fall in most places, but the sheer magnitude of the devastation left in its wake is overwhelming.

Even as the water recedes, new towns in the southern part of Pakistan are at risk of being submerged. Already, the floods are recognized by UN officials as worse–in terms of the number of people suffering–than the earthquake in Haiti, the tsunami that hit India and the earthquake that hit Pakistan in 2005 combined.

The Pakistani state’s reports about the extent of the damage barely do justice to the human toll. Some 1,650 people are dead, and another 2,450 are injured. Upwards of 20 million people are homeless and have been forced to flee to relief camps, where shortages in food, medicine and clean drinking water have produced new problems.

Children especially are at risk since the cramped quarters in the relief camps mean that communicable diseases like chicken pox and the measles are spreading rapidly, while the lank of sanitation and nutrition mean that dysentery, diarrhea and skin lesions are very common.

The World Food Program is warning that Pakistan now suffers from the triple threat of “hunger, homelessness and desperation” as a consequence of the flooding and the impact it has had on the Pakistani economy.

The loss of farmland, livestock (the primary savings of most families), seeds and the entirety of the winter crop will not only mean that thousands will go hungry for the next several months, but also that it will be a very long time before they will be able to return to meaningful lives. Already, there are estimates that it may take six months until farmland is suitable for planting crops, putting next year’s crop in jeopardy as well.

The damage to the infrastructure has been crippling. Roads, bridges, canals and power stations have all been affected by the flooding. In Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, for instance, chronic illegal deforestation–caused by timber producers hiding logs in ravines in the mountainous areas–meant that when the rains hit, the water not only ran down the mountains much faster, but it also carried logs into the river, where they collided with bridges and destroyed them.

While much of the media has pointed out the connection between the Pakistani Taliban and the so-called “timber mafia” in the region as a way to blame Islamic militancy for the flooding, they have been reluctant to point out the connections between the “timber mafia” and the civilian bureaucracy, which has been largely bribed into turning a blind eye to the problem. Deforestation is not news in Pakistan.

What is striking, though, is the way that this natural disaster has been made worse by the social arrangement in Pakistan. First of all, land is unevenly owned in Pakistan–64 percent of the farmland is owned by 5 percent of the population. As a result, poorer farmers and peasants ordinarily own or work on land in areas that are ordinarily prone to flooding.

In the cities, poorer people crowded in slums found that their homes were sacrificed in order to save the homes of wealthier residents. At least one newspaper has called this perverse social organization that threatens the lives of the most vulnerable people in Pakistan a kind of “economic apartheid.”

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

THE REASONS that the floods were as bad as they were in Pakistan have to do with the social interests that are connected to the irrigation network in Pakistan. The Punjab and Sindh were not always agriculturally productive regions, since many parts of those provinces didn’t have regular access to water.

When the British colonized South Asia, they set out to build a large irrigation network along the Indus basin in order to be able to create a class of agriculturists who would be dependent on the colonial government and therefore loyal to their interests. Many of the people who settled here were also soldiers in the British colonial army.

After independence, those same agriculturalists became important players in the Pakistani state and used their influence to make sure that the irrigation networks fed their lands. Even when the capacity existed, for instance, for an overhaul of the canals and dams and a rerouting of the Indus in certain places that were prone to flooding, it was deeply resisted by these same agricultural interests, which would lose out should their lands no longer be next to the canals or should the canals displace their farms.

As a result, holistic ecological planning in Pakistan has been frustrated by the very social class that relies on regular water flows through the Indus. And in the worst irony, the very system that was designed to boost the agricultural output of Pakistan has destroyed the winter crop entirely.

The irrigation network itself is unsustainable. The canals require embankments, cement and concrete walls that are dug into the land to carry water. Because of the amount of silt that the Indus carries down from the Himalayas, the embankments actually contribute to the raising of the riverbed, which then means that the embankments have to be raised even higher.

In some places, this has meant that the embankments are actually higher than the floodplain, making it impossible for the canals and rivers to drain water to the ocean, pushing water out into the lowlands along the river and making the flooding worse.

The problem is compounded in Pakistan because local lobbies try to protect their immediate interests over the interests of the ecosystem or the economy as a whole, thus preventing any real flood control mechanism from ever being built. For the last several years, for instance, there has been an intense debate inside of Pakistan about the proposed construction of the Kalabagh dam, a hydroelectric dam that would sit near the border of Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

Because there are chronic water shortages throughout Pakistan, the agricultural lobbies in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh (the two neighboring provinces) charge that the dam would give Punjab the ability to steal water for itself and deprive the other provinces of irrigation.

There are other ecological considerations at work here, too. Agricultural interests in Sindh, for instance, require that there be a certain regular amount of water flowing through the Indus throughout the year to prevent seawater from entering into the river stream and making arable land unusable because of high rates of salinity. Dams in the Punjab, then, would mean that Sindh would have no ability to ensure the necessary flow of water in the lower riparian areas of the Indus.

Meanwhile, agriculturalists in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa charge that the construction of flood control mechanisms along the Indus will flood and submerge land upriver. Neither of these groups is wrong, since Punjabi dominance in Pakistani politics would mean that development or compensation to offset the costs to losing interest groups will not be forthcoming.

Added to this is the strange manner in which geopolitical conflicts have affected the region’s rivers. After the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, the Indus basin was literally divided, with certain rivers originating in India and others in Pakistan. That meant that India could (and did) use control over river flows as a weapon in its rivalry with Pakistan, regulating the flow of the rivers by constructing dams on its side of the border.

