Floods Expose the Need to Advocate for Social Change

September 19, 2010 § Leave a comment

A very important note from Abira, APP member and active with the SLRC in Karachi, on the necessity of twinning relief work with political analysis/action.

Last week I travelled to Makli and Thatta with the Sindh Labor Relief Committee.  The committee supports through food  a community of several families displaced from Sajawal in the floods.  Most of them were small farmers and poor.  They travelled over six hours to get to Makli – the bridges were packed as people were moving with animals and small children.

At the camp, there were two rooms in a small government school occupied by some of the families, presumably the ones who got there first.  The rest were in open air.  There is a small tent that functions as a toilet, and the residents complained that it was thoroughly unhygienic.  A tanker supplies water that is stored in a small reservoir.  It is shocking how these children are able to withstand hours in heat out in the open.  As we contemplated buying tents as soon as practicable, an older man suggested chatais (thatch) were sufficient.  We bought these together from a Pashtun salesman in Thatta who spoke Sindhi.  I was told that they did an amazing job setting up the roofs with the aid of sticks the very next morning.

Several members of the SLRC have been talking to these IDPs about our demands, as well as learning from them about issues of landlessness and livelihood.  Besides Makli, we are working with camps in Moro, Sanghar and Hub in Baluchistan.  The Makli camp came on a bus to Karachi, and marched with us on September 8,. They chanted slogans demanding debt cancellation, cuts in military spending, and land for landless Haris.  The energy at this protest was magnificent.

It is this crucial political exchange that radical parties and progressive NGOS can facilitate – and it is for this reason, people should support such organizations.   There is a fundamental question of survival in the long run.  The floods have destroyed crops on 2 million hectares of farmland, killed 1.2 million livestock, destroyed livelihoods and homes.  In Sindh 95% of people’s standing crop was destroyed.  (WFP, Pakistan Flood Impact Assessment, 9/2010.)   The issue is obviously wider than short term rehabilitation as access to food becomes more and more precarious.

Haris who had become indebted to landlords and aartis (middlemen), are unable to repay their loans, as they will not find work harvesting cotton, rice, maize and vegetables.   For many, there is the possibility of change in their lives.   An aid volunteer with SRSO reported that in Shikarpur camps, many of the displaced Haris he interviewed did not want to return to their farms as they felt that they did not make enough to buy even the most basic things.  Many of the Hari women had never seen a doctor; their children had never attended school until the makeshift sessions held at camps.

Apparently, we have a chance to interact about larger socio-economic problems that have been exacerbated by the floods, but also been made more visible.  This is a great time for radical dialogue.  But of course, one cannot do it in a vacuum, and unless you are also deeply involved in providing relief, food, medicine, tents and water,  for people who have lost everything – homes, livelihoods, property – you cannot really understand how badly people’s lives have been shattered .

Some progressives claim that relief work is not their expertise; perhaps there are ways to learn.  After all individual efforts like those of Dr Awab and his team have raised $142,000 and sent thousands of trucks to the flood ravaged areas.  Also, many progressive groups like Shirkat Gah, Sunghi, and more locally, the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, have been fighting for years for the rights of all marginalized people.   These are already involved in progressive social change, and are obviously involved in relief work when it is the main need of the day.

This crisis makes evident the need to advocate for land reforms and rights on the domestic sphere;  even before the floods the landless peasants didn’t have much of a life.  The land reforms of 1959 and 1972 have not curbed the problem of large holdings.  WFP reports that people who are landless and small farmers(less than 3 acres), those living in mud or grass houses, are amongst the most food insecure people at this time.

On the international side, the need is to demand debt cancellation and cuts to military funding.  It is because of these superfluous expenditures, that Pakistan is not able to commit to social spending that would gradually improve the lives of small and landless farmers.   And inevitably, the army, as one of the best funded institutions, is heroized in the public consciousness, as they rescue people stranded in the floods, and stories like those of saving Shahbaz airbase for the Americans are swept under the rug or dismissed as innuendo.

The Makli trip was telling of the cynical opportunism of various parties.  In order to gain mileage NGOs, parties, and even individual MPAS, had set up tents along the highway in plain view.   In one public offering of food by a Jamaati group from a truck, army jawans used a baton to ward off people as they received the food.  It is ungainly sights such as these that strengthen the case for funding progressive groups – groups that connect to communities, and see them as a political force, rather than as fakirs – instead of the military, and reactionary and fascist groups that are only interested in maintaining an exploitative status quo.

In another macabre drama, a man threw Peak Freans biscuits at a crowd from the window of his fast moving Suzuki van; his expression was gleeful.  Kausar Khan, a social activist, writes:  ”

Last Sunday when I was in this community [of IDPS in Karachi], I noticed a boy with bandaged head, and came to know he was hurt as he ran after a vehicle throwing relief goods at the IDPs standing at the roadside.”

I met people from the camp adjacent to ours.  An elderly man complained that no one had come to them yet with rations.  Just as I was filming his message, a truck arrived laden with goods.  It was sent by a mosque in Los Angeles.  A well dressed man jumped out and told me that they had unlimited funds and had spent the whole day seeking and finding groups of displaced people and handing out food.  As they unloaded, I spoke of our political message, but he was unconvinced, and told me of a school they run.  Several hours later, closer to sunset, I saw the same LA truck leaving the locality throwing off the last of its items.  A little boy covered in mud proudly held up four packets of biryani.  Another ran home at full speed with two bed sheets and two pairs of rubber slippers jammed under his arms.

No one can be so arrogant so as to say their aid isn’t important.  Alas, relief work should not be done from the heights of a helicopter throwing bottles of mineral water, or even the back of a roving truck, or through regressive ideologies.  Relief work should ideally involve sitting with displaced communities.   If you know the people you are serving, you will serve them better.  Not surprisingly, the young man from California complained that many of the unaffected locals had mingled in with the true affectees and were availing of the free handouts going around.  This reminded me of the curses against welfare mothers in America and blaming the victim mentality.

I have seen a lot of this mistrust in elite segments (both local and abroad)– their need to actually deliver goods to the hands of those who need it in order to appease their own consciences – to gain an instant inner gratification – and a rabid mistrust of the government and NGOs – claiming too much of it will go in overhead and to line pockets than to the needy.  Unfortunately, this attitude backfires, and people who would otherwise give do not out of fear of misappropriation.

It boggles the mind that aid is so disorganized, especially in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake of 2005; and that people overseas do not have ready list of trusted organizations to give to, and are still searching for those on the ground and their tax exempt partners overseas.  Musharaff era corruption and how earthquake relief did not actually reach the people under him has likely generated some of this mistrust.

Also, there is the need for collaboration, oversight, and registration of IDPS; individual efforts that neglect this duty to document and team work with the government are adding to the haphazardness of relief work.   Perhaps individual efforts are best targeted at people not registered with the District Coordination Office, living outside of camps, and in informal bases since camps are more likely to be sustained by NGOs.  Also, they could aid in documenting some of these spontaneous camps despite their transience.

Every natural disaster is a turning point in the lives of activists.  It would be negligent of us to not make demands that would actually impact the lives of these people in the long run.  It is a time for activists and progressives to be out there taking notes.

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