The consequences of neediness

Mar 27 2011

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ALL around Pakistan, in workplaces and in homes, the whisper is: change is imminent, matters are very far from being business as usual and something has to give.

Will it? That depends on how you define change. Change in the social fabric, change in those at the helm of government, change in the mode of government? Pakistan is learning that there will be no revolution here. We already had one, when we ousted an unpopular dictatorship. Now, all we have to do is wait and we can bring about a revolution through the ballot box. We can simply vote the government out.

Yet it seems that a lot of people deeply desire change, of any sort perhaps, because for many of the citizens the current situation, all said and done, is untenable. The reason for the existence of a state and its government, regardless of the form, is the citizenry’s welfare. And Pakistan has over decades failed to make that a priority in any meaningful terms.

The citizenry’s welfare translates in actual terms to the availability of and easy — or at least unimpeded — access to fundamentals such as safety, education, housing, health and economic opportunity. Other rights include freedom of expression and religion, equality before the law, a milieu free from discrimination, oppression and religious, sectarian, ethnic or racially motivated violence.

Compare these ideals to the realities of Pakistan. We know the status of religious and constitutional freedoms. We only have to remember Aasia Bibi, Salmaan Taseer, Shahbaz Bhatti and countless less well-known victims. An environment free of discrimination? Well, turn your attention towards Balochistan. Safety and security? Everybody knows the answer to that one. Human rights abuses? The courts are looking into the ‘missing persons’ cases.

Malnutrition levels in parts of Sindh have been compared to those prevailing in Chad and Niger. One in every four children in the country is in the category of severe malnutrition.

Data gathered by the UN World Food Programme and backed up by research conducted by other international and local agencies shows that the poorest households in the country are being forced to spend over 70 per cent of their income on just food, even after having cut down on their caloric intake. That means that people who made do with one roti now probably depend on half to keep body and soul together. Education? Of all the world’s out-of-school children, one in 10 is a Pakistani. A recent report titled Education Emergency tells us that if current trends are maintained, there is no chance at all of Pakistan meeting the 2015 millennium development goals of education.

Meanwhile, our population continues to grow at a frightening pace. Also, and perhaps as a result of all the above factors, violence increases, extremism takes root, frustration and inter-class divides grow.

All these factors are raising the levels of desperation in the country, and that desperation is manifesting itself in many cases of militancy, terrorism and crime. Recall that the people of Swat were initially brought around to offering support to the Taliban because of the latter’s promise of speedy and equitable justice. In Pakistan, the breakdown of the rule of law seems to be driven in no small part by sheer need.

I remember reading a report last year that the average Pakistani family’s per capita income has become fixed at $1,000. That was last year. Inflation and the cost of living have risen since then. The report contrasted this with theorists’ calculation that citizens in the modern world require an average per capita family income in the range of $3,000 to consider themselves stakeholders in the political process and be interested in sustaining a liberal democracy.

While one can cast doubt on the methodologies used in reaching such hard figures, one only has to look around to see that the overwhelming majority of Pakistanis want for safe drinking water, food, education, affordable energy, employment opportunities, healthcare … the list seems endless. Literacy and dignity feel like a distant goal when even security and health are unavailable.

Rising crime, terrorism, militancy, secessionist tendencies — amongst other factors — these are all indicators of the citizenry’s growing lack of faith in the state’s ability to protect them or to make their welfare a priority. Defiance of law is a result of a social contract that is collapsing.

According to the social contract theory, civil rights bestowed in a state are neither natural nor permanent. The contract between state and citizenry is a means to an end: the benefit of all. The argument is that the social contract is legitimate to the extent that it meets the general interest.

Since civil rights come from agreeing to the contract, those who choose to violate their contractual obligations, such as by committing crimes, abdicate their rights and the rest of society can be expected to protect itself by punishing outlaws. When failings develop in the contract, people renegotiate through methods such as elections to change the terms. In worst cases, there is violence.

The social contract theory holds that for a country to continue to survive as a viable entity, amongst the essentials is a citizenry that believes in and counts itself as a stakeholder in the political process.

According to the 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, without a political government mankind’s ‘natural’ state would be a war of every man against the other, since they would compete over resources. Each person would have a licence to pursue everything in the world, inevitably leading to conflict.

To prevent this, men accede to a social contract and establish a civil society, which Hobbes defined as a population beneath a sovereign authority to whom all individuals cede certain ‘natural’ rights for the sake of protection. They gain rights in exchange for subjecting themselves to law or political authority.

If people gain no benefit from subjecting themselves to the political authority of the state, they might consider the contract broken. And so we have one facet of Pakistan’s situation. We agreed to be ruled by the state and its government in return for gaining liberties and protections. Over years filled with pain, it has become evident that few of these have been forthcoming. The writer is a member of staff.

hajrahmumtaz@gmail.com