Where the Streets Have No Name

Where the Streets Have No Name


After a certain time on mission, depending on the conditions of that mission, time can start to stand still: as the projects begin to run themselves better, the exhilaration of the more exciting and varied jobs in the world can begin to weigh upon the shoulders, and the energy of learning in a new country begins to turn to exhaustion.  Sindh itself further embodies the barren and hellish furnace, land of the forgotten villages in the desert.

These are hardships that have existed in Sindh for many thousands of years, and were also experienced by generations of young colonials seeking fortune and adventure in Indian service.   My education has usually given me cause to view colonialism in a negative light, but I start to see some advantages that it has over the modern aid world.  First, there is the permanence: a colonial officer on posting would stay for years in one place, seeing through season after season, supervising large engineering projects, the growth or permanent systems of administration, often going long periods without supervision and communication.  In modern aid, the connectivity of the internet and air transport means that missions are shorter, and that a field officer could live on his internet island in a field base.  Often the greatest progress we have made on projects has been when the internet is broken, when we are not trapped in the eternal cycle, not unique to aid, of proving that we are doing the job, rather than getting on with it.  The colonial diaries I have read, from 1850 to 1950, do not tend to reek of prejudice: they are products of their time, with some comments that will make the campaigners baulk – but they are works of devotion – of an enthusiastic and open-minded curiosity to understand a society in which the writer is completely immersed for more than a few years at a time, with very few ties to life at home.  Richard F Burton’s history of Sindh certainly does not read like a novel, but provides more detail than you will ever find in the writings of a modern aid worker – intriguing descriptions of the African slaves in Sindh, step-by-step instructions to a Sindhi wedding ceremony, pricing and comparisons of the different categories of prostitutes available.

Pakistan has a more intimate and perhaps more successful relationship with colonialism than Africa – Pakistanis still have a love affair with all things English (with the unfortunate exception of the military decisions of the UK government), if the frequency with which I receive lessons on cricket, grammar and tea-drinking is anything to go by.  There is an irresistibly charming twinkle that appears in the eyes of any new acquaintance when they are informed of my English heritage, a phenomenon I never encountered in East Africa.  I spent an evening philosophising under the stars with our Sindhi staff in an attempt to heal some divides rotted in Sindhi nationalism, which turned out to be a political sensitivity verging on paranoid, an irrepressible revolutionary spirit of those who regard themselves as Pakistan’s forgotten underdogs.  From this background, I was therefore surprised to hear a very cogent and balanced analysis of colonialism in the torchlight – our Sindhi activists even went so far as to thank me for the damns, bridges, and irrigation channels, that are the lifeblood of Sindh fifty years on (I had never understood what was meant by the brilliance of British engineering until I saw the scale of these systems in Sindh).  They were ambivalent about the legacy of government systems, conscious that 60 years of history does much to the evolution of functioning of failing governance.  And they were equally conscious of what they regarded as the direct responsibility of a universally unpopular, but seemingly unbreakable, feudal system that still has the vast rural population of Sindh in its grip.

Melting in Kandhkot’s open pools of festering sewage, I sadly found myself laughing at one of Burton’s more wild statements:  ‘the chief merit which Sindh in its present state possesses is its capacity for improvement’.  I was reading, 150 years on, the statement of someone who had seen so much potential and so little improvement in Sindh.

Then Sindh turned green.  It is a phenomenon that has to be seen to be believed: a spectacle of human organisation, hard work and capability, survivability, especially given the sheer number of fields that needed completely re-working after last year’s floods.  The change occurs when the irrigation channels are opened, some weeks before the monsoon: in a matter of weeks the land is flooded, and the brown deserts turn green as the rice paddies are planted.  The dry canals are full, and leaves suddenly flower from the dead wood lining their banks.  The dry brown expanses of land become hives of activity as the rice is planted, the temperature becomes bearable, and ay every corner children are diving into the nearest channel, completely at home in the water.  The optimism is infectious, our projects are running well: on a recent field trip to test an accusation of internal corruption, I found some energetic and motivated field engineers, and 100% completion of our shelters – in this case, thankfully, the corruption turned out to be simply bad paperwork.

Prior to this release, everyone had their own way of coping with Sindh’s war of attrition.  Khalid is our highly respected security officer – full of integrity, wisdom, and the complete inability of an academic to condense a conversation.  Far from being the hardened ex-military stereotype of security workers, Khalid is a Sindhi poet of some renown, passing his long journeys to tense negotiations writing odes to lost loves or romantic effusions on Sindh’s perfect landscape.  His recent portfolio includes the aforementioned case of the bungled stitch-up operation and ensuing incarcerations and tribal arguments; a plethora of gunpoint robberies in the field; the unfortunate death of a child at the hands of one of our drivers; and the persistent threats from those seeking or no longer in our employment.