This has not only meant intense bickering at any number of peace talks between the two nations, but also produces the absurd problem of trying to manage the ecology of the river basin without any real control over the infrastructure. Rumors were flying, for instance, that the flooding this year was in part due to India opening the dams on its side.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

AFTER THE UN made its appeal to the international community for $459 million in disaster aid, some 70 percent of that figure was pledged. It bears underlining, though, that this amount is only a drop in the bucket compared to what Pakistan will need to rebuild–official estimates are more than $40 billion–or what it will need to rehabilitate all those people who have been displaced.

And because aid has been trickling in slowly, people have become increasingly desperate. Riots have broken out in relief camps, and people have stormed aid vehicles in the hopes of getting what little relief they can. The problem is made worse because there are reports everywhere that entrenched political interests have secured the delivery of aid to certain regions ahead of others. The fact that much needed aid and relief has yet to arrive has compounded the corrupt practices of the Pakistani state.

There are a few reasons why aid has been so slow in coming to Pakistan. While most of the media has manufactured a new psychological ailment called “donor fatigue” (which is contradicted by the remarkable generosity shown by ordinary people across the world), the more likely reason has to do with American military and political objectives in the region.

As a result of the war in Afghanistan, all discussions about aid to Pakistan are thoroughly politicized, as most U.S. establishment figures hold the country responsible for the continued success of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Added to this is a growing climate of Islamophobia in the U.S. and Europe, which has contributed to the notion that Pakistan is merely a hotbed for terrorist activity.

Both of these ideas in concert have contributed to the paranoia that Islam is on the rise in Pakistan and that providing aid to the country will simply mean that money gets channeled into the hands of unsavory people and organizations. The hypocrisy of the matter couldn’t be clearer when one remembers that the United States happily funded military dictators in Pakistan and cherry-picked the current civilian leadership in the country.

The Americans haven’t even stopped the drone attacks that have pounded the border region with Afghanistan almost every day since the flooding began. Now ordinary Pakistanis are caught between a corrupt civilian government and the American “war on terror.”

The other major problem is that much of the aid that will come into Pakistan will be in the form of loans from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, both of which have offered multibillion-dollar emergency loan packages. While the immediate injection of cash may help, in the long term, it has the effect of enriching the elite in Pakistan (who ensure that the aid goes into their pockets) while saddling ordinary Pakistanis with a huge debt burden that is paid either in the form of higher taxes or cuts to services.

Already, Pakistan owes some $50-55 billion to international lending institutions and pays $3 billion annually to service its debt obligation (three times more than it spends on health care, for instance).

The delayed, lackluster and sometimes even criminal response of the Pakistani civilian government in reacting to the flooding has meant that the largest beneficiary of the crisis in Pakistan has been the military. Because Pakistan has spent the last 60 years building up its armed forces and their resources at the expense of social services and infrastructure, the military is one of the few institutions capable of dealing with the scope and scale of the problem produced by the flooding.

So instead of having the capacity to manage the relief efforts effectively, the civilian bureaucracy is more or less ceding control and authority to the military forces in Pakistan, which were not only able to arrive quickly on the scene, but have also helped airlift villagers out of flood-ravaged areas.

In fact, the flooding may have entirely rehabilitated the military’s image, which had been less than positive after the reign of former President Gen. Pervez Musharraf. As Newsweek reports:

Three years ago, when Kayani took over the armed forces, the institution was widely discredited and even reviled after Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s long and controversial rule. Now, says Ayaz Amir, an opposition member of parliament, Kayani’s leadership has already improved the military’s popularity substantially, and the general could soon “look so tall that a military takeover will remain just a formality.”

It doesn’t hurt that the major television channels are running a constant loop of footage, set to the national anthem, showing army personnel rescuing women and children, delivering medicine and guarding weakened dams and bridges. Some are already calling for a return to military rule.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

IT’S UNCLEAR still how this will play out in Pakistani society. A few things are likely, though.

First, anger at the current government is already apparent as flood victims have been staging protests at relief camps and in front of aid convoys demanding help immediately. Anger will only increase as the relief effort taxes the ability of the state to deliver on what is necessary. President Asif Ali Zardari’s popularity is well below 20 percent; he’s also been the victim of a rather public shoe-throwing incident.

Second, the Islamists could very well be the beneficiaries of the anger that is rising against the Americans and the civilian government. It’s unclear just how extensive their reach in the relief efforts is, but it is entirely possible that they will have an explanation for the current crisis which will speak to ordinary Pakistanis, especially since the left in Pakistan is still relatively small.

Still, there are important organizing efforts being undertaken by the Pakistani left, including an attempt to demand that the government stop paying back its international debt. Several leftist parties and NGOs held a joint press conference in Islamabad to announce an initiative against debt repayments and an end to aid in the form of loans.

Political initiatives like this will hopefully give the left in Pakistan an audience and a platform to organize the anger that exists among those most affected by the flooding.

But what the flooding reveals more than anything else is that nothing short of a total social reorganization of the region will prevent this tragedy from being repeated. It is only when all of South Asia is organized to meet the needs of the people who live there rather than the short-term interests of the rulers that cataclysmic events like the floods can be avoided.

Pakistani rock about the floods

This song has been making the rounds in Pakistan.  It’s by a rock band called LAAL, and the song is called “Doob Gaya Hain” (it/we have been drowned).  Incidentally, Laal has an explicitly political history that you can and should read about, singing songs by some of my favorite poets, like Faiz and Habib Jalib.  Spread the word if you like the song — definitely donate to one of the many organizations doing relief work.  I recommend the Labor Party of Pakistan’s efforts.

New Red Indian in French

Thanks to friends in the New Anticapitalist Party in France for this:
D’UNE CATASTROPHE NATURELLE À UNE CATASTROPHE SOCIALE (LABRECHE.CH)
samedi 28 août 2010
PakistanCrues.jpg

Les inondations qui ont dévasté d’immenses régions du Pakistan sont peut-être un phénomène dû à la nature, mais l’aggravation de la crise humanitaire qui a suivi est le résultat direct des manquements des dirigeants pakistanais vénaux et de l’impact de la «guerre contre la terreur» menée par les Etats-Unis.

Selon les estimations officielles, plus de 22 millions de personnes ont été déplacées et plus 1600 personnes [15 août, actuellement] sont mortes en conséquence de l’une des pires inondations de l’histoire du Pakistan. Dans certaines régions, les pluies ont donné à l’Indus une largeur de 15 miles, ce qui représente environ 25 fois sa largeur normale. [Selon l’ONU, le 25 août, plus de 7 millions de personnes sont dans une situation de danger extrême du point de vue de leur alimentation (eau-nourriture), de leur santé et de leur manque de tout habitat.]

Read the rest of the article here.

Pakistani writers weigh in on the flooding

I’ve been surprised at the number of important Pakistani writers who have lent their voices to try to get aid delivered to Pakistan.  In some instances, the analysis that they offer has been both helpful and insightful; in others, downright disappointing.  Still, I think it’s important that the role of the public intellectual and author-critic is still alive in Pakistan.

Kamila Shamsie had a piece about the “timber mafia” in the UK Guardian:

It is possible to regard the floods as separate from the first two horsemen of the Apocalypse – the Taliban and the army. Floods are, after all, “natural disasters” or “acts of God” (take your pick – in Pakistan, most people will choose the latter). No one is culpable, no one could have prevented it. The truth is, the death toll could have been much lower, assistance much more quickly and efficiently at hand. Instead, report after report talks of the inadequacy of the state’s response to the crisis. This is made more maddening by the fact that much of the flooding took place in parts of the country that were already a humanitarian disaster zone.

Mohammad Hanif (author of A Case of Exploding Mangoes) had a poignant piece in the BBC:

These areas are of no strategic interest to anyone because they have neither exported terrorism nor do they have the ambition to join a fight against it. Their only export to the world outside is onions, tomatoes, sugar cane, wheat and mangoes. The word terrorism does not even exist in Seraiki and Sindhi, the languages of the majority of the people who have been rendered homeless. They belong to that forgotten part of humanity that has quietly tilled the land for centuries, the small farmers, the peasants, the farmhands, generations of people who are born and work and die on the same small piece of land.And this time there are 20 million of them.

Daniyal Mueenuddin’s piece in the New York Times captured the plight of the farmer extremely well:

I found most pitiful a family gathered around a prostrate brown-and-white brindled cow. The father told me that the cow had been lost in the water for four days, and the previous night it had clambered up on another section of the levee, a mile away. The people of this area recognize their cattle as easily as you or I recognize a cousin or neighbor — they sleep with their animals around them at night, and graze them all day; their animals are born and die near them. Someone passing by told the family that their cow had been found, and the father went and got it and led it to their little encampment.

His other piece in the NY Times, which called for the US to use this opportunity to win over the Pakistanis to fighting against extremists, was less compelling.

The best of the pieces was definitely Ali Sethi’s in the New York Times with its damning expose of the collusion between the Americans and the Pakistani elite:

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.

Mohsin Hamid was disappointing in his calls to shore up the Pakistani state in this piece in Dawn.  And HM Naqvi’s piece on Global Post was forgettable.

Pakistan: the tyranny of tributaries

It has been nearly a month since the floods tore through the Swat valley in the northern part of Pakistan.  The water has begun flowing into the ocean and water levels have begun to fall in most places, but the sheer magnitude of the devastation that has been produced is overwhelming.  And even as the water recedes, new towns in the southern part of Pakistan are under risk of being submerged.  Already the floods are recognized as being worse than the earthquake in Haiti, the tsunami that hit India and the earthquake that hit Pakistan in 2005 combined.

The numbers reported by the Pakistani state about the extent of the damage barely do justice to the human toll.  Some 1,650 people are dead and another 2,450 are injured.  Upwards of 20 million people are homeless and forced to flee into relief camps where shortages in food, medicine, and clean drinking water have produced new problems.  Children, especially, are at risk since the cramped quarters in the relief camps mean that communicable diseases like chicken pox and the measles are spreading rapidly among children, while the lank of sanitation and nutrition mean that dysentery, diarrhea, and skin lesions are very common.

The World Food Program is warning that Pakistan now suffers from the triple threat of “hunger, homelessness, and desperation,” as a consequence of the flooding and the impact that it has had on the Pakistani economy.[1] The loss of farmland, livestock (the primary savings of most families), seeds, and the entirety of the winter crop will not only mean that thousands will go hungry for the next several months but also that it will be a very long time before they will be able to return to meaningful lives.  Already there are estimates that it may take six months until farmland is suitable for planting crops; that would put next year’s crop in jeopardy as well.

The damage to the infrastructure has been crippling.  Roads, bridges, canals and power stations have all been affected by the flooding.  In Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, for instance, chronic illegal deforestation (which functions by hiding logs in ravines in the mountainous areas) meant that when the rains hit, they not only ran down the mountains much faster, but they also carried logs with them into the river, where they collided with bridges and destroyed them.  While much of the media has pointed out the connection between the Pakistani Taliban (Tehreek-e-Taliban-e-Pakistan) and the so-called “timber mafia” in the region as a way to blame Islamic militancy for the flooding, they have been reluctant to point out the connections between the “timber mafia” and the civilian bureaucracy, which is more or less bribed into turning a blind eye to the problem.  Deforestation is not news in Pakistan.

What is striking, though, is the way that this natural disaster has been made worse by the social arrangement in Pakistan.  First of all, land is unevenly owned in Pakistan; 64 percent of the farmland is owned by 5% of the population.  As a result poorer farmers and peasants ordinarily own or work on land in areas that are ordinarily prone to flooding.  In the cities, poorer people who are crowded in slums found that their homes were sacrificed in order to save the homes of wealthier residents.  At least one newspaper has called the kind of perverse social organization which threatens the lives of the most vulnerable people in Pakistan a kind of “economic apartheid.”[2]

The reasons that the floods were as bad as they were in Pakistan have to do with the social interests that are connected to the irrigation network in Pakistan.  The Punjab and Sindh were not always agriculturally productive regions, since many parts of those provinces didn’t have regular access to water.  When the British colonized South Asia, they set out to build a large irrigation network along the Indus basin in order to be able to create a class of agriculturists who would be dependent on the colonial government and therefore loyal to their interests.  Many of the people who settled here were also soldiers in the British colonial army.

After independence, those same agriculturalists became important players in the Pakistani state and used their influence to make sure that the irrigation networks fed their lands.  Even when the capacity existed, for instance, for an overhaul of the canals and dams and a rerouting of the Indus in certain places that were prone to flooding, it was deeply resisted by these same agricultural interests who would lose out should their lands no longer be next to the canals or should the canals displace their farms.  As a result, holistic ecological planning in Pakistan has been frustrated by the very social class that relies on regular waterflows through the Indus.  And in the worst irony, the very system that was designed to boost the agricultural output of Pakistan has destroyed the winter crop entirely.

The irrigation network itself is unsustainable.  The canals require embankments, cement and concrete walls that are dug into the land to carry water.  Because of the amount of silt that the Indus carries down from the Himalayas, the embankments actually contribute to the raising of the riverbed, which then means that the embankments have to be raised even higher.  In some places this has meant that the embankments are actually higher than the floodplain, which means that it is impossible for the canals and rivers to drain water to the ocean and pushing water out into the lowlands along the river and making the flooding worse.

The problem is compounded in Pakistan because local lobbies try to protect their immediate interests over the interests of the ecosystem or the economy as a whole, thus preventing any real flood control mechanism from every being built.  For the last several years, for instance, there has been an intense debate inside of Pakistan about the proposed construction of the Kalabagh dam, a hydroelectric dam that would sit near the border of Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.  Because there are chronic water shortages throughout Pakistan, the agricultural lobbies in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh (the two neighboring provinces) charge that the dam would give Punjab the ability to steal water for itself and deprive the other provinces of irrigation.

There are other ecological considerations at work here, too.  Agricultural interests in Sindh, for instance, requires that there be a certain regular amount of water flowing through the Indus throughout the year to prevent seawater from entering into the river stream and making arable land unusable because of high rates of salinity.  Dams in the Punjab, then, would mean that Sindh would have no ability to ensure the necessary flow of water in the lower riparian areas of the Indus.  Meanwhile, in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, agriculturalists there charge that the construction of flood control mechanisms along the Indus will flood and submerge land upriver.  Neither of these groups is wrong, since Punjabi dominance in Pakistani politics would mean that development or compensation to offset the costs to losing interest groups will not be forthcoming.

Added to this is the strange manner in which geopolitical conflicts affect rivers.  After the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, the Indus basin was literally divided, with certain rivers originating in India and others in Pakistan.  That meant that India could (and did) use control over river flows as a weapon in its rivalry with Pakistan, regulating the flow of the rivers by constructing dams on its side of the border.  This has not only meant intense bickering at any number of peace talks between the two nations, but also produces the absurd problem of trying to manage the ecology of the river basin without any real control over the infrastructure.  Rumors were flying, for instance, that the flooding this year was in part due to Indian opening the dams on its side.

After the UN made its appeal to the international community for 459 million dollars, some 70% of that figure has been pledged.  It bears underlining, though, that this amount is only a drop in the bucket compared to what Pakistan will need to rebuild, with official estimates at more than 40 billion dollars, or what it will need to rehabilitate all those people who have been displaced.

And because aid has been trickling in slowly, people have become increasingly desperate.  Riots have broken out in relief camps and people have stormed aid vehicles in the hopes of getting what little relief they can.  The problem is made worse because there are reports everywhere that aid is being delivered to certain regions ahead of others because of political interests.  The fact that much needed aid and relief has yet to arrive has compounded the corrupt practices of the Pakistani state.

There are a few reasons why aid has been so slow in coming to Pakistan.  While most of the media has manufactured a new psychological ailment called “donor fatigue” (which flies in the face of the massive generosity from ordinary people across the world), the more likely reason has to do with American military and political objectives in the region.  As a result of the war in Afghanistan, all discussions about aid to Pakistan are thoroughly politicized, as most establishment figures hold the country responsible for the continued success of the Taliban in Afghanistan.  Added to this is a growing climate of Islamophobia in the United States and in Europe that have contributed to the notion that Pakistan is merely a hotbed for terrorist activity.

Both of these ideas in concert have contributed to the paranoia that Islam is on the rise in Pakistan and that providing aid to the country will simply mean that money gets channeled into the hands of unsavory people and organizations.  The hypocrisy of the matter couldn’t be clearer when one remembers that the United States happily funded military dictators in Pakistan and cherry-picked the current civilian leadership in the country.  The Americans haven’t even stopped the drone attacks which have pounded the border region with Afghanistan almost every day since the flooding began.  Now ordinary Pakistanis are caught between a corrupt civilian government and the American War on Terror.

