Two items in the news this week should be dominating the discussion of current events. First is that 100 people in Lahore have now died from contaminated drugs. Adding insult to injury is that fact that, according to Punjab CM Shahbaz Sharif, the victims tended to be the poor who received the drugs for free. The second news item that should be driving the public discussion is the rising number of kidnappings of foreign aid workers.
It infuriates me when I hear people like Imran Khan talk about refusing all foreign aid. The wealthy celebrity Imran Khan has never wanted for anything in life and will never have to humbly accept aid to feed himself and his children. If foreign aid is refused, his comfortable life will not be affected. But that doesn’t mean that nobody’s lives will.
Last year, Government of Punjab chose to turn down an American offer of $127 million for health care. It was a purely political move by the Pubjab government who hoped to woo voters by acting tough on America after the Abbottabad operation. Shahbaz Sharif said the decision was taken to “get rid of the foreign shackles”. But what was the real outcome? Hospitals could not afford critical supplies and schools could not be built. It was the poor who suffered.
There are two common excuses for being against foreign aid. The first is that foreign aid workers are secretly intelligence agents trying to destabilise Pakistan. To believe this is to believe that a 70-year-old man with heart disease is CIA’s top secret agent. If this is the case, we should be rejoicing. What do we have to worry about?
The second excuse is that foreign aid workers are just trying to win ‘hearts and minds’ and that they are not sincere in their charity. Why else would they print USAID on things if it wasn’t just a public relations campaign to spread sympathy for the West? But can’t the same be asked of groups like Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation who never fails to cover everything in sight with their name and logo? Isn’t FIF just a PR wing of Hafiz Saeed’s ‘other’ groups? Get some food, hear a lecture on the glorious Kashmiri jihad.
I’m a firm believer that aid is not the solution to the country’s problems, and that increased trade and private investment are what is really needed if we are going to be able to work our way out of the economic hole that we find ourselves in today. But I am not so blind and uncaring to believe that some aid is not absolutely necessary for the time being. And letting the poor starve or die from lack of medication will not improve my ‘self esteem’.
Militants are treating the poor as their hostages. They don’t have to hold a gun to the poors’ heads. Their weapons are the food and medicine that the poor need to live. The poor don’t ask about a food’s nationality. They don’t ask medicine where it prays. They don’t care if the person helping them is Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Pakistani, American, or Italian. And we shouldn’t either.