His most recent case involves another of our creative local coordinators, who was kidnapped for a large ransom fee.  The kidnap set a ripple of fear in motion through the ranks of our field staff, and, as the situation evolved, it once again emerged that the situation was more complicated that it had first appeared.   After long investigations with police, family and friends, tribal heads, politicians and local characters with influence over the kidnap gangs, anomalies began to reveal themselves: friends and family who were suspiciously quiet, unexplained periods of absence, odd connections to the kidnappers, and the revelation that our esteemed humanitarian regularly turned up to work with a pistol.

As the deadlines for the ransom passed, and there was no word of an execution, and progress on negotiations began to stale, we had information from the Pakistani intelligence services, which left us in a certain moral dilemma, but led to the release of our erstwhile colleague.  It remains unclear as to the exact terms of his release were, and there is still no clear conclusion on the nature of the alleged kidnap.  However, it is as good a solution as we might expect – our staff seem content that we did our best in assisting with pursuing all channels to negotiate the release, and thankfully we have not been faced with a situation where money has been involved – were we to pay, of course, the kidnappers, very astute businessmen, would begin to target the humanitarian organisations in Northern Sindh – and, were he to have been executed, they all may have pulled out altogether.

As for Khalid, his romantic poetry has been his rock: he was for many months lovestruck by our elegant Portuguese expatriate from the Islamabad Office, who flew in on fleeting field visits.   So inspired, in fact, that he penned some words during these difficult times, a short poem, basically outlining that, once a man has shaken hands with his Portuguese Juliet , he would never wash them again.  The poem was a hit, it flew around the staff, and a public reading was demanded a few months later on her next trip to Kandhkot, to raucous applause, the good-humoured embarrassment of Khalid and his would-be muse, and the inspired addition of a new verse from another aspiring performer amongst our ranks, a moon-walking stand-up comedian.

My own greener grass was to be found on a short leave in Korea.  It proved to be the polar opposite to the dusty furnace of summertime Sindh, where the potential, far from Burton’s regretful tone, seemed to be real.  Free to move where I liked, and not dependent on others for food, transport, security, Korea seemed to be a land with a Midas touch, where everything had opportunity, potential, where hope and optimism seemed to pervade society. In Sindh, empty rural schools are commonplace, teachers who get a job through connections, and then cannot be bothered to teach.  In Korea, the young generation is everything – so much so that the pressures on the young are often too much for them – and with this in mind it is some relief to me to me that outdoor pursuits (and to a lesser extent international development) are rapidly taking a hold in Korea.

From Seoul, we took a trip through the immaculate linear patterns of Korea’s rice planting, in contrast to Sindh’s erratic and frantic arrangements, to stay in a hillside Buddhist temple overlooking the southern coastal deltas.  There, I could find no complaints that tea-drinking was a spiritual cornerstone of this particular interpretation of Korean Buddhism, and we spent many hours burning both ends of the philosophical candle over cups of home-made green teas.   These sessions of gentle discovery were accompanied by sunrise services and meditation sessions in the ornate wooden temple, and the painful, battle of a polite, scaffold-legged English man trying to match the easy serenity of this teacher.  The discipline of the Buddhist temple life, with its early morning services and long devotion to tolerance and character improvement impressed me – we went to cut wood in a secluded hut in the forest, where monks would stay, unvisited for months at a time, under a vow of silence.

The monks, the youngest of them having been a member of the monastery for five years after becoming disenchanted with his journalistic career, enjoyed the fast life.   Our devout friend came to us in the evening, seemingly desperate to get out of the monastery, and drove us to the coast to watch the sunset.  As a man who has experienced many varieties of driving all over the world, I am rarely shaken – but this monk wound down the windows, wound up the volume on his hip hop mix, and tore through the blindsides of the corners on the twisting road south, determined to make his table tennis competition in town.  However there was a nagging feeling – that, for all its sound philosophies of tolerance and peace, there is a selfish element to Buddhism – the emphasis on personal enlightenment and improvement, and the need to cut oneself off from society in order to achieve that.  Yet here was a man who seemed to some balance – truly appreciative of what his Buddhist life had done for him, and yet not cut off from the real world, from politics and emotions, from worries about the future and life outside the monastery.

I see many Pakistanis too wise to the world, despairing and tired at what they see as their society going backwards around them.  Korea on the other hand is a young society – standing on a hill overlooking Seoul, city of over 10 million people, and realising that most of the buildings in that vista, stretching as far as the eye could see had been constructed in the last 30 years – a powerful observation, when compared to Pakistan’s Moenjodaro or more modern examples (Zimbabwe) of the speed at which society can rise and fall.  The youth, and its associated naivety, has come with wealth – you will not see much naivety in Pakistan: Korea’s older generation have experienced some hardship, poverty, even war, and struggle to come to terms with the life the young have chosen in Korea.  Korea is also one of the most ethnically homogenous countries in the world: there is a refreshing innocence in that, a trust that has made Seoul a remarkable safe capital, where one can leave a laptop unattended in public, and walk the litter-free streets anywhere with no trepidation.

