Census debate abroad

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

FOR the past several weeks I have been an interested observer of a controversy that has kept Canadians engaged. It pertains to the census in May next year.

For someone unaware of the important link between a headcount and the politics, economy and social services of a country this might appear a mundane issue for the media to expend so much newsprint and television time on. But in western democracies with modern economies a census is not something to be taken lightly. It provides the basic statistical profile of the population to ensure efficient, equitable and just governance.

The matter has led to heated arguments and a deluge of charges and denials in Canada following the government`s decision to change the format of the census. The population is counted every five years — Canada is probably the only country in the world to do so at such short intervals. This is possible given the small population (34 million), a high level of education and the prevailing sense of civic responsibility among the people.

Since 1971 the census has been conducted by self-enumeration with Canadians filing by post or email (since 2006) the filled questionnaire to Statistics Canada, the department responsible for the headcount.

Every household receives a form containing eight questions that seek basic information on name, address, age, marital status, etc. Twenty per cent of the people — selected through scientific sampling methods — also receive, or did so until 2006, a long form that contained 53 additional questions seeking more comprehensive information on economic status, income, housing, education, etc. Since providing the required information was mandatory, everyone receiving the forms had to fill them. Those not cooperating could be penalised.

The controversy erupted when the government took the plea that the questions asked in the long form could violate the privacy of citizens, the confidentiality clause notwithstanding. So it has now been decided to replace the compulsory long form by a voluntary national household survey. Those who do not want to fill the questionnaire would not be compelled to do so.

Statistics Canada protested that this would distort the sampling and the data would not be accurate. In the rumpus that erupted the chief of StatCan, Munir Shaikh, a civil servant of great repute and integrity, resigned and a Francophone Canadian group (Federation of Francophone and Acadian Communities) has gone to court describing the move to cancel the mandatory long form census as unconstitutional. It claims that since the new method would fail to collect accurate data on the languages spoken in the country, it would affect the “quality of government services in French”.

The government has come under severe attack from the media, the opposition parties and many professional groups notably the Canadian Medical Association and the Statisticians Society which benefited from the wealth of information the census yielded. Mr Paul Martin, a former prime minister (Liberal Party) has accused the Conservatives of “trying to dumb down the country” and attempting to “clamp down on information and free discussions among Canadians”. The prime minister who heads a minority government has been charged with being “secretive and closed”.

The government is on the defensive. It plans to print more of the 40-page long forms since many are not expected to be returned. This will be accompanied with a massive advertising campaign to persuade people to reply to the voluntary questionnaire. All this will cost an additional $30m. In 2006 the entire census exercise had cost $45m.

With the matter so politicised, the danger is that the real issue might be lost in the welter of accusations and counter-accusations being traded by the political parties at a time when elections are not far off. The information collected by Statistics Canada is considered to be “vital for maintaining Canada`s health and social programmes” and to help businesses “foster economic growth”. Toronto Star

The that has been in the forefront of the campaign against dropping the mandatory long form has dubbed the move as “as an echo of the paranoid impulses of America`s far right” which views a census as a “symbol of government intrusiveness”. If proof were needed of how much information the Canadian census — rather the mandatory long form — yields one should have seen the double-page spread the paper carried of the demographic portrait of the country drawn from the census.

As seen by Environics Analytics, a Toronto-based marketing company, Canadians fall into one of the “66 neighbourhood lifestyle clusters” based on 1,800 variables derived from the census. From this one can learn of the income groups ranging from the `Cosmopolitan Elites` who have university education and earn an average annual income of $466,032 to the `Survivre en Ville` whose average income is $40,052 and are school leavers.

What has struck me about this debate is how it stands in stark contrast to our own approach to the census. I cannot help but think of the cavalier manner in which the census in Pakistan has been treated. After the first four censuses the exercise ceased to be a regular exercise. After 1981, the next census came after a gap of 16 years. As for the census to be held in 2008, it has become a victim of politics. The war on terror and now the flood have also served as a pretext to push the issue into the background.

Had we attached more importance to the census, our information on the damage to life and property wrought by the floods would have been more accurate. At the moment in the absence of reliable data on the population — we are not even sure about how many people lived in different towns and villages that have come under water — we can only make a guesstimate of loss of life and destruction of property. No wonder the figures being given vary so much that probably what we shall learn in the end will be rough estimates.
Tag: Economy, Foreign Affairs

How Pakistan survives

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

FOR some time now — especially since the electronic media was unwittingly liberated by the military government of Gen Pervez Musharraf — cynics and pessimists have been writing off Pakistan.

