'Fix it' is not going to fix Pakistan

Updated 13 Jan 2016


The “Fix it” campaign is bold and charming, a quick antidote for Karachi’s citizens who have suffered decades of negligence towards the city's many glaring problems.

Last week, activist Alamgir Khan, took on the issue of open manholes in Gulshan-I-Iqbal and with the help of 100 volunteers, he raised Rs 13,000 and covered them — he did what the city failed to do due to institutional lethargy.

He has now given an ultimatum regarding the issue of street children, including child labourers and trash pickers, reminding the city government that trash collection is their responsibility and not the job of children.

Most citizens have a resigned and cynical attitude to matters of failing governance — they dismiss activism, rant in living rooms, cite to lack of political will and the ubiquitous corruption and sometimes, do what they can through self-help.

Yet, if you live in this City of Lights, with its crumbling infrastructure and its noisy social media life, something new is abuzz: A new form of social activism. A fresh cadre of activists are taking up issues — whether it’s shaming those who bring (and not feed) child maids at posh restaurants, provide evidence of corporal punishment in schools, or show videos of educated homeless men fending for themselves (that he speaks English is not the reason for dismay at his predicament, it’s lack of social welfare for all homeless).

People are itching to make change. With the added glory of internet fame, they are eager to voice their issue and take public action that will elicit instant likes, ego boosting responses, and perhaps, bring about some token shift in politics.

Also read: CM takes notice of open manholes — 'Is sealing gutters also my job?'

The issues are many — every day outrages of illegal parking fees, substandard products sold with impunity, putting up with mafia for running water, load shedding, inflation, living amidst garbage piles of bulgy plastic bags, the destitute children on our roads who may never learn long division, but will experience sex and paedophilia.

Alamagir’s campaign thus uses the power of the internet and combines it with anarchic direct action.

The key to success though remains that you strike the right chord with the public, somehow hit the city’s collective funny bone, and profoundly understand the citizens’ ordinary passions and vexations.

Who doesn't want overnight remedies?

However, the problem is deeper.

Starting campaigns is easy, sustaining and scaling them much harder.

Harder yet is maintaining the public spiritedness of volunteers, and raising and managing funds (if those are involved) with transparency.

Right now we are at the unique juncture where Pakistani public officials are sensitive to comments on social media and will respond. Indeed, it was wicked and of course, amusing to see the CM’s stencilled portrait near manholes, and then him jumping to explain his jurisdiction.

But others may develop resistance like high strength bacteria to social media. There may be other pitfalls for the unschooled campaigner; so, here’s a list:

Beware of the cult

From the man who promised a Tsunami to moustachioed generals and the benevolent Edhi, Pakistan remains mired in the populist “one man will come and solve all” complex; Alamgir seems to be saying this as well: no one will save you, you have to take direct action in your community.

Individuals compel the state — individual action is fantastic and necessary, but not ever a complete substitute for the large scale actions needed in our cities and villages from the government. Neglect in all public service areas is deep, be it education, health, roads, power, water, or human rights and the only agency with the resources and access to solve it all is, well, the state.

Know your government

After a 10 year hiatus, local government systems are back. This offers a huge opportunity for citizens to take their grievances to their local councillors, exercise decent, old-fashioned citizenship, and exhaust all possible remedies offered to them, within the power of these recently elected bodies.

Activist Naeem Sadiq, for example, filed six complaints over the course of three years, working the DHA bureaucracy to install “No Smoking” signs at Zamzama Park. And they finally did!

Know your law

Before public work projects, including new roads and flyovers, there must be public hearings; there is a right to an information law to collect information from government officials on their omissions and commissions; remember that there is usually a statute out there that protects your basic rights.

Public Interest Litigation is an excellent campaign strategy as long as there is ample research behind it. It can build and develop legal precedence with regard to people’s rights.

Avoid moral vigilantism

Stick to the lawful and legitimate concerns of all citizens. It’s very easy for public campaigns to morph into morality brigades that will chastise people for what offends them subjectively.

You don’t want to be a Maya Khan hounding young couples in parks and you also want to be inoffensive to the occasional violator.

Possession of a cell phone does not give you the right to photograph anyone and post their picture (especially children or people in private spaces). Remember not to defame and invade privacy in your exuberance.

Understand the issue and the backlash

If you work on an issue like child labour, remember that you can’t end it without addressing the underlying problem of financial stress on families and the sub-culture of mafias that supply children for labour, begging or sex work.

Provide space for debate and reflection and devise ethical solutions. Garbage picking too has a whole informal economy attached to it.

While one cannot end inflation or uproot mafias (at least not in a short-term campaign) one can realistically build in measures for financial assistance of needy families and rehabilitation of children who have been destroyed by street life.

Murals on the city walls beautify the city, but don’t address the rot beneath — and in our case literally, Karachi’s over strained sewerage filtration systems, leaking into seas.

Seek specialists

Most campaigns need and benefit from a weigh-in from the environmentalists and the engineers; social-minded ones are an endangered species and have long since sold their souls for corporate pay-checks and rubber stamped EIAS. There remains a special space for them in activism though.

The above are just some suggestions so that you're not discouraged to shut down campaigns when you come under various forms of cynicism and instead, build holistic ones backed by thorough thinking.

Social media is crazy and beautiful; it’s bringing us together in mysterious ways towards collective justice, changing the face of activism, and befuddling many with its prowess and reach, but at the end of the day, it is only a strategy, not an end in itself.