Dirty Food and Dirty Games

Dirty Food and Dirty Games


I am writing this update from a dirty restaurant on the periphery of Karachi airport – it does seem to be the lot of the perpetual traveller to spend much of his life in hot, sweaty and smelly establishments, encumbered by baggage and confined simply to wait for the next stage of the journey.  However, I have grown to like them:  First comes the presentation of a long menu, which is likely to be in an incomprehensible script with the odd typically ambitious tagline thrown in; ‘Asia’s finest; ‘The best food this side of Bollywood’; ‘Fastest Gun in the West’.  If the voyager is blessed with a long wait and an English menu, there is the inevitable fun of perusing the menu’s ropey English and chuckling smugly, ever hopeful of hitting the jackpot of menu errors with an inadvertently rude piece of toilet humour or accidental image: ‘Brown Sticks’; ‘Hot Bird’; or ‘English Bums’ in the more sophisticated establishments.  There then follows the careful selection of an item on the menu, long dispensed with by the wise traveller, to protect himself from inevitable disappointment, in favour of simply asking the waiter to tell him what is actually available.  Then, after some lukewarm water and a bowl of greasy rice, the world weary voyager gazes around himself with young eyes again.  There is a satisfied twinkle of acknowledgement with a bored young waiter, if luck has it, a stilted conversation in halting grunts and the shared humour of bungled communication.  Then, you reluctantly peel your trousers from the plastic chair, and say farewell to this battle-scarred corner of a foreign land that shall be forever yours – for the smell lingers in your clothes, a proud eau-de-kebab reminder to your fellow passengers that real men eat in dirty cafés.

The final part of the filthy restaurant contract is of course the inevitable complaining (not to the waiter of course, I’m English) and the romanticised exaggeration: I have a long list of dirty haunts that tickle the edges of my mouth as the filth and the faces return – Horse-cock in Mongolia; Maize with Maize sauce under the palm leaves in the Congolese jungle; salty tea at the trucking stops in Nepal; and, the most recent addition, the Islamabad restaurant known presumptuously as ‘The’ Afghan Restaurant, where a scarfed bandit, visible occasionally through clouds of black smoke, works his way through abattoir’s-worth of cow each evening, the diner on tenterhooks all evening about whether his gun will emerge from the barbecue, get slung across his shoulder, and he will ride off to answer the fighting call of his tribesmen in the mountains.  In this case, back in Karachi, I’m looking across the parking lot, the hot wind pummelling the palms as it beats a desperate path from Mumbai’s latest cyclone, to a shiny air conditioned Golden Arches: I’ll take my chances with the ‘—Po-t —–ru–nt’ thanks very much.

Pakistan has grown on me – she likes what I like about England, and is kinder with what she doesn’t – it’s hard not to get caught up in that.  I feel the mentality of Nehru and Gandhi’s elites before Partition – Pakistan has no need for English politics, military, governance, it is too independent, too free-spirited, too full of contrasts, but it has a love for English schooling, English history, English culture without the booze.  Despite the massive corruption and economic problems (and the some unfortunate military and intelligence legacies), Pakistanis still shares with India an expectation of their own government to provide services, however inadequately: cheap university, roads, schools, healthcare, and it has a relatively free press with which to share that voice.  I was heartened by a city-wide strike in Sukkur recently against the government electricity provider – not because of the power outages, bribery, and 90% of the population connect illegally in these parts, but because the people cared that the government was not living up to its promises – as with large parts of Africa, Pakistan will be in trouble if it ever loses that care.

A few of my staff are fine examples of what Pakistan, and Islam, can achieve – intelligent, dedicated, humorous and honest individual, with an integrity and discipline that is rare to meet in any country.  Abrar, who literally fell into aid in his home Kashmir after breaking his leg in the 2005 earthquake, is a fine example – of course, cricketing is a good metaphor for his character, for he is a high-performing all-rounder, with a tactical nouse and wisdom beyond his years to lead his teams – he has, I believe, captained the People Cricket Club team for many years, which is no small achievement.  Abrar is also a talented footballer, always in an England shirt, and he is very much a product of an older education – schooled in Shakespeare, Wordsworth and the King James Bible. The other day, clearly oblivious to any irony involved in teaching an Englishmen about the etiquette of tea consumption, he advised me that one does not ‘drink’ tea, but one ‘takes’ tea.  He is a devout Muslim, assuming there is no rule against water fighting, but more versed in the bible that myself, and deeply knowledgeable of the historic links between Christianity, Judaism and Islam, as well as the detailed histories of the intertwined evolution of the Abrahamic languages.  I have had many long philosophical and religious conversations with Abrar, not veiling my understandings as I have got used to doing in places where a lack of holy code is not easily accepted – he has a rare gift of being a truly open-minded and curious believer.  He has devoutly begun to school myself and my thumping ice-hockey playing Canadian colleague in the Koran, which has proved to be a very interesting read – for one, it has cleaned my conscience over the issue of illegal fornication with slave girls.

