Default with dignity or die in disgrace —Amjad Ayub Mirza

Angry at the fact that the monies so urgently needed for the post-floods reconstruction drive were being swallowed up by the black hole of debt, which was mostly accumulated during the tenures of unrepresentative governments, many considered it unjust to be asked to repay the $ 3 billion in annual debt servicing for the accumulated $ 55 billion debt

As Pakistan celebrates a sombre Eid-ul-Fitr overshadowed by the shock and grief of our losses in the recent floods, Gulbaz Masih of the Dutch charity Good Angels has boarded a flight from Amsterdam in the Netherlands to Islamabad. He will be escorted to a campsite near Charsadda in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province bordering the Taliban hotbed tribal belt that separates Pakistan from Afghanistan, where he will be distributing food packages among the flood victims.

The donations were collected at a gathering of Pakistani Christians living in and around a small town on the outskirts of Amsterdam called Muiden. They had congregated at the two-bedroom house of Azeem Masih and his wife Shireen Masih, which is situated on the Markemeer harbour of the North Sea for a special prayer-meeting to bless Pakistan. As everyone began to dig deep into their pockets for a final call for donations, the phone rang. It was Azeem’s sister-in-law from Hungary. She spoke with so much excitement; her voice could be overheard by those near the phone. She announced that the Pakistani Christians living in Budapest had made a collection and wanted to make sure that Gulbaz had not left yet so that he could carry their bit of effort to Pakistan with him. She was jubilant that he was indeed still in the Netherlands and with a choked voice told him that the money would be sent straightaway via electronic transfer.

All across Europe, the Pakistani community has been shocked by the scale of devastation caused by the worst floods in living history. All over that continent, they are voluntarily holding small meetings inviting people from all over to give whatever they can afford to help those newly-destitute in Pakistan. The collections are handed over to a trusted one who then boards a plane to deliver the goods with the money to flood victims for the specific, selected destination chosen by the friends and relatives of those in the affected areas.

Gulbaz informed me that he has coordinated with a bishop in Peshawar who will help him buy rations sufficient to feed around 150 families for one month. As winter sets in, the need for warm clothing will be the next emergency facing the millions of displaced people currently huddled in makeshift tents. Gulbaz was quick to see the urgency to continue to collect for non-edible items such as blankets, quilts, socks and warm clothes.

The selflessness and willingness to sacrifice demonstrated among the tiny Pakistani community residing in the suburbs of Amsterdam is emblematic of our desire to survive and fight catastrophes, be it the devastating earthquake in Kashmir in 2005 or the current floods.

Another issue that was discussed at the Muiden gathering was the burden of debt and the expense of repayments and servicing. Angry at the fact that the monies so urgently needed for the post-floods reconstruction drive were being swallowed up by the black hole of debt, which was mostly accumulated during the tenures of unrepresentative governments, many considered it unjust to be asked to repay the $ 3 billion in annual debt servicing for the accumulated $ 55 billion debt. Azeem Masih was quick to grab a copy of the Bible from the table and began to read from the Book of Deuteronomy: “At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts…” (15:1).

Annoyed at the indifference of the West, he complained that insufficient funds are being allocated for the reconstruction and rehabilitation of our people. At this point, everyone fell silent and later they dispersed quietly, wishing Gulbaz a safe journey.

Mr Khaliq Shah of the Pakistan chapter of Campaign for the Abolition of Third World Debt, while talking to this writer, suggested that in order to avoid a major fiscal disaster, Pakistan’s enormous debt has to be brought onto the agenda of the international money-lending institutions, as well as that of the UN. He said that unless the debt is suspended for at least a period of 50 years or else is rescheduled, Pakistan’s economy is in serious danger of total collapse. He is of the opinion that within the next five years, Pakistan will not be able to pay even the debt service charges.

Khaliq Shah’s fears are not unfounded. Pakistan has accumulated a total debt of a staggering $ 55 billion, mainly through defence procurement and debt servicing. It was argued by Asim Sajjad Akhtar at the recent Debt Conference in Lahore that debt as a percentage of our GDP is touching the 70 percent-mark and that there is a real danger that soon it will approach the unsustainable limit of 80 percent.

Pakistan is entering a time when it will have to make the toughest decisions of its existence. In order to recoup what has been lost and give our shocked people a new start, voluntary acts of charity such as the one in the tiny town of Muiden are highly commendable but insufficient. If the religious fanatics and the ambitious military generals are to be kept from taking advantage of a people in shock and confusion, and usurping power, it is imperative to start organising a democratically-elected mohalla-level national volunteer organisation that can coordinate its actions in the hour of need. Only urgent mass mobilisation of the people can save the country from falling into the abyss of sectarian and ethnic chaos.

On the other hand, we are faced with the humungous task of rebuilding the broken infrastructure of hundreds of thousands of villages, towns and cities. The amount of capital required for the reconstruction has yet to be calculated, but a conservative guess suggests that at least $ 50 billion will be needed over a period of five years.

There could not be a better time than now to show how much the West really cares for our people who have endured huge sufferings and losses at the hands of the ambiguous war on terror since 9/11 or even before during the CIA and ISI-sponsored anti-Soviet war of the 1980s. “The fact of the matter is that our people cannot and should not have to carry the burden of a debt that was issued without securing a workable repayment plan that would let them live with dignity. The current fiscal situation ceases to provide a guarantee for a sustainable economy. Hence, the West must address the issue of debt,” demands Mr Shah. “Meanwhile,” he declares, “we have only two choices. We ask the international community to cancel the debt altogether and our appeal falls on deaf ears, so we default with dignity at once and use all recourses available to strengthen our economy as did Argentina, Cuba and others, or else we ready ourselves, as a national entity, to die in disgrace within five years. For both the international community and Pakistan, time is running out.”

The writer is a freelancer based in London. He can be reached at dr_amjad_mirza@hotmail.com

Courtesy: Daily Times

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