The Unquiet: Challenging Inequality in Pakistan

They were brought up to be quiet. But they insist upon raising their voice. At a gathering in Lahore of women grassroots activists from different parts of rural and small town Pakistan, they meet to discuss what they have been doing to challenge the worst inequalities and hold government to account in their communities. To learn from each other they take it in turns to share their stories.

“I am a school teacher, and my school didn’t have a boundary wall, or a toilet. So I met with the local government official and said that it needed to be fixed. He said there were no funds. I said that I would find that out using the Right to Information Act. He organised for the wall and the toilet.”

“When a man murdered some young girls the police did nothing to arrest him. So I went to see the police to complain. The murderer’s family went to visit my brother to put pressure on me to stop pushing. But my brother supported me. I stood firm. Then six days later the police arrested the killer.”

“I organised for the women in my village to get ID cards – we could not get them because our marriages were not being recognised as Hindus. It can be difficult to be a Hindu, even harder to be low caste Hindu. We are called untouchable. But I don’t care what they say. I am not afraid.”

“That’s right. If the authorities think we are weak and innocent they ignore us. But if they see that we know our rights, that we are strong, then they act.”

“In my village there is a piece of land on which some very poor families have been farming for many years. But the government wanted to sell the land from under them. We organised a protest and the local media came. The families were weeping. I went inside to meet the official and urged him to stop the land sale. He asked why. I told him he was a public servant and his salary was paid for by these families’ taxes. He laughed and said they pay no taxes, they are too poor. I said every time they buy something they are paying taxes. Even when they buy a match box they must pay tax on it. He told me that even if he wanted to stop the sale he could not. But I knew the rules and I told him he could postpone the sale and write to the higher ups recommending that the families be allowed to stay. We went outside together and he announced to the media that the sale had been postponed. The families still live on that land.”

So much is being written about what is wrong in Pakistan. And much more could be written. From feudal land ownership, to underinvestment in health and education, to tax dodging by the rich, to endemic violence against women. And now a war. But that is not the only story.

“These small-small things we are changing,” explains one of the women. They are an unlikely grouping: they speak different languages, have different religions, come from different backgrounds. “You see this lady,” says one of her friend as she holds her hand, “she is a landlord’s daughter, not like the rest of us who are poor, but she is one of us now.” Her friend smiles: “And we are getting stronger, because we have learnt. And because we have each other.”

The great 18th century British anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce was once asked why he kept on fighting for what seemed to so many to be an unwinnable cause. “We are too young to realize that certain things are impossible,” he replied, “so we will do them anyway.”

Because I am their neighbour. A day at the Kingston Food Bank.

In Kingston, South-West London, amongst leafy streets and upmarket cafes, a group of volunteers meets in a church to welcome locals who have been referred by government or by other charities for food aid.

One man who has been referred for assitance used to be a night guard but is now recovering from 6 months of treatment for throat cancer that left him with only 60% of his tongue, and so is struggling to find work. “And before you ask, I never smoked. Not once. It’s hereditary.” He wants to make sure that I do not blame him for his cancer. “My Dad’s been treated for cancer too,” I share. His response floors me: “Well, to you and your father let me say this: Positive Mental Thinking, Positive Mental Thinking. It will be OK.” And I realise that he is counselling me. A volunteer brings tea. “Thank you so much,” he says to the volunteer, “that’s wonderful.” We run through a list of items he is entitled to. “Spaghetti?” “Yes please.” “Coffee/Tea?” “Can I choose? In which case, coffee.”  “What’s your favourite food?”, I ask. “Chinese. I’m just a couple of weeks out of treatment now but I’ve got the all clear and I’m gonna get a job. And then I’m gonna buy a Chinese takeaway meal. Positive Mental Thinking.”

Another man tells me of his gratitude to the Job Centre official who got a mistake corrected and a three month deduction cancelled. He’s looking forward to tomorrow’s football competition he is taking his son to. “It’s expensive,.£3, but another parent will drive us. People are very kind.”

