Feeding the hungry
IT is laudable that Prime Minister Imran Khan remains committed to his cherished aim of creating a welfare state in Pakistan. Sadly for him, patience is running out and the schemes that have been launched thus far appear to many as mere photo ops. He recently renewed his pledge to push ahead for a welfare state that provides for the poor and the needy on the premises of a soup kitchen run by the Saylani Welfare International Trust near Peshawar Morr, Islamabad. He promised 1,200 more such facilities across the country in what seems to be a cooperative model between private and government initiatives to run welfare schemes. He also used the occasion to ask critics as well as his supporters to be patient, once again invoking the example of the state of Madina while also arguing that 70 years of ‘wrong policies’ in Pakistan could not be reversed in 13 months.
But perhaps the event is more noteworthy for what was not said. For example, when he came to power, the prime minister had himself told the country to give his government three months before criticising his administration. Today, 13 months later, he is asking for patience but cannot say how long the people will have to wait to see the promised benefits. He has also said nothing about how the model soup kitchen he unveiled will be scaled up. When launching the Ehsaas programme back in March, he had pledged to carry out a string of important reforms, with legislative changes accompanying the rollout of the programme. But as of today, most of those promises are languishing while the photo ops continue. For instance, the accompanying policy statement of the Ehsaas programme said that the allocation formula of the NFC award would be retooled to make it more “need-based” and more responsive to welfare-oriented goals. However so far, his government has not been able to advance the NFC talks, and the agenda it brought to the last round of talks was not in keeping with the policy statement of the Ehsaas programme.
No doubt the prime minister is right to point out that profound or radical change will not come in 13 months. But surely, the public should be witnessing greater effort and progress in this direction. A ministry has been created for social protection and poverty alleviation, and various programmes have been clubbed under it. But eventually, the poor need protection from rising inflation, especially food inflation. Soup kitchens are fine as a palliative in these times, but they do not amount to a policy response. The government needs to stop taking critical comments to heart, and focus its energies on more holistic policy responses to get through the difficult times it says we must live through before the break of a new dawn.
WHILE Syria has been largely quiet in the recent past, save for a few violent episodes between the rebels and President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, a new front is about to be opened as Turkey prepares to launch an operation in northern Syria to establish a ‘safe zone’. This throws up serious questions about the violation of Syrian sovereignty by a foreign power; the planned Turkish incursion also risks bringing Ankara’s forces face to face with the SDF, a Syrian Kurdish militia backed by the US, which the Turks consider an extension of their nemesis, the PKK. And if the rhetoric coming from Turkey as well as the Kurds is anything to go by, this engagement will hardly be a peaceful affair Moreover, the Kurds’ American allies have backed off and have apparently given Ankara the green light to move into Syrian territory, a decision the SDF has said is a “stab in the back”. As usual, President Donald Trump has sent mixed messages, agreeing to pull back American forces (against the advice of some of his own officials), but also threatening to “obliterate” the Turkish economy if Ankara takes any “off limits” action. What constitutes ‘off limits’ is anyone’s guess. Considering the bad blood between Turkey and the Kurds, a violent encounter cannot be ruled out, while Mr Assad’s principal foreign friends — Russia and Iran — have also questioned the planned incursion. To top it all, the lack of a coherent US policy has muddied things, creating the groundwork for further chaos in Syria.
Unfortunately, the Syrian civil war has been greatly exacerbated by foreign intervention. Those supporting the opposition — the US, Europe, Turkey and the Gulf Arabs — pumped in much treasure and manpower to try and dislodge Mr Assad, while Moscow and Tehran did their best to prop up their ally in Damascus. The result has been a battered country, with hundreds of thousands killed and millions displaced. Additionally, the ungoverned spaces in Syria helped give birth to some of the most dreaded terrorist groups of modern times, such as IS and Al Nusra. Instead of turning Syria into a geopolitical chessboard, foreign forces must work to bring Damascus and the opposition together for a settlement. The UN has planned the formation of a Syrian constitutional committee; all efforts should be made to support this endeavour, and fresh military adventures in the country should be avoided.