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.