The other major problem is that much of the aid that will come into Pakistan will be in the form of loans from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, both of which have offered multi-billion dollar emergency loan packages to Pakistan.  While the immediate injection of cash may help, in the long-term it has the effect of enriching the elite in Pakistan (who ensure that the aid goes into their pockets) while sidling ordinary Pakistanis with an insurmountable debt burden that is paid either in the form of higher taxes or in services that are eliminated.  Already Pakistan owes some 50-55 billion dollars to international lending institutions and pays 3 billion dollars annually to service its debt obligation (three times more than it pays on health care, for instance).

The delayed, lackluster, and sometimes even criminal response of the Pakistani civilian government in reacting to the flooding has meant that the largest beneficiary of the crisis in Pakistan has been the military.  Because Pakistan has spent the last 60 years building up its armed forces and their resources at the expense of its social services and infrastructure, the military is one of the few institutions capable of dealing with the scope and scale of the problem produced by the flooding.  So instead of having the capacity to manage the relief efforts effectively, the civilian bureaucracy is more or less ceding control and authority to the military forces in Pakistan, who were not only able to arrive quickly on the scene but have also helped airlift villagers out of flood-ravaged areas.

In fact, the flooding may have entirely rehabilitated the military’s image, which had been less than positive after the reign of President General Pervez Musharraf.  As Newsweek reports, ‘Three years ago, when Kayani took over the armed forces, the institution was widely discredited and even reviled after Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s long and controversial rule. Now, says Ayaz Amir, an opposition member of Parliament, Kayani’s leadership has already improved the military’s popularity substantially, and the general could soon “look so tall that a military takeover will remain just a formality.”’[3] It doesn’t hurt that the major television channels are running a constant loop of footage, set to the national anthem, showing army personnel rescuing women and children, delivering medicine, and guarding weakened dams and bridges.  Some are already calling for a return to military rule.

It’s unclear still how this will play out in Pakistani society.  A few things are likely, though.  First, anger at the current government is already apparent as flood victims have been staging protests at relief camps and in front of aid convoys demanding help immediately.  Anger will only increase as the relief effort taxes the ability of the state to deliver on what is necessary.  President Asif Ali Zardari’s popularity is well below 20%; he’s also been the victim of a rather public shoe-throwing incident.

Second, the Islamists could very well be the beneficiaries of the anger that is rising against the Americans and the civilian government.  It’s unclear just how extensive their reach in the relief efforts is, but it is entirely possible that they will have an explanation for the current crisis which will speak to ordinary Pakistanis, especially since the left in Pakistan is still relatively small.

Still, there are important organizing efforts that are being undertaken by the Pakistani left, including an attempt to demand that the government stop paying back its international debt.  Several leftist parties and NGOs held a joint press conference in Islamabad to announce an initiative against debt repayments and an end to aid in the forms of loans. [4] Political initiatives like this will hopefully give the left in Pakistan an audience and a demand to organize the anger that exists amongst those most affected by the flooding.

But what the flooding reveals more than anything else is that nothing short of a total social reorganization of the region will prevent this tragedy from being repeated.  It is only when all of South Asia is organized to meet the needs of the people who live there rather than the short-term interests of the rulers that cataclysmic events like the floods can be avoided.


[1] http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2010/09/01-1

[2] http://gulfnews.com/opinions/columnists/pakistan-s-economic-apartheid-1.675810

[3] Newsweek, August 30, 2010,  Ron Moreau and Sami Yousafzai, “Pakistani Generals Take Charge Again,” http://www.lexisnexis.com/lnacui2api/results/docview/docview.do?docLinkInd=true&risb=21_T10021813197&format=GNBFI&sort=BOOLEAN&startDocNo=1&resultsUrlKey=29_T10021813166&cisb=22_T10021813165&treeMax=true&treeWidth=0&csi=5774&docNo=8

[4] http://laborpakistan.org/news65.htm

Why Pakistan’s debt should be cancelled

I’m reposting a position paper on debt retirement that was issued at a press conference in Islamabad today.  In attendance at the press conference were representatives of the Workers Party of Pakistan, the Labor Party of Pakistan, and several others.

For every £1 the rich world gives to the developing world in aid, the developing world still pays back £5 in debt repayments.

Introduction

A summer of unprecedented torrential floods has wreaked havoc on Pakistan. Physical infrastructure worth tens of billions of dollars has been destroyed, countless eco-systems devastated, and entire districts cut off from major communication and transport routes. It is conservatively estimated that 20 million people have been directly affected and the livelihoods of countless more destroyed (17 millions acres of agricultural land). Speaking at the United Nations, the federal minister for foreign affairs claimed that total damages caused by the floods are in excess of US$43 billion, which amounts to no less than 25% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

International aid commitments in the aftermath of the flooding have been sluggish. It is said that Pakistan has been in the international spotlight for so many years now that a case of ‘donor fatigue’ has set in. Nevertheless, high-powered missions of the World Bank and Asian Development Bank (ADB) have already come and gone in the wake of the floods and decided to re-direct up to US$3 billion of their existing assistance packages towards the flood relief effort.

A number of high-ranking UN functionaries have said that more money needs to come in. In fact, the reality is that the amount of money leaving Pakistan has consistently exceeded that coming into the country, notwithstanding the numerous ‘assistance’ packages that are designed and executed by bilateral and multilateral donors. The economic policies of successive governments since the 1980s have facilitated the easy entry and exit of ‘hot’ capital to the detriment of the needs of the country’s people. Even when remittances have been high – as was the case in the years following the September 11 attacks – a large amount of money has flowed out of the country as investors look for windfall gains in the stock and real estate markets before shipping out.