Abrar has also been acting as coach to the slugging arm of the aforementioned Canadian baseballer, and, in the continuation of my international sports career.  Taking a short break since my glorious heyday in the U14 D team, I relaunched with some impressive statistics: 1 over bowled, with 10 balls and 4 wickets.  Batting: 1st appearance, clean bowled first ball; 2nd appearance, clean bowled first ball; 3rd appearance, forward drive straight into the opposite wicket.  During my long spells on the sidelines where the spectators sit (deceivingly right in the middle of the pitch, spread between slip and mid-wicket), I undertook the challenge to explain how, at the age of 16, I had marched out on the hallowed turf at Lords during an England-Pakistan match wearing a leopard-skin. I am still searching for the courage to take a football to the cricket pitch and play 5-aside.

Like many, my family tree contains a section where entire generations travelled across the water for years in military or administrative service, in regiments with such colourful institutional and political histories as the Dogras or the Gurkhas.  It is a far more impressive undertaking than for the young aid worker today: a long sail; potential years without contact from home and far longer periods of isolation; and, without medical experience or acclimatisation, a far greater risk of dying from tropical diseases.  Then there is the heat of a Sindhi summer: completely all-consuming, without respite.  The very name Sindh exudes heat: Sizzling, Searing, the hellish firey punishment for those who have Sinned.  Recently topping out at 51°C, one gets accustomed to it, but never to the point of normality – you can never move, work or think at a normal pace, and the rare release to an air-conditioned room or a flight to cooler climes is as if being released from a prison of body and mind.  John Masters, in his brilliant descriptions of the pre-war Gurkhas in India, describes the dispiriting ‘Heatstroke Express’ train that bumbled across the desert from Karachi to Peshawar, still running today, and defines the ‘Sloth Belt’, the area of India and Pakistan crippled annually by the summer heat, where business grinds on as a secondary priority to finding shade, cold water and a horizontal state.

Our own slightly ill-conceived attempt to escape the sloth-belt, was a Sunday visit to Moenjodaro, one of the major cities of the Indus Valley civilisation, which led the world in agricultural and urban development over 4000 years ago.  Of course, one of Pakistan’s largest archaeological sites is entirely outside, and devotion to the lessons of our ancestors demands the inevitable sacrifice of an afternoon under the full mercy of the Sindhi sun.  It is nonetheless humbling to see the sophisticated urban designs of 4000 years ago, to stand on a mound where crowds of townsmen used to congregate for worship, and to follow to the horizon the thousands of irrigation channels, the veins and arteries of this arid agricultural heartland, and to imagine that people have probably been maintaining some of those channels in the same way from then until now.  Another unanswerable human conundrum is illustrated by Moenjodaro’s drainage systems – 4000 years ago, at the cutting edge of the world’s technological advances, the city was organised with a system of public water supply and underground drainage channels – not so far away, in modern day Kandhkot, the town reeks of sewage running down the street and pooling in the open spaces.

Rural Sindh is best described as forgotten.  It is a land of transit, where trucks and buses steam through to Karachi, where the games of power, politics and development are played out in three or four major towns.  In the rural heartlands, far below these lofty games, each village feels like an island – rising on a shallow mound from the dusty plains, always distant from its neighbours, and visible for miles, reliant on the rare ships that pass their way on the cracked roads.  The floods have destroyed these villages, increasingly frequent and increasingly catastrophic in recent years (in 2007, again in 2010, and likely again this year).  In most villages, even on the shallow mounds, the waterline sits high on the buildings, and only by looking at it, by looking at the fields that provide the only means of income, and that were left covered in 7 inches of clay, and by looking at the wells that provide the water of life in this hard environment, does one begin to realise the impact of the flood.  In almost all the villages, a large proportion of the community are living in twisted open-sided sculptures of contorted, weather-beaten branches and threadbare tarpaulins.  It is only upon noticing the hand pumps, drawing clean water from a high water-table under the river delta, that existence even seems possible.  Many of these water pumps were destroyed by the floods, old, unsealed, and contaminated with flood water.

The aid agencies have only recently started to notice Sindh – that is of course what brings me here, but it is the scale is incredible – Sindh has most of Pakistan’s 170 million people, 20 million of which are reported to have lost their homes in the flood. I dislike dealing in aid stereotypes, to paint pictures of places where people eke out a desperate survival, in need of the arrival of some being with a golden wand and a superior understanding of the facts of life.  But I can’t hide the overriding images that in these communities, that people are merely surviving, apparent slaves to the whims of nature and their political powerlessness. Even accepting the inadequacy of the industry statistics, our various interventions will cover a matter of tens of thousands, on a hopelessly temporary basis.

