Should Pakistan get aid and assistance from foreign sources? Living in Islamabad, it is almost impossible to imagine life without foreign aid, be it government projects, educational institutions, non-profit organizations or theatre productions (seriously!!!!), all are assisted by bilateral or multilateral support of one kind or another. Pakistan has done pretty well for itself in the aid stakes; it is the third largest recipient of British aid after India and Ethiopia and it is also the third largest beneficiary of US aid after Afghanistan and Israel. There is the European Union, the Japan International Cooperation Agency, other smaller European nations and multilateral organisations willing to lend a helping hand.
But if taxpayers of the donor countries are asked, the majority of them would consider it absurd to hand out the money to a country like ours for multiple reasons. For starters, we do not do the job for which we take money (such as counterinsurgency operations or universal primary education) well; secondly, we may not be a growing economy like India and Bangladesh but we are still considered a middle-income nation. If we have enough money to start our own drone development programme and hold arms expos, then people from donor countries are not that far off the mark when they call for a stop or reduction in aid.
But this is not the entire truth. Despite being a not-so-poor nation, we are home to some of the poorest and most malnourished people on the planet. The government has the capacity and resources to tackle extreme poverty, which makes it is less of a foreign aid issue and more of a domestic inequality and misallocation of resources problem. In Pakistan, the richest people are going home with a bigger share of national wealth than ever before, while the poor end up with even less; the taxation system is such that the poor — through indirect taxes — are subsidizing the lifestyle of the rich, who do not pay direct taxes on their considerable assets. Any efforts to restructure the tax system fail because of political expediency in a fragmented parliament.
If we do not really need the aid, then why do Western governments provide it? Foreign aid is not really driven by dreams of salvation and by the desire of politicians to appear compassionate, though that makes for excellent PR. It is generally driven by political interests and the desire to influence policies in recipient countries by bankrolling the projects for the government and by creating a favourable voice among other sectors.
The problem associated with the aid industry is that at times it forgets the very people it is supposed to target. It also focuses more on intangible skills rather than physical structural changes (there are more takers for gender-focused soft skills trainings than for a project supplying clean water to impoverished women). In addition, it makes recipient countries more reliant on aid, preventing them from working out their own country-specific answers.
For a country like Pakistan, seeking funding is not the solution; dealing with issues, such as tax evasion, corruption and money laundering can help deal with poverty. In any case, foreign aid makes up for a very small part of the national budget and generally benefits those who are associated with the programmes; maybe it is time to lose the support wheels and try riding the bicycle without them.
Published in The Express Tribune
Four years ago, when President Barack Obama became the first person of colour to be elected as the president of the US, the world was hopeful that a lasting change would come along. We all know how that turned out but there are still some positives from that election and the current election, where President Obama was re-elected, which have shaped and will continue to shape domestic politics in the US. People are less divided across race and gender lines and vote on social issues; these lessons provide an example for other countries.
However, an Obama-like victory for any individual is next to impossible in Pakistan. For starters, the middle class that played a key role in bringing this political change in the US, is limited to a few big cities (mostly Karachi and to some extent Lahore, Faisalabad, Sialkot and Hyderabad) and it is fast shrinking given the energy crisis and economic woes of the country.
In addition, our politics is caste/clan/ethnicity-based. The election result of February 2008 is a clear indication of that trend. The PML-N with its Punjabi leadership did well in upper and central Punjab. The PPP with its Sindhi leadership did well in rural Sindh and the Seraiki belt. Pashtuns voted for their nationalist party, the ANP, and urban Sindh remained loyal to the MQM. Chances are that the new elections, expected to be held in the first half of 2013, would be more divisive as more actors of the same hue have entered the political arena.
Pakistan, perhaps, is the only country where democracy, tribalism and feudalism have coexisted and still continue to coexist. Our parliament looks more like a national jirga council, where most of the elected representatives are tribal and feudal heads with fairly dubious histories. More often than not, they try to stall any progressive legislation with impunity and pride, usually in the name of religion and culture.
The American people moved away from centre right politics to centre left politics when they voted for President Obama back in 2008 and again in 2012. There is no chance of that happening ever in Pakistan. To begin with, we don’t have a middle class big enough in numbers and the urban population is too attached to religion to embrace anything different. A country where original thought is shunned and a parliamentarian had to remain in hiding after proposing changes to the blasphemy law has a long way to go before it starts hoping for change.
In a country suffering from the worst leadership crisis of its history, religious obscurantism is at its peak, the education system has failed and the youth is apathetic; the only change that can be predicted is more chaos, unless we produce a leadership that gives the whole nation a chance to hope, like President Obama did in 2008. Unfortunately, we do not have the system to produce someone like him. With an absentee foreign father and a family with meagre finances, Obama was able to attend an Ivy League school on the basis of merit and finished his degree with the help of student loans. Sadly, that’s not the case in Pakistan. Forget admission of a poor kid to an elite school, we do not provide a level playing field to our children in the same family as most families prefer to spend more money on the education of the male child. In such circumstances, we want to remain tied to a distant past.
Should we even have the impunity to hope for a better tomorrow?
First published in The Express Tribune
I ended up attending a couple of funerals recently and was struck dumb by the numbers of rishta-seeking aunties. These aunties are on the prowl for a girl for their sons, brothers, nephews and other boys of their acquaintances and will check out every single girl at the funeral, followed by an interview that can rival the Spanish Inquisition. Take this one rishta auntie at this particular funeral. Between asking questions about the girl’s education, her future aspirations, the number of siblings she had (I have been told that boys with prospects prefer small families for in-laws so that they can get the bigger share in the inheritance when the in-laws hit the bucket) and daddy’s financial status – gauged by careful questioning about his latest posting and the exact nature of his work – the rishta aunty went on and on about her health and her hemoglobin level. The poor girl who was fielding her questions – the girl could not have been more than 20 years old – was about to lose it when I sent in my sister to distract the rishta aunty. Hemoglobin? I mean, seriously? What’s next?