However, the resource drain has a much longer history than 10 years – Pakistan’s dependency on private commercial banks and the international financial institutions is written into the global capitalist structure. During the colonial period the political economy of the territory that is present-day Pakistan was engineered in such a way as to ensure a permanent state of productive backwardness and financial dependence on the industrialized economies of western Europe and north America. Following the departure of the British in 1947, Pakistan’s economic dependence grew even more acute due to its insecurity complex vis a vis India which led to the establishment of a national security state and the under-nourishment of democratic processes.

In its initial years the state secured some bilateral grants which eventually gave way to loans and increasingly harsh interest obligations. However the real debt curse was to be inflicted by the multilateral aid agencies. While various governments throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s did take loans from the WB, ADB and International Monetary Fund (IMF), the policy-based lending that began with so-called ‘structural adjustment’ programmes in the 1980s has exponentially increased the debt burden. In 1970 Pakistan’s total debt servicing burden as a proportion of export revenues was 7.45%, a figure which went up to 35.40% by 1997.[1] While in 1980, 62% of all foreign assistance was in the form of grants, by 2000, grants constituted only 21% of the total.[2]

Needless to say this debt burden has been borne by the working masses in the form of subsidy cuts, regressive indirect taxes, and a general shift towards jobless growth. While worker’s remittances have partially offset the huge outflow of resources since the 1970s, the debt burden has risen exponentially over the past two decades. In 1990 total external debt was US$21.4 billion, a figure which had risen by 2010 to a staggering US$55 billion, an increase of 157%. As a result of this growing burden, which has been exacerbated by numerous adverse factors such as un unsustainable oil import bill, the spread of imperialist war into Pakistan, and the continuing stranglehold of anti-people neo-liberal policies, the Pakistani people have been plunged into economic and social freefall. If the debt burden continues to grow more onerous after the devastation of this summer’s floods, the country and its people could face descent into a never-ending abyss.

The Political Context of Debt

Debt never functions as a ‘neutral’ policy tool, and particularly not in Pakistan. The vast majority of the country’s debt has been contracted during the illegitimate rule of military dictators. The trend was established during the Ayub Martial Law regime. Prior to 1954 (when Ayub Khan became Defence Minister), Pakistan had received virtually no foreign aid, despite its desperate appeals to the western countries. By 1968 Ayub had been in power for 10 years and was the blue-eyed boys of the western countries for his participation in anti-communist pacts; his reward was foreign aid totaling US$4.7 billion, which was equivalent to 50% of total imports and 34% of total development expenditure.[3] The rosy predictions of Pakistan being a model of third world development notwithstanding, it was already apparent by this time that Pakistan was paying for the ‘aid’ it was receiving: foreign sources accounted for 3.24% of total capital receipts in 1955-60 and 52.57% by 1966-7.[4]

Through the 1970s foreign aid packages were sparse. However the heavens opened again following the coming to power of General Zia-ul-Haq in 1977. Geo-political considerations mandated that Zia’s brutal regime be showered with dollars, even while democratic norms were subverted and a large amount of money wasted on the country’s covert nuclear programme. Bilateral aid during the Zia years from the US alone totaled US$4.2 billion. While this aid and large remittance incomes ensured some modicum of economic stability for the regime, the structural crisis of the Pakistani economy was impossible to ignore: net aid flows decreased substantially between 1977 and 1988 and with the signing of the Geneva Accords the western countries turned off the supply line of dollars. From this point onwards the suffocating conditionality-based lending of the IFIs was to rear its ugly head.

Throughout the 1990s the WB, ADB and IMF were exacting in their treatment of Pakistan. However when yet another military General deposed an elected government in 1999, the international aid brigade yet again descended on the country. More specifically it was the events following the September 11, 2001 attacks that precipitated a new wave of loans. Pakistan’s role as frontline state in the so-called ‘war on terror’ garnered Pervez Musharraf’s regime huge benefits. The IMF, WB and ADB together issued ‘assistance packages’ worth more than US$10 billion to the Musharraf dictatorship, while the US alone doled out US$12 billion of economic and military aid. Throughout this period the regime was lauded for ‘reviving Pakistan’s economy’ and ‘good governance’. However, by 2008 inflation (including food inflation) was above 20% and foreign exchange reserves virtually depleted. The so-called ‘economic revival’ was based on a massive financial bubble. Meanwhile external debt, which stood at approximately US$35 billion when Musharraf took power, had ballooned to US$49 billion.

There can be no denying the direct correlation between Pakistan’s debt crisis and military rule. The complicity of international donors and power-hungry generals must be accounted for; the Pakistani people cannot be held responsible for the decisions of generals and bank executives. But this is precisely what has happened throughout Pakistan’s history: the burden of paying back illegitimate debt has fallen on working people. And this burden will intensify dramatically in the wake of the floods if the illegitimate debt acquired over the past five decades is not written-off.

The legal case

We think it is important to proceed into a discussion about the international law based justifications for debt relief with the caution expressed by Wade Mansell that ‘since the 1960’s, Western institutions of law have been able indirectly o perform the miracle which colonialism scarcely permitted’: The miracle of enabling ‘rich, developed and often ex-colonial states…to continue extracting wealth from the poorest countries’.  He suggests that relations between ‘debtor’ and ‘creditor’ are aligned to systems of rules that allow a simultaneous erasure of the social context in which loan agreements are drawn in the first place.

International Treaty Law:

We start with the report of the UN’s Independent Expert on the effects of foreign debt and other related international financial obligations of States on the full enjoyment of all human rights, particularly economic, social and cultural rights.

The following Conventions and articles are particularly relevant:

UN Charter: Article 1(3) “The purposes of the United Nations are: . . . To achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion”

International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: Article 2(1) “Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to take steps, individually and through international assistance and co-operation, especially economic and technical, to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized in the present Covenant by all appropriate means, including particularly the adoption of legislative measures.”

