The flood of 2010 showed me (I was Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commision then) how dysfunctional policy was in Pakistan and yet how good our administration was at handling crises.
When the flood struck, our foreign office did not consult the key economic ministries but only with a few donors to make tall claims in the international arena. Speeches were made in the United Nations (UN) that we had suffered a loss north of $40 billion. Immediately, the Friends of Pakistan (FOP) forum was activated. At the Planning Commission, there was no such estimate and our people told me the loss was much lower.
Upon checking I found that the FOP was a figment of our imagination. The group had met when the Zardari government came in and there was a sympathy for the new democracy and the memory of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was still fresh. Since then, the pledges never materialised and the group did not want to operate outside the multilateral framework. Upon talking to both the Foreign Ministry and Foreign Secretary, I leant that FOP was their economic baby and they were not ready to share it or even take our input on it.
So, $40 billion (about 20% of the country’s gross domestic product at the time) was the loss announced in the international arena.
Unhappy and self-righteous donors charged into the Planning Commission. There were so many of them in meetings then that the Planning Commission staff could not even find a place to sit. That is also an outcome of the fact that we continue to use buildings built in the Ayub Khan Administration. No office upgradation takes place. I guess we must wait till all of Pakistan is paved for cars. It is also evidence of how our hunger for aid has empowered donors beyond reason.
Any way these donor meetings were reminiscent of the British comedy series Monty Python. They were emotional and sad about the disaster pretending greater empathy than the local people. They wanted the Foreign Office’s announced estimate of $40 billion damage to be true so that the demand for their services would increase further. Our administration closer to the situation was giving us feedback that the loss figures were not as large.
The World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) proposed that they do an independent evaluation and we jumped at it. We also wanted a better estimate to clarify the hype. A huge team was assembled by these agencies – some 50 people, including consultants, initiated work on damage assessment, but few left Islamabad. There were questionnaires and forms which our administration filled out. After all, the people in remote areas where relief and rescue were taking place were Pakistani officials including the army.
Anyway, a couple of months later, the donors had an estimate of the damage. The loss was nowhere near the $40 billion dollar that the Foreign Office had put out. The direct loss (property, life infrastructure) was not even $5 billion, more like $3 billion. Looking rather sheepish, they presented their report and put in a loss of more than $5 billion to show a round figure of $10 billion. It is another matter that we had a robust agricultural output growth that year as the flood helped enrich the soil.
Now, of course, the donors knew better and they felt more for the poor than the policymakers in Pakistan. Their proposals were well-meaning (so try not to laugh)
- Build back better was the slogan they coined. Let us design and build model villages with nice concrete houses, motor-able roads and all manner of social and civil amenities such as parks and schools. Of course, they were prepared to give Pakistan loans to do this. Should we do this? The villages we are talking about are in the flood plain and the designs were for towns rather than the villages that were affected. Bizarre!
- Flood-proof houses: They wanted flood- and earthquake-proof houses. What are these? Build 10-foot concrete platforms so poor villagers would put their mud huts on them. And of course, they would carry their animals and their kith and kin up the 10-foot platform every day because some consultant thought up this great idea. And when the floods came again, they would wait on their platform for boats to rescue them. Bizarrer still!
- Land in alternative locations: Then there was the proposal to give them alternative land so that they could stop living in the flood plain. So, if we do that, would this not set up an incentive for more and more people to park themselves in a flood plain, so that next time they can get land somewhere else? Perhaps the people who got this land would sell that land and come back to the flood plain hoping to collect once again when another flood hits? Even more bizarre.
Since none of this makes sense, the Finance Minister of the time, Hafeez Shaikh, decided to give them cash compensation with advice to move out of the flood plain and possibly to a city. The donors reacted by saying that your cities are a mess with limited infrastructure. Do you want your cities to become slums?
My answer was we need slums. Our cities are too manicured for the rich and their cars. Let the cars of the rich be little discomfited. Let the donor-consultant houses in Islamabad’s F-6 and F-7 sectors overlook slums so they too see how the poor live.
I pointed out that it was in the slums of London that the Pakistani immigrants produced several millionaires and numerous middle-class successes. After the Civil War in the United States, freed slaves converged to cities like Chicago and New York and lived in slums for decades. It was in the ghettoes that they developed musicians, writers, famous sportsmen, business leaders, and political leaders.
Slums ferment with activity including crime, but most of all, they provide opportunity to all. In time, slums are cleaned out. The East End of London, New York’s Bronx and Harlem, the Northeast of Washington DC, are all areas that are now cleaned out and gentrified. They may be very necessary to eradicate poverty and there is no reason to try to zone them out.
Sadly, while our administration and army did manage to save lives and handle the flood well, policymakers were busy grandstanding and unable to coordinate among ministries. Nor were we able to handle a huge and growing donor sector — that now thinks that it is ruling the country while taking no responsibility.