At every funeral you will also encounter a relative who will force his or her version of piety onto the rest of the family. If it’s a woman, chances are she’s from the Al Huda school of thought. You’ll know when she starts listing the bidaah or bad habits that good Muslims should shun. The bidaah could range from feeding the guests (duh!) to attending the funeral with a French manicure (OMG!) to plain old crying because as a good Muslim, you are not supposed to be overwhelmed by grief. Lesley Gore probably had these people in mind when she wrote her famous song “It’s my party, and I’ll cry if I want to…”
Funerals bring in their wake a lot of hugging and weird body contact – an uncle is petting your head while your mom’s aunt is holding onto your knees as a way of offering love and support, even as a distant cousin is trying a peculiar side hug – which makes a person who values personal space extremely uncomfortable. Surely people can wait their turn and offer condolences in a more restrained and orderly manner.
Then there are the chatterers. Despite the fact that they are here to attend a funeral, they will talk incessantly about everything which is not suitable for a funeral, and they will do this while they are supposed to be reciting ayats on fruit seeds. At the last funeral I attended, the chatterers were talking about Yash Chopra’s death and what it means for the future of sari-clad Bollywood heroines and the men who serenade them in the Swiss Alps; about Adele’s new-born baby boy and how she duped everyone into feeling sorry for her and her cheater of an ex while she found love with another man and was in the family way; and the implications of the Asghar Khan case’s verdict on the status of the Pakistani army.
Given how funerals are turning into multi-day affairs, a family member who has an event management business now wants to break into funeral arrangements. Planning weddings and doing corporate events is passe; the manager now plans to offer designer “life celebrations” and commemorative life-bio videos for his clients who want to leave for their eternal abode in style and add flavor to their own final farewell. This sounds like a great business model – relying only on the infallible logic that as long as people are being born, some of them will continue to die – and is bound to ensure a continuous supply of clients.
And you can never accuse the event manager of cultural insensitivity: he plans on offering services of professional mourners – not like old-school professional mourners who would bawl and do maatam and stuff – but something contemporary that has a family feel to it. (There can be aunties who will pose as family members and cry when prompted; bouncers who will be under cover as distant cousins and can be assigned the task of keeping the overtly pious in check; and groups of presentable youngsters who will recite Surah Fateha and the Quran for the deceased without looking like madrassa kids.)
Some people think funeral planning may not reach the greatness that the wedding industry has achieved in Pakistan because of the sacred element attached to funerals (and not weddings, evidently). I personally think that the easiest way to sell anything in this country is to add a touch of religion to it – be it Shariah-compliant banking or schools with a special focus on religious teachings. After all we are a country whose biggest chunk of travel expenses is spent on Hajj and Umrah. We are also the country that offers the opportunity to perform a 5-star Hajj with celebrities like Amir Liaquat Hussainn and Maulana Tariq Jameel (his market shot through the roof after his latest Hajj photo op with Bollywood star Amir Khan and famous cricketer Shahid Afridi).
We have seen the wedding industry going places by playing to people’s quest for individuality here in Pakistan. Now the funeral industry is poised for attaining greatness – and making some serious money – by making people realize that they can dictate the turn of events even after they are dead and cold.
The best thing that the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in general, and its peace march in particular, has done is that it provided us with an insight into people’s minds (using social networking websites as a medium to gauge public reaction). It has always been a taboo of sorts to question the actions of the great Khan. Now, however, it has become impossible to make harmless jokes at his expense because “he is that man who is doing something while people like me who dare to question, mock or laugh at him, are merely sitting in front of our computers busy ‘facebooking’ or tweeting about it”. It’s as though until and unless you have accomplished twice as many feats as Imran Khan, the person (not the politician), you have no right to either question or mock his politics. Why must one be chastised or trolled for not liking a particular political figure or joking about him?
What is most ironic is that the people, who jump to defend the honour of the great Khan, fail to realize that they are doing exactly the same — judging someone while sitting in front of their computers — as they accuse others of.
It’s amazing how, by just supporting a politician — we still don’t know how many of them will actually get up and go out to cast their votes come election day — the fans of the PTI think they have done something worthwhile, which makes them more morally correct than other mortals for they have the foresight to pick the right candidate. Even when you feel like mocking them for their fervent zeal, you are told that you should not do that because at least the PTI is different from other political parties and Khan is the messiah.
If you are a person who is easily appeased by words, it is quite easy to support Imran Khan whole-heartedly, especially when he talks about ambiguous things such as sovereignty. What if he takes a stand on an issue that is polarising? What if, God forbid, Imran Khan opposes the blasphemy ordinance or calls for the declaration of domestic violence as a crime punishable by the local courts? What if Imran Khan declares Federal Shariat Court a superfluous body that should be dissolved? What if he supports the construction of Kalabagh dam? I know it is wishful thinking on my part and being a politician, Imran Khan will do no such thing, but it is something worth pondering over whether he will go against mainstream rhetoric and focus on things that really affect people.
In their heads, people seem to have already turned Imran Khan into this harbinger of change, which is okay, but we also need to question whether we are ready to be confronted by the truth. The public is happy with Khan as long as he is making noise about things we’re all against but we will never indulge in real and open debate about issues that matter because we are either not ready or not willing to tackle them. We are happy in our distraction that at least Imran Khan is talking about them.
First published in The Express Tribune.
Shoaib Malik is one lucky guy, he gets to go home to Sania Mirza and this is what he does at work.
|The locked stare!|
Photo courtesy Express Tribune