Seizing the moment

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

HISTORY is replete with examples of societies having cleverly turned their adversity into a window of opportunity to achieve what they never would have in ‘normal’ times. Without a cataclysmic tragedy they often remain mired in retrogressive traditions that block their innate dynamism.

It is a well-established fact that people leading settled and stable lives are prone to resisting change in their conventional lifestyle and culture. Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan, the architect of the Orangi Pilot Project and the epitome of worldly wisdom, had observed that migrants uprooted from their homes tended to be more enterprising.

In their research on the aftermath of the 1947 partition of India, the Indian feminist writers, Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon, discovered that many women who fled their hearths and homes found it easier to break away from the culture of servility they had been chained to for centuries. Many opted for education that changed their lives which would never have happened if events had not disturbed the social equilibrium. munshis.

In the 1970s, in the post-Bangladesh period when many workers from Pakistan went to the Gulf states to take up jobs, a silent revolution was initiated back home amongst their women. Zeba Zubair, the founder of Pavhna, an NGO working in Sindh, used to tell me about women joining literacy classes. They wanted to read the weekly letters their homesick spouses sent them without the intervention of intrusive Knowledge of reading and writing also helped them manage their own affairs independently.

I wonder if it is possible to show the way to the millions who have been displaced today by the devastating floods to seize this moment as an opportunity to change the direction of their lives. They can, if they are mobilised and motivated by community leaders and provided some support (financial, technical and moral) by those who understand their needs. In this way what is being branded as the “wrath of God” will become a godsend opportunity.

Why should not Pakistan rise from the ‘waters’ as New Orleans has done from Hurricane Katrina that struck in 2005? As rehabilitation and reconstruction of the flood-ravaged areas is undertaken, it would be a cheering thought if those who have come forward to extend a helping hand to the flood victims in their hour of crisis, do not pack their bags and go home once relief operations are over. Let them stay back for the rebuilding task as well.

Let the rebuilding efforts be spearheaded by those who have devoted their services primarily to education. Let reconstruction be school-centric with housing, healthcare, nutrition and economic activity revolving round education. The Pakistan Coalition for Education has reminded the government of the UN General Assembly resolution A/64/L58 (July 2010) that reaffirms the human right to education for all citizens and calls on governments to ensure access to education to all affected people in an emergency situation. It is the government’s job primarily to rebuild the schools that have been swept away and make them functional as soon as possible.

But will it? In normal times education has never been the government’s first priority. It will take its time to get its act together. Meanwhile the numerous NGOs and other institutions, which are already in the field having responded promptly when the floods came, should not be in a hurry to leave. Although the prime minister has made unkind remarks about NGOs they should not be discouraged. It is now time to turn to long-term plans for rehabilitation.

Some like the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (Piler) and the Sindh Education Foundation have gone beyond their mandate to provide relief to flood victims. The first has been providing safe drinking water to nearly 10,000 IDPs who have been housed in Karachi. It has also opened a primary school and got volunteer teachers to teach the children while a medical camp has been set up with the help of the Pakistan Medical Association.

The Sindh Education Foundation has undertaken the responsibility of providing food, water, shelter and basic health services to the flood-affected people in Sindh. The foundation says it has also launched an emergency education programme for adults and children across all IDP camps in the province.

Meanwhile, the Layton Rehmatullah Benevolent Trust (LRBT), has provided medical relief to over 23,000 flood victims in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where its mobile teams started work on the ground within days of the flooding and has been treating cases of acute diarrhoea, respiratory ailments, skin problems and eye infections.

These are just a few I have named. What is significant about them is the public confidence they enjoy. They have raised donations to fund their projects. My mailbox is flooded with appeals for help from NGOs and I know they can be trusted, given their past performance.

This is the time to focus on education. Let the NGOs network and coordinate their efforts. Concentrating on schooling in this hour of crisis offers three advantages. First, it would allow the people the opportunity to organise their lives and get involved which would help them cope with their distress by getting control of their lives.

Second, it would create public interest in education especially when people realise that the school in their area could become the focus of the rehabilitation process.

Third, some innovative approaches could be tried now. The Sindh Education Foundation could encourage communities to organise their own schools without over-centralising the education system as has been the practice until now.

Of course guidance and learning material along with new ideas will have to be supplied. For instance why can’t shortwave radio transmissions be used to motivate teachers and help them upgrade their pedagogy and subject knowledge? (The power of radio can be gauged by Mullah Fazlullah’s transmissions to boost the Taliban’s following in Swat before the army cracked down.) If we wait for the education department to get round to conducting surveys to draw up their plans precious time would have been wasted and another generation would be lost.