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One Determined Nation

The devotion of Pakistan’s civil society is reassuring.

by Saskia Sassen

Pakistani flood survivors try to catch food bags from an Army helicopter in Lal Pir on Aug. 7, 2010. Arif Ali—AFP

The rains have left a cruel legacy of death, destruction, and disease in Pakistan. But they have also brought forth a refreshing and reassuring revelation in the strength and tenacity of a virtually unnoticed, take-charge civil society that is stepping in where the state and its allies have failed.

Countless uncharitable profiles of Pakistan as a failing or failed state ignore the fact that ordinary citizens are assisting their poorest countrymen. The world saw this selflessness when the earth shook in Pakistan-administered Kashmir in 2005. That earthquake claimed 73,338 lives, and unleashed a fury of compassion in every town and every city. The floods have inspired a similar response. Professionals are taking time off work to deliver aid to the millions who have been displaced by floodwaters, schoolchildren are knocking on doors to raise funds for nongovernmental organizations, and college students can be seen in cities like Lahore spending their Sundays collecting donations at traffic lights. Charity is pouring in from corporations and citizens.

The hard work of Pakistan’s citizens has been sidelined in global media accounts of the situation. Some of these citizens are, of course, affiliated with Islamist charities, and perhaps that identity overrides the actual work being done by them. The West gains nothing by emphasizing the relief work being undertaken by Islamists. In fact, media alarm over this runs the risk of alienating ordinary Pakistanis who need help from anywhere they can get it. Overlooked is also the work by people like the aging-but-indefatigable Abdul Sattar Edhi, Pakistan’s most prominent social worker who abandoned his once-thriving business to devote himself entirely to public service. Edhi and his team of volunteers flew halfway around the world to help with the Haiti earthquake this January.

Some of the volunteer organizations working with the flood affected have created a database, tracking funds and supplies for the internally displaced in order to avoid duplication of efforts and resources. Others like Hum Pakistan remain focused on the reverse indoctrination and deprogramming of children who were once Taliban recruits in flood-affected areas in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. The world is slowly waking up to the efficiency of such organizations. A plea by the U.N. for $460 million to provide emergency flood relief has secured 63 percent of that amount. Western governments have started to commit more funds, led by the U.S. with $158 million, and much of this will be routed through or used in collaboration with citizens’ groups, increasingly recognized as a well-functioning institutional sector.

Countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, which have previously funded their chosen Islamist causes and groups in Pakistan, strengthening them at the expense of the state and civil society, have been far from generous in Pakistan’s time of desperate need. Saudi Arabia, with a sovereign wealth fund worth some $400 billion, has only committed $74 million to flood relief. Kuwait, with a sovereign fund of some $200 billion, has pledged a meager $10 million. Even China, whose links with the U.S. were opened via Pakistan during the Nixon years, has given only $18 million in cash and kind. The Middle East sheikhdoms can strengthen Pakistan’s civil society by stopping their petrodollar support to faith-based organizations.

In some instances, civil society organizations are also working with the Army, the logistical and security superiority of which helps ensure the timely and safe delivery of aid. This is evident in the Swat valley where the Army is helping distribute emergency supplies provided by myriad organizations, local and foreign, to stranded communities. Such collaboration is proving to be as effective today as it was during the 2005 earthquake relief work, when organizations like German Aid for Afghan Children worked with support from the Army.

The Army’s public image is improving and some in Pakistan are murmuring longingly, but wrongly, for the discipline and efficiency that only military-led governments in Pakistan have been able to provide. Another coup would be a regression, setting the country’s struggling institutions—civil society, courts, and Parliament—back by decades. It is imperative for Pakistan, and the world, that this not happen.

With Razi Ahmed

Sassen is the Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology and a member of the Committee of Global Thought at Columbia University.

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