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Pakistan: Feeding the bomb, starving the nation

27 March 2012

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Dawn, 22nd February, 2012

by Murtaza Haider

Pakistanis are fast becoming a wasted nation. The alarmingly high level of malnutrition observed in Pakistan in the past few years is far worse than what has been observed in the sub-Saharan Africa. Millions of Pakistani children have been identified as stunted, under-weight, and wasting because of hunger, disease, and poverty.

While the future of millions of children is threatened by hunger, the civil and military elites in Pakistan continue to pour undisclosed billions into conventional and nuclear weapons. The oft morbidly obese leaders of the right-wing religious and political parties are also in step with the military establishment as they continue to mobilise the starving masses to support developing Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

In 2006, the United Nations estimated that no fewer than 35 million Pakistanis were malnourished. However, those who put the nation on the path to pursue nuclear weapons never suffered poverty, disease or hunger. For instance, Dr. Qadeer Khan’s daughters did not have to starve even when their father was pursuing prohibitively expensive Uranium enrichment for the weapons program. And whereas Mr. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto promised to eat grass if he had to for pursuing nuclear weapons, he or his kin never did. Between their villas in Europe and hotels in Mali, those who pushed Pakistan into pursuing nuclear weapons did quite well for their personal fortunes.

The same could not be said for millions of starving Pakistanis whose welfare, experts believe, is worse than those in the war-torn Africa. Last week, Pakistan Humanitarian Forum, a consortium of 41 large international NGOs, revealed that 2.5 million people in the flood-stricken areas were still without food, water, shelter, sanitation, and healthcare. David Wright, country director of the NGO Save the Children, was explicit in his warnings about the dire conditions threatening the very survival of the flood-affected families in Sindh. “The floods have exposed and deepened a food crisis in Sindh that has resulted in malnutrition rates far worse than those in sub-Saharan Africa,” he warned.

Masroor Gilani of AFP reported last week on the plight of Najma Warag, a mother of three children rendered homeless by the floods in southern Badin. ”If you want to see what a miserable life is, come and visit us. Our children are sick, we have no home, no clothes, no money, and eat only one meal a day,” Ms. Warag told AFP of her daily struggle with life. Unlike Aafia Saddiqui, whose detention in the United States is a cause celebre for the urban Pakistanis, Najma Warag and her children are no one’s top priority on the political left or right of Pakistan.

The hardliners amongst the religious political parties and their proxies in the outlawed militant groups neither help the starving in Pakistan nor let others come to their rescue. Pakistan has become one of the most dangerous places for expatriate workers. In fact, no other single country has recorded as many expat workers kidnapped as in Pakistan.

While the right-wing religious parties, militants and their handlers have been reluctant to help the starving flood victims, the federal government has not fared any better. In a recently released report, international aid agencies revealed that as they rushed in to help in August 2011, Pakistani government preempted them for assisting the flood victims. The aid agencies wanted to disburse cash directly to the flood victims. The government instead wanted to be in the middle, adding extra layers of bureaucracy and increasing the odds of graft in relief aid distribution. By end of August 2011, 2 million Pakistanis were already hit by the floods. The government reluctantly permitted international aid agencies to operate in Pakistan weeks later on September 07, 2011.

It is hard to comprehend why Pakistani government initially prevented relief efforts by international donors, especially when the government itself had fallen short of providing relief to the flood victims in 2011 and earlier in 2010 when the UN declared that floods in Pakistan were the greatest humanitarian crisis in its 65 year history. The Associated Press (AP) reported in January 2011 that the UN had declared that flood-hit areas in Pakistan were experiencing famine-like malnutrition. A survey jointly conducted by UNICEF and the government of Sindh revealed that one in every four children in Sindh was suffering from acute malnutrition. Karen Allen, UNICEF’s deputy representative in Pakistan, was alarmed by the “shockingly bad” conditions of the victims of flood. She told AP in January 2011 that she had not seen “levels of malnutrition this bad since the worst famine in Ethiopia, Darfur, and Chad.”

With such dire warnings from the international relief organisations issued as early as in January 2011, the Pakistani government failed to heed when the floods hit yet again in August 2011.

Food Price Inflation

While the floods played havoc with Pakistan’s food supply chains, the very poor in Pakistan were already finding it hard to feed their families, owing to the grain price inflation in 2007. As the prices of staple food items increased globally, the poor in Pakistan had to cut their food intake because their food budgets could not afford enough. Whereas the grain prices stabilised in 2008 and 2009, the same did not happen in Pakistan where wheat prices continued to soar, owing to the ill-planning and lack of foresight on the part of the government.

Wolfgang Herbinger, director of the World Food Program (WFP) in Pakistan told AFP in March 2011 that the reason behind sustained food price inflation in Pakistan is the fact that the government of Pakistan, being the largest wheat buyer, sets the farm-gate prices. And even when grain production normalised globally, as well as in Pakistan, the prices did not adjust in Pakistan because the government continued to buy wheat at higher than the market price in Pakistan, thus raising the price for all wheat buyers. If the prices are not adjusted, warned Herbinger, the country can be full of food, however, the majority may still not be able to afford it.

