Post-flood Pakistan is recovering, but issues still remain

The international relief effort has worked — but it has thrown up new problems.

Flying over Pakistan's Swat Valley, you can see encouraging signs of post-flood reconstruction. Where bridges had been destroyed, temporary structures are being put in place, where roads had been washed away now hardened dirt tracks are appearing, and where schools had been flattened, makeshift buildings are being erected.

I had deliberately held off visiting Pakistan in the immediate aftermath of the devastating floods this summer to avoid becoming another spectator getting in the way, but finally arrived in Islamabad just over a week ago. The purpose was to use my position as chair of the European Parliament's delegation to south Asia to highlight the ongoing humanitarian situation and reconstruction needs at a time when initial public attention had waned.

In the area we visited in the north, Swat Valley, the response has been swift. However, the irony was not lost on me that this was due in large part to the existing presence of the army and NGOs, in situ because of the ongoing conflict and the enormous number of people recently displaced from the area. In the south, in areas such as Sindh Province, where the army and NGOs have not been as active because they have not needed to be, the situation is not so encouraging.

Indeed, the relief effort has thrown up new problems.

We heard from Unicef about the discovery of pockets of extreme deprivation, abject poverty and bonded labour that the authorities had not even known about until after the floods. This discovery is a symptom of a larger problem – a severe lack of baseline information. The last census was some time ago, so accurate information is lacking about where people are and, indeed, who they are, which makes it all the more difficult to reach the most vulnerable. Population movement in response to the state of flooding has also made it more difficult to deliver aid effectively.

There had been initial concern whether aid money would reach those in need or be diverted en route. The Pakistani government set up a special committee to ensure transparency and most of the overseas aid money has been distributed through international agencies and seems to be getting through.

General Nadeem Ahmed, in charge of the overall disaster management effort, was also keen to stress how the efforts of ordinary Pakistanis, rallying to provide food, water and shelter to those in need, as well as assisting in reconstruction efforts, had made the progress we witnessed possible. However, it is also clear that the entire operation is severely stretched and many of the agencies are reporting that initial donations have already been spent.

Next week, Pakistan will host a conference of international donors and the conversation will turn to long-term issues. Should disaster recovery build back or build better? And how is this reconstruction programme going to be financed?

There is no doubt that the amount of interest paid on Pakistan's debt is more than the money that the Asian Development Bank has offered in loans. Yet I certainly heard some scepticism around reducing debt repayments while the Pakistani government is writing off debts owed to the state and remains unwilling to take action to make its tax collection more efficient and effective. Recent statements from President Asif Ali Zardari are sounding more positive.

It should not be forgotten that this is a relatively new democratically elected government, and one that is facing enormous challenges. We met some extraordinary people inside and outside parliament. But there is a clear view that the government also needs to be taking action on corruption and moving the pace of change more quickly – the reconstruction effortdemands it, and winter is coming on.

Jean Lambert is an MEP for the Green Party.

Jean Lambert is a Green MEP for London. 

Photo: National Theatre
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I hate musicals. Apart from Guys and Dolls, South Pacific, Follies – oh, wait

Every second is designed to be pleasing, so that by the end my face aches from all the smiling.

I always thought I hated musicals. Showy, flamboyant, and minutely choreographed, they seemed to be the antithesis of the minimalist indie scene I grew up in, where a ramshackle DIY ethos prevailed, where it wasn’t cool to be too professional, too slick, too stagey. My immersion in that world coincided with the heady days of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s triumphs in the West End – Evita in 1978, Cats in 1981 – neither of which I saw, being full of scorn for such shows.

From then on I convinced myself that musicals were not for me, conveniently forgetting my childhood love of West Side Story (for which I’d bought the piano music, bashing out “I Feel Pretty” over and over again in the privacy of the dining room, on the small upright that was wedged in behind the door).

I was also conveniently forgetting Meet Me In St Louis and A Star is Born, as well as An American in Paris, which I’d been to see with a boy I was actually in a band with – he somehow finding it possible to combine a love of The Clash with a love of Gene Kelly. And I was pretending that Saturday Night Fever wasn’t really a musical, and neither was Cabaret – because that would mean my two favourite films of all time were musicals, and I didn’t like musicals.

Maybe what I meant was stage musicals? Yes, that was probably it. They were awful. I mean, not Funny Girl obviously. When people ask “If you could go back in time, what gig would you most like to have attended?” two of my answers are: “Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall, and Barbra Streisand in the original 1964 Broadway production of Funny Girl.” I would, of course, also make an exception for Guys and Dolls, and South Pacific, and My Fair Lady, and… oh God, what was I talking about? I’d always loved musicals, I just stopped remembering.

Then one of our teens took me to see Les Misérables. She’d become obsessed with it, loving the show so much she then went and read the Victor Hugo book – and loving that so much, she then re-read it in the original French. I know! Never tell me today’s young people are lazy and lacking in commitment. So I went with her to see the long-running stage version with my sceptical face on, one eyebrow fully arched, and by the time of Éponine’s death and “A Little Fall of Rain” I had practically wept both raised eyebrows off my face. Call me converted. Call me reminded.

I was late to Sondheim because of those years of prejudice, and I’ve been trying to catch up ever since, keeping my eyes open for London productions. Assassins at the Menier Chocolate Factory was stunning, and Imelda Staunton in Gypsy (yes, I know he only wrote the lyrics) was a revelation. Here she is again tonight in Follies at the National Theatre, the show that is in part a homage to the era of the Ziegfeld Follies, that period between the wars that some think of as the Golden Age of Musicals.

Although, as Sondheim writes in his extraordinary book, Finishing The Hat, (which contains his lyrics plus his comments on them and on everything else): “There are others who think of the Golden Age of Musicals as the 1950s, but then every generation thinks the Golden Age was the previous one.” How I would have loved to have seen those shows in the 1970s, when they were new and startling.

They still are, of course, and this production of Follies is a delight from start to finish. A masterclass in lyrics – Sondheim’s skill in writing for older women is unmatched – it is also sumptuously beautiful, full of emotion and sardonic wit, switching between the two in the blink of an eye, in a way that appears effortless.

And I realise that what I love about musicals is their utter commitment to the audience’s pleasure. Every second is designed to be pleasing, so that by the end my face aches from all the smiling, and my mascara has somehow become smudged from having something in my eye, and I have already booked tickets to go again. So sue me.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left