Additionally, the Convention on the Rights of the Child as well as the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities contain language which stresses the particular duties imposed upon states to ensure and provide for the “economic, social and cultural rights” of children and the disabled: “States Parties shall undertake such measures to the maximum extent of their available resources and, where needed, within the framework of international co-operation.”

A situation wherein there is a continued drain of resources from poor to rich regions of the world violates the principles of cooperation imposed upon all states in the international system as outlined in the above articles. Furthermore, various Declarations and Political Commitments articulated by the General Assembly as well as subsidiary and specialized bodies of the UN make specific reference to relations between the debt burden and the non-realization of basic human rights within low income countries. In 1978 the UNCTAD Trade and Development board agreed on a resolution stating :  ‘developed donor countries will seek to adopt measures for an adjustment of terms of past and bilateral development assistance’.  However, since then, there has been only haphazard advance towards instantiation of processes for the achievement of the same.

Continuing advocacy efforts towards debt reduction or cancellation therefore are reliant upon relations drawn between the ‘right to development’ as articulated in the 1986 Vienna Declaration and Programme for Action and the possibilities of relieving poorer nations of their debt burdens. Article 12 of the Vienna Declaration states:

“12. The World Conference on Human Rights calls upon the international community to make all efforts to help alleviate the external debt burden of developing countries, in order to supplement the efforts of the Governments of such countries to attain the full realization of the economic, social and cultural rights of their people.”

In 2002, under the auspices of the UN and with the participation of over 200 nations as well as the heads of the IMF, WB and WTO, the Monterrey Consensus on Financing for Development was articulated.  The statement obliges both creditors and debtors to ‘share the responsibility for preventing and resolving unsustainable debt situations’. The Doha statement recognized that “existing international debt resolution mechanisms are creditor-driven” and that further steps need to be taken to ensure equitable treatment of creditors and debtors in crisis situations.  Furthermore, it recommended that states and multilateral agencies “consider fundamental changes in debt scenarios, in the face of large exogenous shocks, including those caused by natural catastrophes, severe terms-of-trade shocks or conflict.”

Change of Circumstances and International Obligations:

Certain commentators on debt restructuring have suggested that in circumstances analogous to Pakistan’s at this time “the first line of argument in favour of a right to stop debt repayment might draw on the doctrine of clausula rebus sic stantibus”.  The concept which underlays this doctrine is that “obligations can, as a result of supervening developments, be subject to changes”.  This principle is also incorporated within article 62 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (1969) as ‘Fundamental Change of Circumstance’ for suspension of treaty obligations by state parties.  Relatedly, it has been noted that a ‘state of necessity defence is enshrined in Article 25 of the International Law Commission’s Articles on State Responsibility”.  A necessary condition for application of this principle to overcome an international obligation on the part of state is that there must be a situation of grave and imminent peril that the state party is facing.

Customary international law also enables us to look at the conditions of exclusion and suspension of international obligations as provided under other treaty based systems such as of the WTO.  Under the GATT Article XX are listed conditions which provide for general exceptions from the enforcement of WTO obligations which include those ‘necessary to protect human, animal or plant life or health;…’.  It is beyond question that the situation currently faced requires a redirection of all available assets towards maintaining the lives and health of a substantial proportion of the country’s population, rehabilitating livelihoods and shelter as well as in rebuilding of essential infrastructure, including the recultivation of devastated agricultural lands towards these ends.  Additionally, a natural disaster of this magnitude could not have been reasonably foreseen at the time of the completion of such loan agreements and the state cannot be held responsible for its unfolding.

Odious Debts:

As already noted, Pakistan’s current debt burden incorporates a significant proportion which was negotiated for and handed over to non-elected military regimes.  The legal precedents vis a vis ‘odious debts’ are therefore applicable in our specific case. A broad description of the Odious Debt doctrine is as follows: ‘those obligations contracted by a predecessor, contrary to the interests of its population, which are later taken over by a successor state, are odious.. those obligations are non-transferable to the successor state’.  The odious debt doctrine has been successfully invoked by the US after completion of the Spanish-American in which the former ceded Cuba to the US and the latter argued that debts incurred by Cuba had been used to suppress a rebellion against its former colonial overlord.  Similarly, after the Boer War, the UK suggested that the debts incurred by the Boer Republics were used in aid of repelling the British and were therefore of an odious nature and to be considered extinguished.  In the case of the US’s seminal use of this exemption it specifically argued that the debt incurred by Cuba had been imposed upon the people of that country ‘without their consent’ and therefore ‘the creditors, from the beginning, took the chances of the investment’.

In 1923, the US Supreme Court decided in the Tinoco Case (after the overthrow of the Costa Rican dictator Frederico Tinoco) that funds lent not for legitimate governmental purpose, within the knowledge of the creditors, could not to be extracted from the nation as a whole.  Similarly, in formalizing the scope of the odious debt doctrine, Alexander Sack suggested that if a despotic regime has accrued debt to strengthen itself against the people of the nation then the creditors who have supplied this sum are to be considered to have committed a ‘hostile act with regards to the people’.

The United States was at the forefront of negotiating for a full-scale write-off of loans undertaken by foreign creditors to the Saddam Hussein regime after its overthrow.  It was explicitly argued that the people of the nation should not be saddled ‘with those debts incurred through the regime of dictator who is now gone’.  The total sum of debts was therefore written off.

