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.

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The government has admitted it can curb drugs without criminalising users

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity