x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Billionaire philanthropist to fill humanitarian vacuum in Pakistan

The plight of millions of Pakistanis left homeless by monsoon floods is about to be compounded by the departure of relief agencies following a spate of kidnappings. Meet the man who is moving to fill the void.

The old Gaadiwala village in the Muzaffargarh district of Pakistan's Punjab province. Many mud houses of the district were destroyed in the floods.
The old Gaadiwala village in the Muzaffargarh district of Pakistan's Punjab province. Many mud houses of the district were destroyed in the floods.

The number of Pakistanis left homeless and without means of making a living following the devastating monsoon floods of 2010 and 2011 is, quite simply, staggering.

According to the international charity Save the Children, there are 2.5 million such people just in the southern province of Sindh.

But that number only accounts for people still living in camps, mostly on the eastern bank of the Indus River, which was flooded in 2011 (the 2010 floods deluged west-bank areas of Sindh).

The international response to the floods was remarkable and certainly helped prevent many deaths from disease and starvation among the estimated 21 million people who were displaced by the floods during the 2010 deluge, which swept the length of Pakistan.

But the camps that served as their temporary homes were wound up within six months, leaving millions of men, women and children with nowhere to go.

The plight of these people is aggravated by the feudal structure of the area's agricultural economy, where all farmland is owned by a handful of landlord-politicians. For instance, in the case of the homeless residents of the three villages of Jhahurd, Kalandar Imam Shah and Malkan, in Muzaffargarh, the landlord is Hina Rabbani Khar, Pakistan's foreign minister and a renowned fashionista.

Their situation was not merely one of homelessness. Most of the 3,000 acres of riverbank land - technically, the government's - they had lived on and farmed has been rendered barren by soil salinity, caused by the inundation of the area's aquifers by stagnant flood water.

Before the floods, farmers would harvest enough wheat to feed a family for a year and would sell on any surplus crop. Their diets were supplemented by the rearing of a couple of goats, which provided milk for the family, and kids to fatten for sale ahead of the annual Eid al-Adha festival.

Relocated by the authorities for their own safety, and only able to farm a fraction of the land they used to, these farmers are now only able to grow small quantities of wheat.

"We were very poor before but we're much poorer now," said Muslim Khan.

Understandably, most people have spent the money given to them by the government on food and medical treatment rather than on building homes.

Nevertheless, Khan considers himself very fortunate for having won, in a raffle, one of the 100 homes in the Rakhdile model village built by the Punjab provincial government.

The per-unit cost of construction put Ms Khar's fashionista image into Pakistan's social context: the Hermès Birkin handbags she carries retail for around Dh70,000, or enough to build homes for two families of six.

The neat little development of two-room homes, replete with urban utilities, and a functioning school and health clinic, was only completed in January, and inaugurated with fanfare by the Punjab chief minister, Shahbaz Sharif.

That pretty picture was scarred, however, by dozens of reed huts outside its walls, where those families who didn't win the raffle have now set up home.

They were anxiously awaiting the distribution of 5,000 bricks to each family, by Acted, the French relief agency, so they could replace the huts with a couple of rooms - although there won't be any matching civic amenities such as running water, human waste disposal or electricity.

Even the lucky raffle winners fret that they've been housed in a desert of opportunity.

The planners of the model village have included kitchens and bathrooms in each home. To their impoverished owners these are mod cons. But these same planners failed to make any provision for the livestock that are at the heart of their economic reality.

"These houses can either accommodate us or the livestock," said Mohammed Saqlain, who makes daily 5km treks to the riverbank where the villagers must now leave their small flocks untended overnight. The future of the community is as uncertain as that of its new school. Built by the government, it is operated by Al-Asr, a local charity, with funding by USAID. Its principal, Zaigham Abbas, is proud of the dozens of enthusiastic children who, in the main, have been enrolled for the first time.

Their uniforms are practically the only clothes they have and, like their textbooks, are one-off donations by the provincial government. They even have access to a computer room, albeit without an internet connection. But that valuable new social infrastructure could easily fall into disuse if international charities pull out from the flood-hit areas of Pakistan.

"If the international NGOs leave, it would cause a lot of damage to the recovery efforts," said Abbas, and following a recent spate of aid worker kidnappings by the Taliban and Al Qaeda, they are doing just that.

Relief agency managers based in central Pakistan said they were accelerating plans to delegate existing programmes to local charities, but these initiatives won't be forthcoming because security concerns mean that donors can no longer travel to the flood areas to assess proposals.

Save the Children USA, for example, has been forced to cancel a new child protection programme, and has closed its office in Multan.

Relief agency managers said the situation in Pakistan's flood-hit areas is now delicately poised.

Deprivation is causing a breakdown of social structures, with men turning to banditry and women and children forced into cheap labour or worse still, prostitution.

Mohammed Yasin, a retired Pakistani army general turned relief agency manager, said the emerging situation reminded him of the desperation he had seen during the 1971 war with India, which led to the secession of modern-day Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) from Pakistan.

"From this experience, I've realised that, unless government land is distributed to the poor, these people will never have an economic future," he said.

He has personally overseen the construction of the first of a series of model villages financed by Malik Riaz Hussain, chairman of Bahria Town, Pakistan's leading developer.

Hussain made global headlines in August 2010 when he wrote to wealthy compatriots, challenging them to respond to his pledge to donate 75 per cent of his personal fortune, estimated at several billion dollars, by each contributing about Dh2m.

Not one replied, he said, but the hubbub about his offer made him all the more determined to put his money where his mouth is.

The Gaadiwala model village in Muzaffargarh, which comprises 143 built houses and 180 plots, is the first of 12 that Hussain has ordered, in preparation for a philanthropic venture of grand proportions. "The first dozen villages will provide invaluable trial-and-error experience for the 200 to 300 villages we will ultimately construct," he said. That adds up to free housing for about 500,000 people.

Hussain knows from his charity work after a massive earthquake in October 2005 that killed about 75,000 Pakistanis that it won't be enough just to house people.

Instead of just building houses, he plans to train and employ people to build their own homes according to Bahria Town designs, and lend them the money, interest-free, with which to do it.

Within two years, each person would own a home in a housing community with the same amenities as villages in the West, and have obtained a vocational skill valued by the country's short-staffed construction industry.

Hussain said he is seeking to inspire the government and other philanthropists to follow suit, and dreads the consequences of deepening poverty in Pakistan - something he experienced as a young adult after the death of his father.

"There was a time when I was so poor that I couldn't afford medical treatment for my sick child," he said.

The fast-growing population, now estimated at 180 million, has little in the way of employment opportunities, and is increasingly resentful of the wealthy, he said.

"If we, the wealthy, don't give money to the poor now, they'll soon be at the gates of our homes to kill us and take what they want."

Tom Hussain is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist.