Pakistan's self-help society mobilizes.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Oct. 14 2005 1:33 PM

Getting Things Done

Pakistan's self-help society mobilizes; President Musharraf faces his own crisis.

Can Musharraf save his citizens? Click image to expand.
Can Musharraf save his citizens?

Disaster relief has at least two faces, humanitarian and political. Both are already visible in Pakistan as the country attempts to recover from last Saturday's earthquake, which, recent estimates suggest, left more than 25,000 dead, 50,000 injured, and 2 million homeless in northern Pakistan and Pakistan-administered Kashmir. The search for survivors has now been called off.

Governments invariably respond tardily to natural disasters, as the reactions to the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina have amply demonstrated, and so it's no surprise that President Pervez Musharraf has faced criticism for his team's inadequate response. Addressing the nation on television on Wednesday—unusually, in Urdu and out of uniform—Musharraf tried to explain the delay: "Roads were blocked, there was no army, and the administration itself was among the victims." He blamed a lack of communications and helicopters and suggested that no government could cope readily with such a huge tragedy. Still, the lagging response has left Musharraf open to attacks, such as that mounted by an opponent who noted that the government spends millions on missiles and weapons but has no equipment to cope with a natural calamity. Opposition politicians across the political spectrum, from Musharraf's former Islamist allies Jamaat-e-Islami to the leaderless mainstream parties (former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif live perforce outside Pakistan), vacillate between forming a unified front with the government and lambasting Musharraf and his army.

Advertisement

Pakistan has long been unable to attend to its 162 million people's basic education, health, and human security; defense expenditures are high, but services for the poor are barely rudimentary. As a result, it has become largely a self-help society. There is no shortage of humanitarianism and charity: An August 2000 study by the Aga Khan Development Network rated Pakistan as one of the world's most charitable countries. This week, it shows. The private sector, nongovernmental organizations, political parties, and thousands of volunteers led the relief efforts. The earthquake has driven a unique mobilization of Pakistan's civil society.

Today, there are two Pakistans. One is connected by the Internet, cell phones, and television, while the other Pakistan, the earthquake zone, is a deadly quiet, largely inaccessible, communicationless world where survivors still wait to receive medical care.

The new, if still restricted, media—independent TV and FM radio channels—that Musharraf has licensed became the first information providers, showing the devastation, listing earthquake hot lines, maintaining ticker updates on the status of relief efforts, and holding telethons. Students, other private citizens, and the Pakistani diaspora are masters of the Internet: Metroblogs, a fast-growing global network of city-based blogs, are posting urgent volunteer alerts. The Joint Action Committee, a coalition of NGOs and individuals requests volunteers "able to walk long distances in mountainous terrain." Webmasters are organizing—and constantly updating—information about the supplies that are required: first and foremost, pain killers and white latha cloth for coffins, but also dry food, bandages, tents, urine bags, orthopedic implants, and much more. Visit the new site of the Joint Action Committee to see the buzz of activity. The sites, along with news reporters, are also posting cautionary stories about the chaos of early relief efforts, how untrained volunteers and clogged roads are making it more difficult for the seriously wounded to get to hospitals. This is the downside of so much autonomous, independent social action without effective government coordination. (Musharraf has now set up a federal relief commission and, according to the prime minister, 40,000 troops have moved into the affected regions.)

Chambers of commerce in the major cities, private banks, and corporations are also making handsome contributions. Banks have set up special counters for donations. Karachi, home to all Pakistan's ethnicities and a base of sectarian and al-Qaida terrorist attacks, is a sprawling maze of private and governmental relief sites where individual citizens are dropping off goods. Its medical technicians and doctors are rushing upcountry to provide relief. The city's internationally known NGOs, the Edhi Foundation and the Aga Khan Development Network, the first with long experience dealing with urban violence and the latter an expert in rural development in remotest Pakistan—put their ambulances and expertise to work immediately.

Poised to take advantage of the government's inability to cope with the disaster are the Islamist parties and their extremist cousins. The leader of the most organized party, Jamaat-e-Islami, initially proclaimed that the earthquake was "a severe reprimand from Allah Almighty," and that the nation must "shun those practices that violate Allah's injunctions and invoke His anger." In this time of national tragedy, he pointed out, "Music and dance shows are held under government patronage and the president himself dance [sic] in them to invite heavenly wrath." He called on Pakistanis to "offer repentance." Still, Jamaat's disciplined cadres, using their plentiful funds, have swung into action. They have bought medicines, food, tents, and blankets. Jamaat's Al-Khidmat Foundation has set up base camps in several ravaged towns, and its foot soldiers are walking to areas impassable by vehicles. A Jamaat representative claimed that 700 volunteers are searching for dead bodies and helping to bury them. ABC News reported on Wednesday that Jamaat-ud-Dawa—the political arm of the banned extremist militia Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, familiar for its pro-Taliban, pro-Kashmir jihad views—was among the first to set up relief camps. (Some of its militant training camps in Pakistan-administered Kashmir are said to have been destroyed.)

Will Musharraf and his army be able to widen their constituency as a result of this catastrophe—or will they lose what remains of it? The army is the most powerful and organized force in the country, with significant control over Pakistan's political, bureaucratic, and economic institutions, but for the first time in many years, it faces broad public criticism. If Pakistan is to deal with what will certainly be a long-term relief and rehabilitation effort, Musharraf must show his mettle as a politician who can rally both allies and opponents. Even before the disaster struck, his plate was already full with the hunt for al-Qaida and Osama Bin Laden, the safety and security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons, a sometimes testy peace process with India, and a controversial, "managed" transition to democracy.

Musharraf still has some supporters in a country where people yearn for both democracy and stability and are unsure if the two can coexist in these violent times, but he has alienated the mainstream political parties, many NGOs, and ordinary citizens. His prospects and Pakistan's future as the peaceful, moderate Muslim state he says he seeks may rest on the distance he is willing to travel to unite the country and win the confidence of a cluster of largely moderate constituencies. Dramatic, highly visible failures—in the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965 and in the civil war of 1971—led to the ouster of two previous Pakistani presidents-general. Will it be an earthquake that unseats Musharraf?

Mahnaz Ispahani is a scholar of South Asia living in New York City.