Sindh’s rural communities do not have the urgency and the raw desperation of refugee camps, their residents keep a hardened, determined, and resigned look about them. But, long documented in tribal Pakistan, there is also a ruthless and proud streak.  We are buffeted from all sides by small family feuds and tribal conflicts – I frequently have to grant leave granted so a member of staff can go home and sort out some sort of family feud, internal or external, ranging from kidnap to home takeovers to closing off access routes to villages.  In the communities, working with leaders for the organisation of labour, production of mud bricks, distributions of materials, is always fraught with internal power struggles.  It is a constant battle to keep politics away from work – recently, we employed a senior local coordinator, who has been involved in every dubious activity you can imagine, until finally, we heard he had ended up in jail with 3 other staff.  It turns out that the whole mess was an entirely engineered fabrication – he had wanted to set up another one of our team, so had arranged for a truck to drive away from the warehouse with our stock in it.  He was then to receive a ‘tip-off’, to follow the driver and accost him, and the driver was to conveniently identify the name of the guilty party.  However, our criminal mastermind followed the wrong lorry, despite being the one who had set it up.  What then ensued was an innocent and angry driver, and an ensuing fight with his defensive tribal community and the local police.

Eventually, the gentleman’s family paid a whopping 200,000 rupees (nearly £2000) to the police for his release, embarrassed by his exploits, whilst we spent a lot of energy negotiating the free release of the remaining, and equally guilty, accomplices from a police station that was essentially at the mercy of a tribal consortium.  Contract terminations and the inevitable death threats ensued – although, with the availability of guns and willingness of application all across Pakistan, the risk here is a more serious one than in central Congo.  Beneath all this, there is a strong undercurrent of Sindhi independence, and, with many the only sufficiently experienced staff in Pakistan coming in from the North (having learned their trade in the earthquake response), the historical hang-ups of Sindhis, as Pakistan’s forgotten and frustrated provincials, continued to threaten the tranquillity of our project operations.  Time and proper management are always the most important factor – I don’t believe there is politics that cannot be avoided by good planning and the growth and management of projects at the right pace – in this instant, unfortunately, we were papering the cracks as a young organisation bit off more than it could chew in a volatile area.  On a more positive note, we were finally seeing some good progress in quite a few of the projects, successful deliveries of agricultural inputs and some shelters beginning to go up at a fast pace, as well as the rewarding position, always a few months into a project, of finally seeing a leap in efficiency and staff capacity.  For this tired aid worker, incarcerated in Pakistan’s solar prison, it is those gentle advances in the heat of battle that enable the nerves to steel themselves against the next onslaught from the schoolyard.


Political Progressions

Political Progressions


The global media has always been an interesting phenomenon to me – that power which it has to focus everyone’s attention, to ignite and inflame people’s passions over, to ensure that all over the world, people have the same debates, jokes and observations to fill their moments of conversation.  This is not to say that those issues do not have importance, simply that it is disproportionate.  Nor does that disproportion make the issues discussed any less pertinent – it is of course their very presence in the media moves them up the agenda of the rich and powerful – that age old relationship between power and communication, a cycle of self-reinforcement through which these issues spring to our attention.

I am, of course, referring to the implications of Bin Laden’s death within Pakistan. In fact, if we ignore the sheer quantity of articles, which is what provides the imbalance, I have read some very good and balanced reporting.  In fact, and not because of my (media-induced) fervent post-wedding national pride, a lot of the best has come from the BBC, reports which listen and observe, which change their tune with changing fact, and which corroborate most with what I am seeing and hearing in country.

There do appear to be a few universals running through the story.  Most Pakistanis dislike Bin Laden, the majority of them are not extremist, and rallies in his support have been badly attended.  More universal is anti-Americanism – the activists and the extremists just plain hate America, whilst the liberals and the Anglophones simply lament America’s lack of wisdom, subtlety.  The Pakistanis and their media are very self-critical – they are the first to criticize their own military, and in fact, most Pakistanis do believe that the military and intelligence services were in some way involved in harboring Bin Laden.  Two of my staff are from Abbottabad and home on leave, and heard the operation going on – familiar with the military presence there, they strongly doubted that Bin Laden could have stayed there without some knowledge from within the army.  The plot thickens – but no-one is really surprised, and the hype has now calmed down.

