Pakistan's Floods: Civil Society in Dubai Is Alive and Well

Contrast is a wonderful thing, and the deplorable situation in Pakistan, with 20 million plus displaced via deluge, is nothing if not a study in it.
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Contrast is a wonderful thing, and the deplorable situation in Pakistan, with 20 million plus displaced via deluge, is nothing if not a study in it.

In the face of millions swathed in suffering and a government response at best apathetic and at worst merely pathetic, civil society, columnists and journalists from the country have commenced on a bout of heavy handed soul searching. Failed country, they note. Failed people. Failure all around, in fact. A particularly polemical, if in part accurate, rant in a Pakistani daily happily compared the public to "cockroaches" for having failed the burden of morality, compassion and intellect. Another column talks about how rich Pakistanis in the country are using government ineptitude as an excuse for not caring.

Now contrast that with Dubai. Civil society in Dubai -- yes, that chimerical beast exists -- had within a week swung into high gear to respond to the devastation. Among other initiatives, hundreds of volunteers -- all Dubai residents of various nationalities -- were sorting, packing and stacking donated aid under the dedicated if somewhat chaotic eye of a certain Kabul Wazir, who has links with NGOs professing boots on the ground in flooded locales. Local warehouses were pressed into action. Trucks rolled in with aid. There was lifting, sorting, cataloguing and packing. And the process persists to date, with donations rolling in and being sorted and wrapped for delivery to aid hit areas.

Civil society in Dubai. Repeat that, for one must roll the words over one's tongue slowly, savouring their weight and tactile impossibly. It may be tiny, but is certainly alive and well. Dubai-based Pakistanis, while struggling under a private burden of a country ostensibly heading to hell in the proverbial hand basket, have by and large steered clear of guilty soul-searching. Perhaps distance has offered the requisite catharsis to steer anger to constructive use.

Not that only Pakistanis are involved in relief -- far from it. At the Al Quoz warehouse gathering goods for NGO Caravan (Karwan in Urdu), burly Australians hurled around boxes while Emirati women, replete in abayas and sheilas, taped them into shape a floor above. Indians, Sri Lankans, Filipinos and Brits helped in the sorting, packing, and shelving. A medley of Arabs of both genders ran in with supplies and stayed back to lend a hand. Mind you, this was all in the mere two days I was present there.

Yet a sense of perspective is important. Government aid pledges dwarf what Dubai's civil society has managed. The UAE government has pledged USD 5 million over its logistical support and manpower. Saudi Arabia has seen and raised America's USD 86 million with a USD 100 million promise. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has asked for a UN pledge of USD 460 million, calling the crisis unprecedented and heart breaking. About half this figure has been raised to date. But then, civil society's role is not to supplant governments but complement it -- and when required, massage consciences.

Not just goods are flowing out of Dubai. Many have made cash donations to various NGOs with proven ability and credibility. These private donations have in common with those from the rest of the world that they sideline the Pakistani government in favour of distributing money through channels more pertinent, and dare I say, more reliable.

For Pakistan received almost unprecedented aid for the earthquakes that splintered through the country's north in late 2005. Almost five years thence, the survivors still lounge around in what were putatively make-shift camps destined to give way to urgent rehabilitation. Question marks arise over the use of funds, for rebuilding has been fairly lethargic. Cynics, as is their wont, point out that government officials have in the meanwhile acquired expensive new cars and the army shiny new rockets.

So contrast again, if you will, the hundreds of tired sweaty volunteers in Dubai with the zeal demonstrated by Messrs. Zardari, the figurehead Pakistani President, and Mr. Gillani, the erstwhile Prime Minster. For while Mr. Zardari was showing alacrity in dodging shoes thrown at a rally in Birmingham, Mr. Gillani was busy posing in a fake aid camp hastily constructed to offer a believable montage of pensive care.

And while all the volunteers in Dubai may bring relief to only a few out of a plethora, the fact remains they, with their counterparts the world over, are there when required. No hand wringing, little wrangling -- just a realization that suffering requires palliation regardless of where in the world it is happening. A rather proud moment for us all.

An edited version of this article appeared in the Khaleej Times, and may be accessed here.

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