As my month-long stay in Canada comes to an end, I am struck by an event that has unexpectedly been so extensively covered by the media. Barely a day has gone past without an article, op-ed comment or a letter to the editor about what seemed like a mundane event. In short, the crisis – if one can call it that – is a very Canadian affair, and reveals a nation that cares deeply about its institutions.
What precipitated this ongoing controversy was the resignation of the country’s chief statistician, Munir Sheikh, over a policy difference with the government. Given his Pakistani origins, and the lack of such a tradition among civil servants in his country of origin, I was intrigued enough to follow the story, despite its basically tedious nature.
In his resignation letter, Mr Sheikh said that the government’s decision to replace the traditional compulsory ‘long form’ questionnaire with an optional response would dilute the rich data his agency gathered periodically. For those interested in such arcane debates, there is a growing body of statisticians in advanced countries who hold the view that instead of undertaking the expensive and time-consuming exercise of conducting a door-to-door census, most of the relevant data can now be gathered from the information already held in government databases, as well as through sample polling. The United States has already embarked on this approach, so when the Canadian government decided to follow suit, I hardly expected it to become such a big deal.
In Pakistan, the normal working of the government has reached such a low ebb that nobody even mentions the long-overdue census any more. Our problems continue to pile on so relentlessly that routine matters assume the proportions of an extraordinary undertaking. The last census was held in 1998 after being delayed for seven years. Given the incentive certain political parties have in inflating the numbers of their ethnic groups, number-counting in Pakistan becomes a politically charged matter.
During the last fortnight, many Canadian friends have expressed sorrow and sympathy for the victims of Pakistan’s devastating floods. Some have asked how they could help. Almost invariably, they have commented on the bad luck Pakistan has been having continuously. As I am the only Pakistani most of them have ever met socially, I found their concern very touching. The media here has been full of stories of the millions displaced by the rising waters across Pakistan. Unfortunately, many of these stories have also highlighted the incompetence of the government in dealing with the crisis. Granted, nobody could have anticipated or planned for the magnitude of the disaster, but we have had more than our share of natural catastrophes, so our bureaucracy should have been able to respond more effectively.
Above all, people here have been highly critical of the Pakistani president’s bizarre decision to continue his trip to France and the UK, given the scale of the tragedy back home. Zardari’s claim that his visits to Paris and London gave him the opportunity to raise funds there is met with the same derision it met in Pakistan. Had he cancelled his visit, he would have conveyed the urgency of the need for assistance more effectively than he did by flying to his chateau in France, or addressing a PPP rally in Birmingham.
Newspapers and TV commentators abroad have seized upon this apparent callousness as a further example of the increasingly dysfunctional nature of the Pakistani state. When Moscow was engulfed by smoke from surrounding forest-fires, President Dmitry Medvedev cut short his vacation to take charge. There is no sense here that President Zardari is in any way in charge of the response to the floods.
In fact, there have been reports in the press citing Pakistani sources who have hinted at the real possibility of some kind of political change in the country. While this is entirely speculative stuff, it does indicate the level of concern over the ineffectiveness of the government response. Reporters have highlighted the role of the army in the rescue and relief effort, adding that the only other agencies who appear to be involved are certain jihadi groups who might become more popular as a result.
While much of the world has responded to the UN appeal for funds with a certain lack of enthusiasm, the American response has been quick and effective. With nearly a score of heavy-lift helicopters, American troops are rescuing thousands of displaced people. Their commitment of around $80 million for flood relief is the biggest from any country by far. By contrast, Muslim states have not exactly queued up to help. People have asked me why the Pakistan government has not immediately accepted the Indian offer of five million dollars. Instead, we are told the government is “thinking about it”. What’s there to think about? Surely in a crisis like this, money is money, whatever its source. It would be highly irresponsible to play politics or score points at this juncture. And how can the government ask the international community for help when it picks and chooses which country it will accept money from?
A friend who works in the US State Department was here on a brief vacation, and commented sadly on the steady deterioration apparent in Pakistan. This has been a constant refrain from journalists as well as foreign friends who have visited the country. But we in Pakistan are in permanent denial mode. We insist that somehow, the infamous ‘foreign hand’ is to blame for all our problems. Indeed, I have recently received an email with reference to a scientific breakthrough with the acronym of HAARP that is supposed to allow people to alter the weather pattern. The theory that was posted with details about this technology blamed villainous foreigners of causing the unprecedented downpour that triggered the floods.
When we blame outsiders for all our ills, there is little or no incentive to fix our problems. From the rise of extremist terror groups to the state of our economy, we look for the cause and the solution outside our borders. Thus, instead of arresting the slide, we lurch from one crisis to another. Meanwhile, friends and foes alike look on in bemused horror.