Asma Razzaq, writing in the Business Reorder, reported in October 2011 that Pakistan produces 36 million tons of grains and consumes 28 million tons. Even with a surplus of 8 million tons, 60 per cent Pakistanis reported experiencing food insecurity because of inflated prices of food staples.

Food price inflation continues to threaten the welfare of the very poor across the globe. According to Save the Children, 250 million parents globally fed their children less in 2011. The food price inflation has contributed to malnutrition that has caused stunted growth in 170 million children globally. Justin Forsyth, who heads Save the Children, told the Independent earlier in February that if no concentrated action was taken, “half a billion children will be physically and mentally stunted over the next 15 years.”

Pakistan, like other developing countries facing malnutrition, runs the risk of a 2 to 3 per cent decline in GDP resulting from stunted growth. At the individual level, a 15 point decline in IQ has been observed for those experiencing stunted growth.

Global Indifference To Pakistan’s Misery

By early 2011 it was obvious that one in four children in Sindh were malnourished. While malnutrition reached alarmingly high levels in Sindh, much above the WHO’s 15 per cent threshold, which triggers the alarms for an humanitarian crisis, the global response to Pakistan’s misery was inadequate. The UN and its sister organisations appealed for hundred of millions of dollars. Only a fraction of the needed funds were raised. Many believe that the poor image of Pakistan after the 9/11 tragedy has contributed to apathy towards Pakistan.

Not all malnourished are ignored like the ones in Pakistan. Singer Bono and his friends have run campaigns and held concerts to raise funds for the starving in Africa. The millions of starving Pakistanis did not attract Bono’s attention. In fact, if it were not for Angelina Jolie, the plight of starving Pakistanis would not have made to the six o’ clock news in most of the western world.

While Bono and the rest failed to notice the plight of starving victims of flood, Shahzad Roy, Abrar-ul-Haq, and others have lent their voices and songs to raise the plight of the unfortunate Pakistanis. They are no less sincere and dedicated than Bono and Company. The question is if anybody’s listening.

Musharraf’s Regime Did No Better

Many in Pakistan and abroad naively believe that the false economy General Musharraf had constructed on a house of cards was better than the civilian rule that followed. Nothing is farther from the truth. While the current civilian government had to cope with two devastating floods and deal with the civil war that has spilled from Pakistan’s frontiers into its urban heartland, the Musharraf regime had to cope mostly with the aftermath of the devastating earthquake, which despite the horrendous death toll of approximately 80,000 did not disrupt food production. One would have hoped to see less hunger in Pakistan in 2007 after the Musharraf regime had a freehand to rule since 1999.

According to an international survey by Gallup International, which interviewed 58,000 people in 56 countries between June and September 2008, 53 per cent Pakistanis reported often or sometimes lacking food in the past 12 months. Notice the same survey revealed that 48 per cent of Nigerians, 42 per cent of Peruvians, and 40 per cent in Philippines also reported lack of adequate access to food. A disproportionately large number of Pakistanis, even when compared with other countries of similar socio-economics, suffered from hunger when General Musharraf was in control either in civvies or in fatigues.

A Bad Neighbourhood

Malnutrition among children is indeed a global problem. Each year, five to seven million children die of malnutrition. South Asia, however, is one of the worst affected areas which is home to half of the world’s malnourished children. The 2008 UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children Report revealed that 48 per cent of children in India, 43 per cent in Bangladesh, and 37 per cent in Pakistan had stunted growth. While India’s economic miracle is praised all over, it does not change the fact that child malnourishment is more prevalent in India than in Pakistan.

According to a report jointly commissioned by UNICEF, the World Bank, and USAID, 50 per cent of children born in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan in 1999 weighed less than 2.5 kg. Research has revealed that underweight children at birth rarely catch-up in weight and height later. In Afghanistan, 40 to 50 per cent children are estimated to have stunted growth.

Pervez Shaukat, a Pakistan journalist and a friend, visited India after she tested a nuclear weapon in Pokhran. While in New Delhi, Pervez’s cab stopped at an intersection. A malnourished older woman clutching two weak children in her arms begged for money. Pervez gave her some money and asked her where she was from. Pokhran, she replied. “You must be very proud of your hometown that became the symbol of India’s nuclear prowess,” Pervez inquired. The woman’s response stunned Pervez. “Why don’t they drop a bomb on us as well to deliver us from the misery that we are in.”

For those millions whose children are starving today in Pakistan, the choice between the bomb or bread is not a difficult one. They need bread for their starving children. However, their misery and hunger is not a priority for the civil and military rulers. In the guise of feeding the bomb, elites in Pakistan have fed themselves and their children.

The nuclear scientists, armed forces personnel, members of the civil establishment, politicians, and others (including mullahs) associated with Pakistan’s conventional and nuclear weapons have all grown fatter over the past four decades. Their children either live abroad or hold dual nationalities. They never had to eat grass.

As for millions of other partially-fed Pakistanis, whose future is supposedly guaranteed by nuclear and other bombs, there is an urgent need to secure their present. Thousands of nuclear weapons did not prevent the Soviet Union from disintegrating after it failed to feed and clothe its citizens. Pakistan must avoid the same fate by putting bread before bombs.

P.S.

The above article from Dawn is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use