Missing an Opportunity for Building Governance in Post-flood Pakistan
December 21, 2010
Given that the Pakistani government’s handling of the Kashmir earthquake was somewhat of a highpoint in the context of a rather dismal national governance record, there was initial hope, however cautious, that the disaster recovery process in Pakistan might broaden opportunities for building democracy in this chronically unsteady nation. However, the latest information coming out of Islamabad would seem to indicate that any hope of transforming governance through flood response efforts is becoming increasingly unrealistic. Five months into the calamity, there remains virtually no civilian engagement on the ground and ever-dwindling citizen expectations that a democratic Pakistani government will ever be there for them in times of national crisis.
While it was understandable that officials might be absent in the immediate shock of the catastrophic flooding, now five months on, there is growing skepticism that local government will ever show its face. What is often overlooked in disaster commentary is the depth of the subnational governance crisis in Pakistan at the time the floods hit. Former president Pervez Musharraf’s Local Government Ordinance (LGO), creating three layers of decentralized government at the district, subdistrict, and village levels, had lapsed in late 2009, obliging a power shift. District nazims elected under the LGO were forced to hand over power to previously appointed district coordinating officers (DCOs). In the post-flood context, DCOs are said to be virtually absent from the scene; recently unseated nazims are apparently everywhere but are effectively powerless under the current political structure. In the meantime, provincial elites seem to be fashioning local politics as they wish, sanctioned by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani’s early 2010 call on provincial entities to devise their own local systems and the Pakistani parliament’s further affirmation of political devolution to provincial centers by way of the 18th Amendment in March.
In the midst of this political mess, there was a shred of optimism that real civilian government engagement might occur by way of the newly created National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). Established in 2007, the disaster management entity has succeeded in building a functional presence at subnational levels (at least provincial). It has also gained considerable experience in engaging with the Pakistani people in a variety of smaller-scale emergencies across the country, most notably in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), where it worked closely with the Provincial Relief, Rehabilitation, and Settlement Authority and the Pakistan Army Special Support Group to address the mass displacement of conflict-affected persons during the course of 2009. Under the chairmanship of Lt. Gen. Nadeem Ahmed (ret.), former deputy of the Kashmir-focused Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority, the NDMA has a strong military character but is nonetheless legitimized by the National Disaster Management Ordinance of December 2006. It would seem precisely the civilian-military hybrid apparatus that could fulfill Pakistan’s tandem goals of disaster recovery and governance building in the wake of the massive national disaster with which it is now confronted.
Unfortunately, the opportunity to use NDMA as a means to deliver critical services in a meaningful way at local levels and to bridge the trust deficit between the Pakistani people and its government is being thwarted. Aid workers on the ground indicate that the activities of the national disaster entity are being second-guessed by central authorities and that Lt. Gen. Nadeem is rumored to be increasingly frustrated by the bureaucratic constraints placed on him by others in Islamabad. At the same time, international flood assistance has not adequately focused on enhancing the capacity of NDMA, so single-minded has been its attention on direct cash distribution tools as a means to bypass a corrupt Pakistani state.
Given the current state of affairs, the United States should think carefully about its approach to future disaster recovery assistance to Pakistan. The immediate response of the U.S. military and U.S. Agency for International Development to the disaster was swift and effective. What is at stake now is the accelerated distribution of $500 million of Kerry-Lugar-Berman monies for flood relief, a pledge made by Richard Holbrooke not long before his death, and apparently the last of the “big money” the United States had to spend on the disaster. While there has been great enthusiasm for cash distribution cards as a tool to get money directly into the hands of the people, rather than the pockets of Pakistani political elite, the diversion of resources away from government does not address the more chronic issue of inadequate local governance in Pakistan, a primary factor hampering national stability.
Rather than depending on cash distribution cards as the central component of the response, U.S. policymakers should consider support to NDMA and to disaster risk reduction initiatives more broadly as a means to promoting greater citizen-government interaction at local levels and enhancing Pakistani disaster resilience over the longer term. U.S. investment in rebuilding mangrove forests and levees along the Indus River, replanting forests devastated by the illicit timber industry in KPK, and better managing national energy resources may be just the kind of targeted approach the United States seeks. Such a program would address the tremendous needs of the country while acknowledging the limits of U.S. influence on the current political landscape in Pakistan. It would prioritize energy management and environmental conservation in line with the U.S. State Department’s recently released Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. And, finally, it would demonstrate to the Pakistani people the U.S. government’s commitment to their long-term prosperity and stability.
Stacey White is a senior research consultant with the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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