Contemporary debtors

In 1996 the IFIs launched the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) debt forgiveness initiative through which a substantial portion of the poorest countries’ debt was to be written-off/substantially restructured. Haiti qualifies under the HIPC initiative for debt relief: in the wake of the devastating earthquake in Haiti at the turn of the year, almost all of the country’s multilateral debt was written-off, totaling close to US$2.5 billion. While Pakistan does qualify as a low-income country, it does not qualify under the HIPC initiative due to relatively high export earnings.

However it is important to bear in mind that much of the impetus for a writing-off of Haiti’s external debt in the wake of the earthquake was generated by political leaders in the First World; British prime minister Gordon Brown acknowledged: “It must be right that a nation buried in rubble must not also be buried in debt”. In short, Haiti offers a precedent of a country that qualified for debt write-offs following a devastating natural calamity on account of the fact that it simply could not meet the burden of existing debt repayments.

The political case for cancellation of Foreign Debt

Given the blatant support of international aid agencies alongwith western governments for military rulers in the past, a cancellation of a substantial portion of Pakistan’s debt at this particular juncture could go a long way towards rehabilitating the image of western governments and international aid agencies in the eyes of the Pakistani public. If working people in this country often express common cause with anti-American and anti-western protests it is because of the blatant hypocrisy and double standards on the part of these governments and agencies towards Pakistan (and other poor countries as well).

In the post 9/11 period, a wave of Islamophobia has swept through large parts of the western world. Pakistanis resent the fact that their society has become a staging ground for the US-led ‘war on terror’ and yet the vilification of Pakistanis (and Muslims more generally) continues unabated around the world. Indeed, it appear as if the proverbial ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis could well become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This is particularly true because right-wing religio-political organizations are at the forefront of the flood relief effort and are likely to win the sympathies of at least some of the millions who have been devastated over the past few weeks. A similar situation existed after the October 2005 earthquake; if the international community is serious about countering radicalization in Pakistani society, the failed policies of employing military force against innocent populations and indebting the long-suffering people of Pakistan should be repealed at once.

More generally Pakistan’s fledgling democracy would benefit greatly from the cancellation of a portion of the country’s overwhelming external debt. The military establishment continues to wield power in the country and the elected government – for all of its failings, which are many – stands to be further weakened, economically and politically, by the floods. Engaging in flood relief efforts has provided an opportunity to the military to enhance its public image – through the explicit support of the media – while politicians and political parties have been subjected to a public battering. Given the dire economic fallout of the floods, the elected government could well be weakened further if it does not garner fiscal space through debt cancellation.[5]

Cancellation is the only option

It is argued that it is overly ambitious to call for debt cancellation and a more realistic demand is to push for rescheduling of debts. Crucially there have been numerous occasions in the past when Pakistan has been offered options to reschedule debt. Between 1999 and 2003 the so-called Paris Club of donors re-scheduled a reasonable amount of Pakistan’s debt. The ADB claimed that the various debt re-scheduling exercises reduced Pakistan’s debt servicing burden in the period 2002-04 by US$2.9 billion, while the Ministry of Finance projected a subsequent reduction of US$8-11 billion over the following 15 years.[6]

As is underlined by the spectacular increase in the total external debt burden through the course of the Musharraf years, debt re-scheduling simply delays the inevitable, and in many cases, makes debt repayments more onerous due to the accruing of interest over time. Upon coming to power following the February 2008 election, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) faced an untenable fiscal crisis. The ‘successful’ policies of the Musharraf regime left the country on the verge of economic ruin. As a result, the elected government acquiesced to a new bail-out package from the IMF worth US$11.2 billion. The conditionalities accompanying this package have been expectedly harsh, the result of which is major price hikes in basic amenities, imposition of an even more regressive taxation regime, and an increase in debt repayments.

In fiscal year 2009-2010 alone Pakistan paid up to US$3.4 billion to its external debtors, the vast majority of which is interest being paid on long-standing loans. In less than three years since the demise of the Musharraf dictatorship, total external debt has increased from US$49 billion to US$55 billion. The re-scheduling of debt in the wake of 9/11, which was described as a major economic heist of the Musharraf regime, will actually result in a dramatic increase in debt repayments in years to come: by 2015-16, Pakistan’s external debt is projected to be US$73 billion. And this figure does not account for the prospects of new multi-billion dollar loans in the wake of the floods.

As such we believe that neither debt re-scheduling nor other similar piecemeal arrangements constitute a meaningful solution to Pakistan’s debt crisis. There is only one option: debt write-offs, the precedents for which have been outlined above. In the final analysis, the political will to demand a debt write-off is arguably what this country lacks. If it can be generated in the days, weeks and months to come, the IFIs and private commercial creditors can be forced onto the back foot, and the people of this country given some much needed respite.


[1] QAZI MASOOD AHMED, MOHAMMAD SABIHUDDIN BUTT, and SHAISTA ALAM, 2000, “Economic Growth, Export, and External Debt Causality: The Case of Asian Countries,” Pakistan Development Review 39(4): 591-608.

[2] Asian Development Bank, 2002, “Escaping the Debt Trap: An Assessment of Pakistan’s External Debt Sustainability,” Working Paper No. 1, Islamabad: Pakistan Resident Mission Working Paper Series

[3] Irving Brecher and S.A. Abbas, 1972, Foreign aid and industrial development in Pakistan. London: Cambridge University Press

[4] Mohammad Waseem, 1994, Politics and State in Pakistan, Islamabad: National Institute of Historical and Cultural Research.

[5] This threat has been underlined by Altaf Hussain’s recent statement calling for ‘patriotic generals’ to save the country from ‘corrupt politicians’.

[6] Asian Development Bank, 2002, “Escaping the Debt Trap: An Assessment of Pakistan’s External Debt Sustainability,” Working Paper No. 1, Islamabad: Pakistan Resident Mission Working Paper Series

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.