Since the closing days of July when devastating floods brought large chunks of the country under water, the question being raised by numerous analysts and commentators is how long would Pakistan survive.

There are many who have predicted apocalyptically the end of Pakistan. Others, who are more generous, have warned of collapse not of the state but of the government. Economists speak of the economic downturn as though Pakistan was not in its grip already. But it is a pity that no one deems it necessary to focus on the resilience of the flood victims and the humanitarian spirit of many who are extending a helping hand.

Statistics might be difficult to verify but now it is known that the destruction has been huge. The NDMA recorded close to 1,500 deaths, more than 2,000 injuries and almost 900,000 damaged houses. But before reconstruction and rehabilitation come rescue and relief. Lives have to be saved.

Many have been rescued from the waters of the raging rivers — almost 700,000 according to the NDMA. But now the spectre of hunger, starvation and disease looms large. If more lives are not to be lost it is important to work swiftly to provide healthcare, sanitation, clean drinking water and protection from the natural elements.

The sad part is that the people of Pakistan, expatriates abroad, as well as foreign governments, have lost confidence in the government which should have been in a position to conduct an effective rescue, relief and rehabilitation operation with financial help from the people and friendly foreign governments.

The people of our country always loosen their purse strings when it comes to providing financial relief to a genuine cause if they trust those managing a project. Their generosity has never been in doubt and the Pakistan Centre for Philanthropy estimated that in 1998 Pakistanis donated Rs70bn towards philanthropic causes. This figure must have risen over the years.

Yet the government has failed to mobilise massive donations at home and abroad. While foreign governments have begun to respond to the appeal for disaster relief, they are reluctant to hand over funds to the government.

According to the NDMA, 43 governments/agencies have committed flood relief aid to Pakistan, quite a bit of it in kind. Of these, only 11 have made their donations directly to the government or its agencies. The rest have preferred to give the pledged aid to the United Nations, its agencies or NGOs, both international and local.

This trust deficit was most visible in the case of the funds received in the prime minister`s relief fund account in the National Bank of Pakistan. Ten days after this account was launched only Rs4.3m had been raised. The bank itself donated Rs50m. Conversely, individuals and NGOs have demonstrated that they have greater credibility in the public`s eyes. I personally know of many of them who have raised big amounts for flood relief and have joined the relief efforts.

The Pakistan Medical Association was one of the first to take the initiative by collecting donations in the form of goods, cash and medicines for the flood victims. Other doctors have also responded and the Sindh Institute of Urology and Transplantation, which is an autonomous body in the public sector but depends preponderantly on public donations and has a long tradition of free public service, let it be known on Sunday that in 10 days it had provided medical treatment to over 10,000 people in the flood-hit areas.

Other groups have also joined the relief operation. They comprise like-minded people whose integrity is above reproach. They are trusted and manage to raise donations. There are others who carry weight because they include trusted public figures, such as Aitemaad Pakistan led by Justice (retd) Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim who is trying to provide immediate help to the flood affected in Sindh. Target collect and distribute 24,000 dry ration bags to provide meals for 6,000 families for four weeks.

Yet another organisation I know of is The Citizens Foundation which also aims to provide relief packs to 50,000 families to feed them for a month. Given its success in setting up 660 schools for 92,000 children from low-income families, TCF should hopefully succeed in meeting its target.

Another I know personally which has stepped forward to help is the Indus Resource Centre that has been working in the field of education for rural communities and their sustainable livelihoods in Sindh. The IRC has adopted camps in Dadu and Khairpur where it is supporting over 1,500 families by providing food, water, sanitation and even temporary schools.

There are a host of other dedicated workers and groups who have responded to the emergency with remarkable speed. They are far too many for me to list here. What gives heart and hope is that many have said that once the immediate danger has passed, they will help with the rehabilitation efforts.

It is of course not possible for individuals to do what the government with its resources and administrative machinery has failed to do. But if the numerous groups that have sprouted in the wake of the floods were to adopt an area and work with the community leaders on a long-term basis, the floods could prove to be the turning point in the lives of many Pakistanis.

It must be ensured that whichever village is adopted, it must be provided a primary school and a health centre, however small it may be. Those who adopt a village should continue to interact with the villagers to provide them motivation, moral support and whatever financial assistance possible.

Actually all this should come from the government. But waiting for that amounts to waiting for Godot. Even in these testing times the big landowners have not been moved to part with some of their own wealth that they stole from the people who till their land, to help them in their hour of need.

Cashing in on the floods

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

WHEN natural disaster strikes, it can affect the rich and the poor, but not alike. Calamities such as floods and earthquakes hit the poor harder.

