comment: Begging with dignity —Rafia Zakaria
In our sixty-second year, perhaps it’s time we came to terms with the reality that we are and have always been a nation of beggars. Ironically, it is only in embracing this grim reality that we can find the opportunity to change our future
If the recent summit in New York is a reliable gauge, then Pakistan, or rather “democratic” Pakistan is doing pretty well in the popularity contest otherwise known as the General Session of the United Nations General Assembly.
On Thursday, the “Friends of Democratic Pakistan” met to discuss the promotion of stable governance and economic development in Pakistan. The group includes Australia, Britain, Canada, China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the United States, the United Nations and European Union. President Obama, who co-chaired the meeting, announced the passage of the Kerry-Lugar Bill, which will provide Pakistan with $1.5 billion every year for the next five years.
The meeting and accompanying announcement of aid disbursement have provided much fodder for discussion in both the United States and Pakistan. The United States has expectedly tried to announce passage of the Kerry-Lugar Bill as well as the meeting itself as a major commitment that substantiates its long-term interest in Pakistan. Coming as it does, in the footsteps of an expected change in US policy toward the region, the announcements provide the Obama administration a means to deflect attention from its woes in Afghanistan by pointing to the potential of success in Pakistan.
For the Pakistani government, led by President Zardari, the task in New York is markedly more difficult. It must tread the delicate balance of being both gracious for the assistance while at the same time drawing attention to the holes in the Obama administration’s beneficence. One attempt to do just this was President Zardari’s demand, made a day before the meeting, that the United States reimburse the $1.6 million that Pakistan has spent fighting the War on Terror in the tribal belt. The demand was programmed ostensibly to emphasise the fact that aid disbursements to Pakistan are in exchange for services rendered in the US-led war against Al Qaeda rather than an act of magnanimity by the United States. In other words, the Pakistani delegation tried to paint as “payment” what the Americans would present simply as an act of generosity.
This delicate dance between grantors and receivers of aid is not in itself new. In the last few decades, as globalisation has become an economic and security challenge rather than an abstract theory, this dynamic has become a repeated accompaniment to most global summits. The rich nations controlling large chunks of the world economy have packaged their security interests as moralistic efforts to assist the poor without any strings attached. At the same time, poorer nations have sought to expose the security interests and consequent challenges to sovereignty that lie beneath the Global North’s commitments to economic and social development in the Global South.
The duelling narratives that emerge from the above dynamic mean that rich nations always have the task of presenting their aid as magnanimous while poorer ones always have an interest in presenting the aid amounts as emerging out of rich countries’ self-serving security interests.
In the current case, the challenge for the Pakistani government becomes more complex in light of ideological currents at home that present this dynamic as an inherent attack on the country’s sovereignty. Conservative commentators, especially those belonging to Islamist parties, present the need for aid as a failure by the current administration to safeguard the sovereignty of the nation. In doing so they disregard both the facts of Pakistan’s precarious economic existence in a world beset by financial crises but also the fact that whether we like it or not, the world market is controlled by countries like the United States.
In fomenting this attitude towards aid in general, these critics present the acceptance of aid as a choice rather than the necessity it has been for many governments past and present. Gullible Pakistanis are thus fed the myth that it is a particular government’s greed rather than the nation’s need that makes aid a requirement, and that the only thing keeping Pakistan from true self-sufficiency is the corruption of one or another administration.
The fact is that the acceptance or rejection of aid by Pakistan is not a facet peculiar to the Zardari administration. Governments past, present and future have been and are likely to remain tied to the disbursement of foreign assistance for many decades in the future. The scale of current security challenges and the inability of our weak state to respond to a growing insurgency necessitates that we accept any help that we get. The particular ravages of the global financial crisis on our economy and the mounting costs of a civil war that has led us to become a world leader in suicide bombings are recent precipitators of our hapless condition.
Idealistic notions of self-sufficiency that suggest that we deny how integral foreign assistance has been to our precarious existence these past sixty odd years indicate a blindness to both our local challenges and the place we hold in the international sphere. Pakistan is not and has never been a superpower, militarily, morally or economically. We do not have the infrastructure to create self-sufficiency in either our agricultural, industrial or manufacturing sectors. We do not have the natural resources to provide for all our energy needs or the capabilities to sell what we do have on the global market. Yet, instead of accepting these challenges and their consequent impact on our place in the world, we live imbued in nationalist myths and pretend that our current reliance on aid is solely a product of temporary mistakes or greedy politicians.
A novel argument for us as we poke fun at the unfortunate officials charged with the task of begging for this aid in New York would be to consider not the hokey notions of becoming the next global powerhouse fuelled by our un-availed (and largely imaginary) natural resources but rather a realistic assessment of what our capabilities and challenges really are. Not once in our sixty-two year existence have we survived without the assistance of foreign governments.
In our sixty-second year, perhaps it’s time we came to terms with the reality that we are and have always been a nation of beggars. Ironically, it is only in embracing this grim reality that we can find the opportunity to change our future.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney living in the United States where she teaches courses on Constitutional Law and Political Philosophy. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org (Daily Times)