I ask the volunteers what kind of people are referred in. “Oh, we’ve had people who are in work but don’t earn enough, we’ve had people who’ve been ill, people who have had a mistake made on their benefits, we had someone who had been well-to-do but lost his job, we get quite a few ex-soldiers, too, they find it hard.”

Is it tough volunteering here, I ask? “Yeah, it can be, when the people are crying. One man howled, I’d never heard a man howl before. He was at rock bottom. I stayed with him for two hours. It’s about more than the food. It’s about listening. Showing people that they matter. We have to help wherever there is need. That’s what we are commissioned for.” The confused look on my face shows at her use of the word commissioning. For these are volunteers, not contractors. “I mean our great commission.” She is talking of a higher authority than government.

The church partners with the local mosque and donations are pooled. People of all faiths and none serve together.

“How long would you be able to last without any job?” one volunteer asks me. I think about it. “Wow. One month. I’d only last one month.” “Yeah, that’s it, you see, it could be you.” If it is ever me, I will want to go see the volunteers of the Kingston Food Bank. Not just for the food. But because they will not judge, just help. Because I am their neighbour.

 

 

Environmentally friendly oil rigs? Well yes, Norway, but….

oil rig

Photo: Dave Taylor/www.oilrig-photos.com

We are big fans of Norway here at GD. And look – in a bid to make oil production more environmentally friendly, the Norwegian parliament is hoping to force offshore oil rigs to use electrical power rather than burn gas or diesel.  Hurrah, obviously –  what’s not to love about the Scandinaviafication of oil production.

The Norwegians aren’t alone either.  Environmentally friendly drilling (by oil workers in shiny lipstick, obviously), is a thing, it seems…

So yay and double yay.  Let’s make oil production all green and cuddly and maybe we can stop worrying about those millions of barrels that are rolling up out of the sea every day and burning…oh wait a minute….

Data revolution, meet deforestation

You will need: Some satellites. Google Maps. Trees. People. Some money.

Method:

  • Grab satellite data on forest cover.
  • Make it super hi-resolution - all the way down to 30 square metres.
  • Overlay it onto Google Maps.
  • Update it every ten (ten!) days.
  • Mash it up with boundaries of national parks and logging concessions, so that illegal logging shows up immediately.
  • Enable automatic area alerts.
  • Proactively offer funding for access to legal redress to local groups via the Access Initiative.
  • Stir well.

Your Global Forest Watch is now ready. Nice going, World Resources Institute.

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No SDGs for you, North Korea! (updated)

Gird your loins: the zero draft of the UN Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals is out! While most post-2015ers will have raced ahead to see what Goals are included, they’ll have overlooked a small but significant detail in the preamble. As you’d expect in a document of this nature, the usual genuflections to countries in special circumstances are naturally observed:

We recognize that each country faces specific challenges to achieve sustainable development, and we underscore the special challenges facing the most vulnerable countries and, in particular, African countries, least developed countries, landlocked developing countries and small island developing States …

But there are also a couple of additions to the usual list, lest anyone feel left out:

…as well as the specific challenges facing the middle-income countries. Countries in situations of conflict also need special attention.

Now, you might think that this diverse array of country categories must cover just about every developing country on Earth. But you’d be wrong. For as the proper development nerds among you will immediately have realised, there is a small number of developing countries that are neither least developed (according to the UNCTAD definition), nor middle income (according to the World Bank list) - Kenya, DPRK, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe, to be specific.

In practice, Kenya, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe are covered elsewhere on the list, given that African countries warrant a special mention of their own. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan? Both landlocked - so they’re included too. Which means that, uniquely among the diverse array of the world’s developing countries, only North Korea fails to warrant inclusion in a category for special attention under the SDGs. Oops. Someone call Dennis Rodman!

Update: Peter Chowla writes in to point out that all is not lost for DPRK’s SDG coverage, as it is “most definitely a country in a conflict situation”: for one thing it never signed a formal peace treaty with the US after the Korean War, and for another thing it declared war on South Korea last year. So there we are: panic over!

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