Sobering lessons from a month of food handout stampedes
THIS Ramadan, many stampedes occurred at food distribution sites in cities across Pakistan, causing 15 deaths and 24 injuries, a staggering toll. A similar stampede in Yemen, where hunger is much greater, killed 85 people and injured more than 300 just before Eid. The spate of such incidents in Pakistan over the last month is the most dramatic expression of a food crisis that has been growing acutely worse in the country. A recent UN report says 2.5 million Pakistani children are suffering acute malnutrition since the floods.
As per tradition, the government stepped up relief efforts in Ramadan through giving of Zakat, but the stampedes reveal the whole effort to be a mess. It is an example of how an attempt to fix a problem can have uncontrollable consequences. Everyone should know there are no solutions in life, only trade-offs. You can make something a little better by making something else a little worse, or make something a little better by making something else a lot worse. Very likely, given the deaths and injuries reported, more harm has been inflicted by the flour distribution scheme than has been averted by the food people received. Another lesson from the stampedes is that the masses are comprised individuals with their own goals and behaviour. But government agencies often assume people are just bricks in the wall who will align as expected with a given policy.
Clearly, Pakistan needs a new approach to rise out of food insecurity. It will be far from simple. Any action taken will produce a whole distributary of consequences downstream, which must be predicted and taken into account (case in point: police in Pakistan and Yemen responded to crowd crushes by arresting event organizers, possibly discouraging Zakat efforts). We must also balance providing quick relief from hunger with long-term sustainment of food security.
The chaotic scenes of people pushing each other to reach the delivery window also illustrate that food transport and distribution is as serious and complex as food production. Stampedes do not typically happen in the marketplace. Most likely, this is because, when there is not enough food for people, merchants raise prices accordingly, so how much money consumers have is their main constraint. But when free food is being handed out, it only matters how quickly one gets to the front of the line. Also, merchants are adept at handling distribution because their lives revolve around it. It is so often said that famine usually results, not from supply shortage, but from food not reaching those who need it. Usually, “middlemen” specialize in making that happen. The control over trade and finance this gives a relatively small number of people has historically complicated their relationship with society. But there is no doubt that they have an important job and their skills are essential to prevent complications like the recent crowd crushes.
One final takeaway from those tragic incidents is how hunger and desperation creates potential for violence. It can be as momentary as people struggling with each other for sacks of flour but can also boil over into rage against the prevailing order or the ruling class. Food shortage has often sparked uprisings and unrest, including the French and Russian revolutions which changed the course of history. But the more recent Arab Spring, triggered by 2010’s global food price hike, has not had comparative consequences. That’s because the Western world has been in a state of dynamism throughout the last six centuries, while the Islamic world has remained more static.
Pakistan is such a static society, internally speaking, that today’s food crisis has little chance of even creating a mass uprising. Pakistan has been in similarly difficult economic and political situations many times before. That is why predictions outside observers have recently been making of state collapse is unreasonable. During current economic struggles, our main challenge is making things better than before and creating a secure and solid future for Pakistan. But compassion and a charitable spirit are not enough. We need to face up to reality.
Reality gives us neither abundant nor easy options. We must make our decisions wisely, but it also matters who is making what decision. Different players have different incentives. Just as the common man or woman is just trying to get enough food for their family, the government subsidizing this food may be driven by the momentary goal of preventing discontent and remaining popular. Ordinary people are likewise thinking short-term only because they have barely enough to get by. Aid given to them must be an investment and it matters where the aid is ultimately coming from, for there is no such thing as a free lunch. Government can only give to people by taxing people. Our whole focus must be on developing the human capital of the ordinary men, women and children of Pakistan, and this begins by helping them understand the fundamental and inescapable truth that they will never go far in life by relying on someone else to take care of them.
—The writer is Director at Pakistan’s People Led Disaster Management.
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