Being the children of lesser gods, the poor are more vulnerable. As such they need more help and for them recovery becomes a massive challenge.

In times of such crises, the temptation to cash in on their misery and play politics becomes irresistible for the rich and the powerful who have traditionally prospered from this inequitable equation.

This is being amply demonstrated in the testing times that Pakistan is currently going through, when floods are wreaking havoc on people who have already fallen victim to other tragedies that were essentially man-made. Many had suffered at the hands of terrorists. Others had seen dislocation and violence caused by the war that terrorism had invited. There were many more whose hardships were compounded by a dysfunctional and apathetic government not famous for its integrity.

Hence when the rains described by the Met Office as “once in a century” descended on the country, the devastation caused was stupendous. One should be wary of giving figures because the range of the numbers being quoted in the media and by leaders is mind-boggling. We are told that over 1,600 people have drowned, 13 million have been displaced, 252,000 homes have been washed away and infrastructure in large areas has been totally destroyed. The National Disaster Management Authority’s website gives the update for Aug 8 as 1,203 deaths, 1,317 injured and 288,170 houses damaged. The country was in a state of shock — or should have been — given the scale of the destruction.

Natural calamities are unavoidable. But their impact can be minimised by careful and shrewd planning, and effective and prompt disaster management. Accurate forecasting and early warning, where possible, also reduce damage. In this context, we do not know how unpredictable the deluge really was and whether the loss of life could have been lower.

What was painful was the experience of watching different sectors of society vying to politicise the crisis to their own advantage. The reaction of different people spoke volumes for their perception of the crisis. The prime minister described the floods as the “worst in Pakistan’s history” and went on to launch a flood relief fund while also making an appeal for international humanitarian assistance. Many countries were quick to respond — the US pledged $35m and Britain £15m.

True, the enormity of the damage called for intensive official intervention and the government’s resources are limited. But its failure to make even a token gesture of demonstrating a spirit of self-reliance evoked cynicism. One did not hear of Islamabad tightening its belt to generate funds for flood relief. In fact, President Zardari’s visit to France and Britain was even embarrassing because it displayed brazen insensitivity at a time when he should have been with his people. Besides, can one justify appeals for donations when the head of a government is ostensibly on a spending spree? The president tried to justify his visit in the context of the flood by saying that it helped him raise donations.

But was it just a coincidence that only a day before, his son Bilawal had launched a fund-raising drive, and the UK’s Charity Commission, the independent charity regulator, issued a warning titled “Be aware of possible Pakistan appeal scams”. It warned the public against “criminals who try to take advantage of the public’s generosity” through fictitious appeals.

The commission stated “the public’s support is crucial to enable charities to deliver desperately needed aid to Pakistan but it is vital that donations go to a genuine charity so that they reach those in need”. Pakistani expatriates are usually known to donate generously whenever natural disaster strikes.

While political elements exploited the situation, the religious extremists were not to be left behind. Before the floods, the Taliban had no qualms about inflicting their brand of violence on innocent people in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. They had also been hand in glove with the timber mafia in denuding forested regions of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Deforestation, it is admitted, has exacerbated the tempo of the flood.

Adopting a carrot and stick strategy, a spokesman for the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan announced at a time when the flood was at its peak that his organisation was suspending attacks in the flood-hit areas of the country. Of course the temporary respite never came. The day following this announcement the chief of the Frontier Constabulary was killed by a teenaged suicide bomber in Peshawar.

The Taliban saw the floods as an occasion to preach their own ideological doctrines and seize upon the people’s misery to bring them to heel. A purported representative of the Taliban, as quoted by Channel 4 news, claimed that the flood was an opportunity for the people “to seek forgiveness” and “pledge support to the Mujahideen and Islam”. According to him the calamity was a punishment inflicted on the people who had “desecrated Sharia and insulted the Mujahideen and sought help from the infidels”.

After pointing out the flawed character of the population, the militants could not let go of this chance to impress on the people their “humanitarian spirit”. The religious parties went into action to set up relief camps for the flood victims in a show of sympathy for them.

In the lead was the Falah-i-Insaniat Foundation — relief wing of the Jamaatud Dawa thought to be the public face of the Lashkar-i-Taiba which has been accused of masterminding the Mumbai attacks in 2008. With the government and the army’s rescue operations failing to neutralise the impact of the fury of the rivers, the Islamist charities stood a good chance of winning the public’s heart.

We will have to wait and see who wins in this strange battle for hearts and minds that is shaping up in Pakistan.