Killing the Collective Spirit in Pakistan

Some days are more difficult than others for me here in Pakistan. As an expat I have a perspective on the sometimes unbelievable level of malaise here that most who live here day in and day out cannot share. They don’t understand me when I tear out my hair with frustration at the overwhelming mountain of stupidity that goes on every single day. But some days that frustration gets so deeply under my skin that it feels like it is alive.

Today I read a great article in the newspaper which said: “Years of neglect, corruption, misuse of government funds, systemic degradation, no governance, breakdown of institutions, lack of capacity to and no accountability have eroded our values and killed the collective spirit required to be a nation.“

The result of this “killing of the collective spirit” is an unprecedented level of resignation and hopelessness. The people have such enormous problems in their lives that they simply don’t care about the little things like stopping at traffic lights, obeying laws and a basic level of consideration for their fellow man. They don’t have enough food to feed their families, there is no work, they can’t afford basic levels of health and hygiene. Child labour is growing exponentially as food becomes too expensive for the average family to afford. Slavery is widespread. Women are treated as no better than animals in many areas and are regularly murdered for honour. Building laws are so rubbery and approval is so dependent on how much bribe is offered that large buildings regularly collapse and kill many innocent people. Raw sewerage flows in the streets where children play and rubbish piles up everywhere.

Millions, no billions of dollars has been poured into aid, education and health from all over the world but there is still NOTHING to show for it. After the massive and unprecedented leveI of aid donated after the 2005 earthquakes, I was reading today that thousands of children are still going to school in tents in those areas. I visited that area and was astounded to see whole hillsides of people still living in the tiny pre-fabricated temporary sheds that were donated to them by the Saudi government after the earthquake – three years later!

I recently read a news story where the ex-education minister was called to account for the fact that more than 10billion rupees had been allocated for spending on establishing higher education facilities over several years – but absolutely nothing had been built. It brought tears to my eyes, but mention it to a Pakistani and they will simply shrug and say “That’s what happens in Pakistan. What can we do?”. Likewise, in Musharraf’s time, the entire economy was utterly depleted (much of it into his own personal fortune) but still people shrug their shoulders.

In Pakistan we receive the lowest quality of goods from China, yet premium prices are charged and fraud is rampant.  The milk that the “dudh wallas” (milk men) bring to our gate each morning only contains enough milk to turn the watery mixture white and yet they still charge a premium for it. They call it here “do number”, “do” being two in Urdu, so in other words, “Second quality”. There is a complete resignation to the fact that everything  here is “do number”, from the toothpaste to the flour. “What can we do?” my mother-in-law says when the brand new pressure cooker she paid a premium for just last week warps out of shape and explodes in our kitchen due to a fault in the metal lid.

In my frequent moments of frustration I call Pakistan the land of Do Number and Shortcuts.

One of the largest causes of death here in winter is gas explosions in people’s houses, caused by the gas pressure lowering so much that the flame of the gas heaters goes out yet the gas continues escaping into the room. Any spark from electrical equipment quickly creates a massive explosion that kills thousands every year. We read about it daily in the newspapers, and we know that it is caused by the pathetic level of service provided by the gas company, but “what can we do?”

My family has just returned from a couple of days away in the mountains and I was despairing with my husband about the outrageous levels of erosion going on thanks to the complete deforestation of every tree standing. He was telling me about the hugely inflated price of wood recently and how people sneak out at night and fell all the trees they can find to sell on the black market.  As a result whole hillsides are falling down in heavy rain, including the houses and livelihood of thousands of people. But “What can we do?”

I daily bemoan the fact that my kids, who go to a fairly expensive private school, have to carry their entire collection of school books to and from school each day, weighing well over 10kg. When I complained to the headmistress she told me that if they leave the books at school the cleaners will steal them and sell them for extra cash. Can you imagine how difficult it is to build a locking cupboard? But “What can we do?”

For a full year here we suffered through the most agonizing electricity “load shedding”. Where we live it meant two hours of power and then one hour without power all day and all night every day with 8 hours in total. Not only that, but the price of electricity doubled in that year. In the 50 degree summer heat it was unbearable for my kids and I because our airconditioner was off so frequently that our room heated to beyond our ability to stay in here. But for millions of others it was far far worse. The poor people living in small houses could not even afford electricity. The millions of shops all over Pakistan who rely on power for light and other basic functions could not operate for at least 8 hours a day. The whole Software Technology Park in Islamabad on whom the Pakistan economy is placing so much hope, was without power and internet connection for half of the working day. In some places they had no power for 18 hours a day. Daily we would hear about the terrible shortfall of electricity due to the previous government’s mismanagement. And if you thought that was frustrating, get this. One weekend the President announced that they had “reorganised” the electricity system and loadshedding would finish. None of us believed it, but the next day and every day thereafter, there was no more loadshedding. We had suffered through 6 months of temperatures over 40 degrees with loadshedding, and then overnight by some magic it was over. Can you imagine that happening in Australia, in America, in Europe where people actually have a say? Only in Pakistan where nobody cares about the people could such a thing happen.

I think of Pakistan as like a land of orphans. A parent provides security and warmth so that the child will be protected and taken care of no matter what. Likewise in a country, the government should provide that security. But not so in Pakistan.

When Musharraf was in power, he sacked the entire judiciary of the country and jailed many of them, many say because they were on a mission to expose the corruption that is rampant amongst the wealthy elite of the country. They still have not been reinstated two years later, even though we have had a democracy operating here for nearly a year, but in its place is a government-appointed puppet judicial system which is well known to be as corrupt as the government it serves. On top of that the Pakistan Army who ran the country for many years are well known to be deeply corrupt and serving the whims of the US. So there is no parent-like security at a government level. There is no parent-like security at an army level. There is no parent-like security at a judicial level. There is no justice and there is no sense that the people are being taken care of. Hence the whole country has become “every man for himself” and every day is like a war. The people have become totally absorbed in their own survival and so selfishness is spreading like a contagious disease. Everyone says “He doesn’t do it, so why should I?” as the whole country falls apart.

Having a sense of security builds you up. It builds ambition and it builds a sense of hope. Here there is the most profound sense of helplessness in every person you meet, and it has eroded hope and ambition almost completely due to the complete lack of support felt by the people.

It is almost impossible to understand how this feels while you sit in Australia knowing that the government is there for you, the court will take care of you, your family will protect you, and if all else fails you will have Centrelink to pay you enough money to live. How can you understand that the basic Australian value of “work hard and be rewarded” simply does not exist here. Those who pay more and know more rich and influential people get ahead, and everyone else is left far behind. It does not matter how hard you work. This does not provide much incentive to work hard.

Foreigners like me come to Pakistan and we shout and rage and tear our hair out at the apparent selfishness and lack of basic consideration shown by these people. We cry at the lack of care people show at simple things like being on time, or doing what you say you will do. We scream about child labour and women being sent out to work. We despair at the level of corruption whereby we have to bribe the policeman not to give us a speeding ticket. We watch the news and extol the evils of terrorism without any basic understanding of the society in which it breeds.

Like all orphans, the people of Pakistan need a strong guiding hand to support and teach them right from wrong through their own example, whilst being there to unconditionally love and support them. But with the kind of parenting the government is providing Pakistan, is it any wonder that the children are growing up as juvenile delinquents?

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