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.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.