Interview

"There is a relationship between food insecurity and militancy in Pakistan"

Dr. Abid Suleri is a Pakistani social policy analyst and development practitioner. He is a prolific writer and regularly contributes articles for various national and international newspapers. He is a strong supporter of social justice and warns that militancy and violence cannot be tackled without addressing individual insecurities such as food insecurity, poverty, and marginalization. He specialized in food security and obtained his PhD in this subject from University of Greenwich, UK.

The SDPI was founded in August 1992 on the recommendation of the Pakistan National Conservation Strategy (NCS). The SDPI’s approach is to produce knowledge, which can enhance the capacity of government to make informed policy decisions and to engage civil society on issues of public interest. The Institute acts as both a generator of original research on sustainable development issues and as an information resource for concerned individuals and institutions. SDPI’s function is thus two-fold: an advisory role fulfilled through research, policy advice and advocacy; and an enabling role realised through providing other individuals and organizations with resource materials and training.

Image: Stephan Röhl. License: Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0. Original: Flickr.

January 10, 2011
By Anna Achleitner

How can you relate the findings in your study in 2009 to the current situation?

SDPI and two partner organizations did a ranking of the 131 districts of Pakistan based on food insecurity. We had already done this back in 2003, 2009 was already the second time. Our indicators were the physical availability of food, social economic access to food and food absorption/utilization. According to our study 48.6% of the population was food insecure in Pakistan at that time, that is about 80 million people. Furthermore, we found out that 61 districts in Pakistan are food insecure. Looking one step further to the regional disparities, we discovered that for example in Baluchistan there are 26 districts out of 29 extremely food insecure. Similarly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and in Fata, were this active war against terrorism is going on. So, looking at the trends, we found out that there is some sort of relationship between food insecurity and militancy. Of course there are many reasons for militancy, but food insecurity seems to be one of the important ones, because all districts which seem to be most food insecure right now, they are also the most militancy hit districts. For example in Punjab and Sindh, which are quite peaceful usually, those districts which are most food insecure are hit by militancy.

So what happened after the floods? Interestingly, the most food insecure and militancy hit districts turned to be the worst flood affected districts. So those districts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Baluchistan, Punjab and Sindh, which according to our study were food insecure, happened to be most destroyed by the floods. So again there seems to be a link - people who are poor, hit by militancy and marginalized are losing their resilience and their capability to cope with internal or external shocks. So when the floods came, they were not prepared, they didn’t have resilience to deal with floods, therefore they got affected most. We guess 60% of the whole population are experiencing various levels of food insecurity right now. During the floods standing crops were destroyed, live stocks were killed, people lost their homes, their earning opportunities, and infrastructure was damaged which caused limited physical availability of food, plus the health of the people is being negatively affected. Thinking back to the earlier hypothesis, where we were saying that food insecurity is one of the reasons for militancy, we can assume that due to the growing food insecurity after the floods, Pakistan will face another wave of social crime and militancy.

How do you think Pakistan will overcome this food insecurity caused by the flood? Will there be long term consequences?

There are short term, midterm and long term challenges. The government and the international community need to take urgent action on all three levels. On a short term basis, to overcome the supply side constraint, the government of Pakistan should open up trade with India, so that at least the most important commodities can be imported from India for a cheaper price and relatively quickly. Once the food is available on the market in Pakistan, the next step would be to lower prices, because currently the price level is at peak because there are simply not enough food commodities available. Second, the government has to take some immediate action on the export of animals. Even as there is not enough meat in the country now, there is still no ban on the export of live animals from Baluchistan to the Middle East and other countries. I think that has to be done on a priority basis to lower the meat prices.

In the medium term, we need to have agricultural reorganizing to see what can be grown where, because after the flood, the soil structure and the soil composition has changed. We need to do some kind of soil analysis and find out what should be grown where and what other fertilizers are required now after the floods. And in the long term, we need to grow varieties that help to get through natural disasters like the flood. I’m talking about drought resistant varieties as well as flood resistant ones. At the same time, we need to access the SAARC Food Bank and get help from SAARC countries. We have been asking for help from anywhere else but not SAARC, which is an important partner. We need to ensure livelihoods of people, strengthen social network systems and improve social security.

Do you expect further disasters in the region as a consequence of climate change?

First of all, we need to look at climate change ... of course there are some natural changes unavoidable, but as the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Report tells us, climate change is a function of human activities – human activities are a function of policies. In India, the big disaster didn’t happen because of the rain, for example if we take a look at the bad structure of the buildings in the dry river belts, there was no chance for them not to collapse. Because there was no land reform, people were settled in the dry river belts. Once the water was there, they had to be displaced. They had to face the consequences. I don’t think the floods where purely natural, I would rather say the floods were manmade. Yes, there was rain and in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, people were surprised by the flood. But when the water came to Sindh, one month had already passed, and that should be enough time for any sensible government to take precautions to save the lives of people. But the government did nothing. Of course climate change had an effect, those were unusual rains, but what happened later was not only climate change, it was the policies as well. And if we don’t change the politics, disasters like that will keep on happening.

What would you suggest to change in politics?

I think what we need to do, is to build up capacity at the local level, we need to use indigenous knowledge and decentralisation to build resilience and disaster preparedness. In such a situation, the central government can neither decide nor move quickly enough, it’s the local people who can come to action immediately to provide help. If those people don’t have the capacity or if the policies there are fraud, they depend on the decisions of the central government. We need to think on medium and long term level and we need disaster preparedness at district level. Now in the reconstruction process we have to avoid rebuilding vulnerable structures.

Are higher standards affordable for the people?

We have no option, we have to do it. All the money that is going into flood reconstruction has to be used. If it is again spent in business as usual, it will again go down the drain. What the international community could also do is to provide technical support, to rebuild the houses according to international standards. I’m not talking about luxury homes, just about save buildings.

Are these issues being discussed in Pakistan? Did the flood cause more awareness?

Yes, these issues are being discussed, but mainly by the top 20% of the population, people like us who are sitting in the capital or the provincial capital. But information does not reach the rest of the people, the people who were affected. For instance, the land reforms won’t come through someone’s talks, our talks, so we need to have some sort of campaign to bring the idea to the affected people. We need to bridge the huge gap between the people who can afford to talk, who know all these things, but don’t have any stake in it, and the people who have stake, who are the survivors. Someone has to start to make people aware of the fact that those disasters are not only due to Allah’s will, but also due to manmade policies.

What is your opinion about the role of the international community?

I think they need to learn local knowledge, some of the interventions did not match with the local realities. Social requirements differ from one region to the other. There is sometimes no point in loading people with whatever we can supply. At one place, water is required, at the other one, clothes are required and the people at the third place need tents or dry food. For example, if you give cereals to the people who have never seen cereals before, they will perhaps feed the cereals to their animals. We need to know what is required and how to strengthen their resilience. I have no doubt on the good intention of people who are helping out the flood survivors, but without proper knowledge you often cannot provide the help you want to provide.

Thank you very much for the interview. 

First panel of our conference: Shahgufta Malik, Muhammad Idrees Kamal, Britta Petersen, Ayesha Siddiqa, Abid Suleri.
Image: Stephan Röhl. License: Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0. Original: Flickr.

Report and interviews

Pakistan after the flood