Maybe the closer truth, that Obama will continue to struggle against, if he even wants to, is the old adage that war and disaster pays.  Pakistan is of course one of the biggest recipients of aid, and half of that is military – a Pakistani politician who didn’t like that would be a fool.  For Obama, there’s the Karachi oil route from Central Asia that needs to be kept open, and vast national defense institutions that need to be kept occupied.  But Pakistanis are proud, they don’t like the stranglehold – initially, most Pakistani’s refused to believe Bin Laden had died,  indication of the esteem in which they hold the word of powerful Americans: ‘habeas corpus’.

One friend back home posted the ‘Fuck Yeah’ clip from Team America on the internet – and it struck me that, as all good comedy is, this was the closest to the truth: the jingoistic street parties, the language of national defense, the heroism that has been attributed to the SEALs who took part in the raid, the continuing raids in the North. If we want to talk the language of the victors in this case, the greatest threat to American national security has never been Islamic extremists, it has always been America’s large walled embassies and proclamations of greater truths.  I still like Obama, the world needs tough liberals unafraid to tidy up old mistakes – but he would make America far more friends if he stopped the drone attacks in Waziristan and pulled out of Afghanistan.

From our perspective, we restricted expat movements for a few days, and activities carried on as normal in the field – northern Sindh is not renowned for its Islamic extremism, and most of the staff are too busy to care. Either way, it is usually the case that global media affairs are only ever manifested through pre-existing local political relationships.

So what of local politics? – NGOs and their money always comes with those who want a slice of the pie, and it is always a battle of wits to keep the right balance, and always the same in every country.  I will illustrate one example that we have been dealing with: when we started up in Northern Sindh, we recruited a local liaison officer, with UNOCHA experience and a degree of local clout – let’s call him Raza.  He turned out to be, frankly, a nasty piece of work – charming to a fault, but a nasty political operator behind the scenes, acting the puppet master to make staff complain about issues that were not there, and working with the District Coordination Office to get all the international NGOs thrown out of Sindh (which, it struck me, would be shooting himself in the foot).  Even since we managed to engineer his resignation, a slimy trail of stinking twists and turns follows Raza wherever he sets foot – as we began to investigate some community protests at one of our distributions, a staff member who appeared to be starting up a small brothel, and some internal discontent over staff accommodation issues, we uncovered text messages, meetings, emails that would always lead back down the trail.  In all cases of staff complaints, we would have conversations with the staff in question, find an easy solution for them, and discover that they were not that bothered about the complaint in the first place.

One particular bee in the Raza bonnet has been a local political one – that we accommodate outsiders in our guesthouses and not local Sindhis, that we don’t recruit enough Sindhis. It’s a hard one to handle – if we address the issues head on, and make an overt enemy of someone with such local influence, the consequences will be worse for us – this is the only real way that the hype surrounding Bin Laden could become a problem for us.  We have all the facts, all the arguments to back up our defense – we now have over 85% local staff, but if we go shouting it out, as the Americans are inclined to do, we will increase our profile, and thus the risk. That is of course, the reason successive UK governments get away with fighting American wars – although, as a wise friend pointed out to me, I’d still rather be in Pakistan than London.

To return to our own context, I’ve seen that the only way to fight this particular battle is with results – the other day, we were summoned to the District Coordination Office as part of this inquisition in international NGOs (not all DCOs are like this, they vary from district to district in all countries, if you remember how useful the Fort Liberté DCO was in Haiti).  We presented them with our old staff breakdown, and our new one, and he could see we had made real efforts with recruitment, that we did not have the capacity to accommodate local staff, and that we were getting work done in the field – political problem solved (well, temporarily), without facing it head on.  Similarly, in the field, we have problems with some villagers or villages not receiving help, or with badly planned distributions – in almost all cases, if we have community meetings first, to explain openly what we are doing and to listen to the community’s concerns, and if communities see the results arriving, there are never any problems.  If there were no results, and no communication, then I think we would create a security risk for ourselves, and people would be justified in calling us hypocrites.  Insecurity comes from broken promises – if we have communities unpaid for work or mud bricks, or unpaid suppliers, usually the risk is mitigated by a) apologizing profusely and b) making damn sure the payment happens.  I just don’t see an American President apologizing for anything more serious than a blow job.

And let’s be clear – I’m sure we’re still making a mess of a lot of things in the field – aid agencies are always too ambitious, suffer from too little time in which they have promised too much.  Quality does suffer, and it’s largely down to the competitive nature of funding from the donors, the likes of the good old UK and US governments – my recommendation to Messrs Obama and Cameron would be to make all donor funded projects a minimum of one year in length.  And let’s clarify one more point – of 180 staff, there are always one or two bad eggs.  The majority of are very honest, proud, hard-working and have a much wiser political intelligence Messrs Obama or Raza – I think, after years of battling the issue out in lecture halls, books and academic debates on aid, I was reminded in conversation with one of our senior monitoring staff (responsible for the assessments that define, in NGO speak, our most vulnerable beneficiaries), what the notion of impartiality actually means: it’s nothing to do with political impartiality, it is simply a question of an organization living up to the promises it makes, doing its job, and that is enough of a battle.

To finish where I started, one media report that nicely ties in this melee of international Americo-Islamic politics and humanitarian aid are the reports that came out about Greg Mortensen’s Central Asia Institute, of ‘Three Cups of Tea’ fame.  I have read a lot of aid books, but it is without a doubt one of the best – a story of real aid efficiency, quick results (and the ones that the communities asked for), and no overheads.  This sort of quality is the main reason I am so supportive of the Henry van Straubenzee Memorial Fund – there are many parallels, except that Uganda’s hot plains don’t write as nicely as hauling stones over rapids in the wild mountains of Pakistan’s frontier regions.  There the parallels stop, for Mortenson has been the unfortunate subject of another Pakistan-centred glut of media reports.

The accusations are manifold, supported by John Krakauer (whose accusations on the 1996 Everest disaster in his book ‘Into Thin Air’ were famously controversial) – that the charity has lost its way since it humble beginnings, and begun to lose and misspend its millions, that Mortenson fabricated some facts in his story.  Working in aid myself, I would say these are familiar accusations, familiar truths in some cases.  I hope that the money has been lost simply by a lack of financial procedures in the field in favour of getting the job done – I don’t know enough about the situation for that.  Mortenson was also shown holding a gun in his picture with his kidnappers, whom he had falsely said were Taliban.  In these contexts, you often never know which local political group you are meeting, or are fed false information. Secondly, I have held guns of local agitators in jest to ensure a smooth relationship.  And thirdly, kidnapping anyway ranges from anything from dinner with the kidnappers to torture and interrogation.  I haven’t read the passage in the book, but I sympathise with a man telling a story.  Finally, there is the premise on which the book sold so many copies, that Mortenson’s schools and diplomacy were doing more for American relations in the region than the entire efforts of the US military and government, to which there remains a considerable truth.

There may well be some of Mortenson’s schools lying unused, there may have been money wasted, he may well have exaggerated stories, but, I feel he is no worse than much of the aid world – a sad truth, but it is unfortunately the nature of the unempowered places in the world, that there will often be corruption, politics and jealousy eating at the fringes of good intentions, sometimes of course at their heart too.  I would at least like to be allowed the hope that Mortenson’s imperfect story is a good one, a real one, and there will always be those in whose interests it remains to encourage disbelief in a good story.

Robes and Realities

Robes and Realities


When I live and work in a new country, I am each time surprised by the distance between the standard perceptions and knowledge of a country and the reality on the ground.  With Pakistan I feel this difference has been abnormally high – even taking into account my ignorance before arriving here, a country of 170 million people living in all landscapes from river delta to mountain, desert to forest, hamlet to metropolis, cannot fail to surprise. Especially when, as usual, the stories we see coming out of Pakistan stick to a standard trend: Taliban, corruption, political assassination, coupled with the odd story about the cricket or the beauty of the mountains.

I have always found flying a humbling experience, and I have been doing a lot of it over the last few weeks – it gives an idea of scale, of sheer numbers of humanity below, that, even with the biggest influence, you will never touch.  It throws you in amongst other journeymen, representatives of their homeland, whose mannerisms and dress remain mysterious in the sterilised world of international air travel, yet impossible to conceal.  The first attack to my media-tuned senses came when I saw a large group of hardened tribal heads from the Northern Areas all kindly helping their elderly wives up the stairs, bending over backwards to carry their bags and ensure they had a seat. The second came when I inadvertently caught a cheeky wink from a flirtatious Pakistani girl in a headscarf, having it written in my mental planning for Pakistan that this was a definite no, when the father interrupted with a smile and a joke on the matter.

From the air, almost the entirety of Sindh, Punjab and Baluchistan is simply a mass of pan-flat land as far as the eye can see, patchworked by fields and settlements.  There is an impression of a sort of long historic order to the madness, of the sort that I never saw in Congo – despite today’s poverty, the roads, settlements and fields in Pakistan give the appearance of meticulous planning, a hint that the Indus delta was one of the cradles of agricultural civilisation.  Viewed from the sky or the marketplace, Pakistan’s poverty is more organised than that of Africa, it seems to sit under the weight of hundreds of years of different bureaucratic systems, where a well organised rural feudalism thrives and functions (And here, of course, the government functions to a much greater extent, and people have expectations of the government to provide certain essentials).  From the air the flood damage is still evident, swathes of salty plains and beige fields where silty deposits have destroyed the year’s productivity, breaking the fine balance of feudal functionality.  Often it seems survival has been down to the quality of the landlord – those who have tightened their belt and pulled strings to fight for their workers, or those who, as exist in any organisation, fail to recognise that decent treatment also equals better productivity.

One of my initial impressions of Pakistan is that it is one of the world’s truly diverse nations – to take only Sindh – there are Baluchi nomads who travel by horse and camel peddling their wares; there are poor Sindhi peasant farmers with their small patches of land and kitchen gardens; there are large swathes of industrial agriculture; and of course the rainbow truckers who toot through day and night (our office is a few hundred metres from the main north-south highway).  Some of my staff are experienced Karachi businessmen from the likes of Price Waterhouse Coopers, others are villagers who have worked hard through a barely existent rural school system to gain posts as our Community Mobilisers.  We had been warned early on about Baluchi bandits, kidnapping and ransoming travellers.  In fact, it turns out that the kidnapping is far more established – there are fixed prices for different levels of businessmen, specified targets and standard exclusivities – as a humanitarian organisation targeting the most vulnerable, we have been informed that we are theoretically off the hook, and straight from the horse’s mouth as it were, since one of our suppliers has just been released after his family had to pay off his substantial ransom.   The anniversary of former president Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s assassination (father of Benazir, also assassinated) is a huge event in the Bhutto homeland of Northern Sindh – on 4th April we couldn’t even get near the local airport for all the ministerial cars, well-filled waistcoats and flower petals.  As if to ram home the point, on the road on the way home, we passed a long stream of 70 militia on motorbikes, all with headscarves and flowing shalwar kameezes and AK47s strapped across their shoulders.

After taking a brief look at Pakistan’s inequalities, what of its equalities? The first must be the shalwar khameez – kidnapper and kidnapped, rich and poor alike, basically everyone wears this outfit, perhaps a rallying call for lost socialism – and the loose fitting trousers and long shirt will always look cool billowing in the wind on the back of dusty motorcycle.  The second of Pakistan’s inherent equalities is, of course, cricket.  The rich have the resources, the good schools to learn and be coached properly, the poor have the time and the hope.  Cricket happens everywhere, on every patch of land, at every time of day and night.  I was privileged to watch the India-Pakistan World Cup semi-final on a small black and white TV with the national staff – despite the barely concealable passion for one of the deepest international rivalries, there was much gentlemanly clapping for fine moments of Indian play, and a diminution of volume and cheering during prayer time.  The papers the next day were full of reserved praise for fine Indian batsmanship, and vitriolic condemnation of an inadequate Pakistani performance.

So, apart from watching cricket and craving a cold pint, what are we actually doing here?  For the official spiel: ‘An integrated approach to post-flood reconstruction’.  To best explain the situation, best to describe some of the camps that still exist after the floods of nearly a year ago, and life in the villages it not far different from the camps – there are still many millions of people without permanent shelters or a good food supply.  In winter, the camps are too cold, in summer, too hot  (it has already hit 37 here, and plenty of sandstorms have already blown through), and in monsoon, two wet – leaving about 3 weeks of the year where they might make a half-pleasant living environment.  Many of the crops and farmland were destroyed and rendered unusable by the floods.   With about £10m of projects from a few different donors, we will directly target a total of about 7000 households, or 35,000 ‘beneficiaries’.  This involves providing flood-resistant shelters, key household items, various types of seeds and training,  water pumps and latrines to those identified by extensive surveying as the ‘most vulnerable’ (women-led households, elderly, those without land etc etc).  It is a massive undertaking, with a few hundred staff and, for example, one third of the UK government’s entire humanitarian budget for Pakistan – but, even then, as ever, it will be a drop in the ocean for Sindh’s flood affected.  From a personal perspective, it’s a very different job – a coordination role, so less time for playing around on building sites or tinkering in the logistics department.   I’m glad to be in the field – Islamabad is an odd world, where one basically lives a European life, a colonial one in fact, with thriving organisation like the British Club and Marriott Hotel, nestled in an artificial city and comfortable climate between the mountains and the lively bustle of Rawalpindi.

And what of those Pakistani stereotypes – the terrorism, the treatment of women, the hatred of the West? I have the same response that I have seen in every country – the closest truth will always be found inside the nation’s borders, not in the newspapers of another nation.  There is a very different attitude to the behaviour of women, that, again, is so much written about that I will add nothing new, there is a large presence of Islam (both less extreme in Sindh than in the North, but all the same pervasive).  There is simply a real life – my Pakistani colleagues do not thrust religion upon me – Whether or not high-level Pakistani politics is taking a serious turn for the worse, 99% of our days are spent on the job or having normal conversations, bearing in mind certain obvious sensitivities, but not wrapped up in the problems theorised by English newspapers.  We had a field visit from a very experienced consultant contracted to assess our work, and, despite his many years in volatile nations, the UK government rules stipulated that he had to be accompanied by an armed convoy.  He was very unhappy with the ruling, completely unnecessary in rural Sindh, but stuck with it, and we both noted that our journey round Sindh with an armed convoy was probably the most damaging contribution to our local acceptance so far:  build a fence, and people will try to build one higher.