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Perennial preparation

Updated August 09, 2013

IT is a rather perverse fact of everyday life in this country that ‘experts’ can anticipate everything from terrorist attacks to natural disasters and still not really pre-empt any of the destruction that they so efficiently predict.

Granted we cannot know with certainty when a suicide bomber will strike or monsoon rains descend from the sky, nor emerge unscathed when the dreaded event does eventually come to pass.

Yet advance knowledge is valued precisely because it permits us to make plans to undertake as many offsetting measures as is humanly manageable. Science and technology do not give us divine powers, but they surely allow us to prepare better for the worst eventualities.

Unfortunately, the latter never seem to be averted. One need look no further than the most talked about event of recent times: despite intelligence indicating that a plan was being hatched, local authorities were not able to prevent the jailbreak in D.I. Khan. It is the regularity of such episodes that compels a not insignificant number of Pakistanis to ask questions about how committed the state truly is in addressing millenarian violence.

We ought to be similarly critical of the state — and other responsible institutions — on all matters of public interest, particularly those that are ostensibly uncontroversial.

Take the issue of flooding during the monsoon. Surely more people should be asking the question: why, for the fifth summer in succession, are parts of the country paralysed by floods? Why do institutions like the National Disaster Management Authority not prepare better for the natural disasters when they eventually do come around?

Governmental lapses are only the tip of the iceberg. The media is never far behind. Even as a layperson, I can gauge that the flooding this year — at least to date — is not quite as bad as it has been in years past. Yet the media’s portrayal of the floods and the devastation they have caused is just as sensational as in years past. And in terms of thoughtful commentaries on the pre-emptive measures that have been — and could be — taken, the media has been virtually silent.

The government and media are indeed powerful actors that must be held to account for disaster preparedness, or lack thereof. But there is another extremely powerful player — possibly even more powerful than the usual suspects — that we cannot afford to ignore lest we misunderstand the political economy of disaster entirely.

International aid or donor agencies are arguably the most well-equipped and endowed of all the ‘experts’ in the field. There is no question of this particular constituency not having at its disposal the requisite human and material resources to deal with nature’s periodic convulsions. So where do we place aid agencies in our analysis?

I believe that seemingly beneficent donors are no less culprits than the state and corporate media in producing and reproducing ‘disaster’. The truth is that aid agencies dealing with ‘disaster’ exist because natural — and man-made — calamities take place. Put differently, the ‘solution’ is only necessary because there is a ‘problem’ in the first place. More generally, ‘poverty’ and other symptoms of ‘underdevelopment’ are what keeps the aid industry going.

And an industry it is indeed. In its modern manifestation, the aid industry’s roots can be traced to the immediate post-Second World War period. The Truman administration was faced with the spectre of communism sweeping the globe promising human emancipation.

American interventionism around the world could be only partially justified by demonising communists. And so ‘development’ interventions were initiated to ‘assist’ the ‘underdeveloped’ countries extricate themselves from ‘poverty’.

I am not trying to suggest that aid is a conspiracy. In fact, there is nothing particularly secretive about it. In the specific field of disaster response, huge institutional costs are incurred in the name of saving victims of earthquakes and floods.

It is a cruel irony that such a significant percentage of funds allocated by governments, foundations and individuals for disaster relief is actually spent on the board, lodging and consultancy fees of ‘experts’ who fly in from around the world to ‘assist’ the ‘poor’.

Indeed there is real cause for scepticism when it becomes apparent just how much is at stake for those who do become designated ‘experts’ in the field of disaster preparedness.

To reiterate: if disasters do not happen, there is no need for anyone to try and prepare for them. Of course nature will continue to exert its wrath upon humanity for as long as the current eco-system survives. But nature’s sporadic tests of our resolve do not make necessary the creation and sustenance of a ‘disaster’ industry the likes of which exists today.

There are, thankfully, examples of humanitarian assistance that are not coloured by the imperatives of capitalism and global geopolitics.

Cuban doctors dedicate themselves to meeting the basic health needs of ordinary people all over the world for no other reason than their commitment to humanity. How can one forget the distinction with which they carried themselves for months in the aftermath of the 2005 earthquake?

While international aid ‘experts’ were putting on their usual performances, the Cubans lived and worked amongst the worst affected and, even when they came to big cities, stayed at low-budget hotels, mingled with ordinary people and demonstrated the gains made by Cuban socialism.

This year’s floods will come and go, as they have previously. Most readers will suffer minor inconveniences, whilst condoling in their hearts with victims in faraway places. For the rest of the year we will forget that the floods came, and will be reminded by the media only a few weeks before they come again next year.

In the meantime government agencies, and international donors most of all, will prepare for the floods along with any other ‘disaster’ that comes their way. And rest assured, the disasters will keep coming.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.