After the ‘success’ of volunteer-led economic policymaking, Pakistan is now embarking on a grand volunteer initiative – the PM Khan’s brainchild called Corona Relief Tiger Force. Will these volunteers be as ‘successful’ as the volunteers in economic/business advisory councils and various task forces?
Last month, the National Health Authority in UK drew half a million applications to its request for volunteers. The world is clearly not short of altruistic enthusiasts, and neither is Pakistan; recall how volunteers flocked the earthquake hit northern areas in 2005, and again after the great floods of 2010. They will likely rise to the occasion once again with the launch of PM’s tiger force. At the time of writing, the launch was delayed on account of technical glitch amid strong opposition by the ‘lions’ in the opposition, pun intended.
Unlike the earthquake and the floods, however, the nature of volunteer work in the case of Covid-19 isn’t confined to a few relief camps. It will span the length and breadth of the country, to every small towns and tehsil. This means that unlike the earthquake or the floods, the still-unravelling epidemic does not have easily identifiable and discrete relief camps which urban volunteers could flock to, or where non-profits could send supplies to, or hire local labour for its distribution.
Given the geographical spread of the epidemic within the country - and its implications on lives and livelihoods - disaster management by volunteers is going to be a tall task. Bear in mind that in past instances, relief efforts by religious organisations were flagged by international media. Much has changed since, and it may no longer be possible to rely on those organisations without risking marring of good efforts with links to terrorism.
On the other hand, independent volunteers not associated with religious organisations, usually come from a class who are healthy and strong, both financially and physically, and have certain types of PO Boxes. Which means they move from certain up-or-mid scale areas to the affected areas. However, managing relief efforts in the ongoing crisis is a different animal altogether compared to past disasters. For example, there was no restriction on movement within the country; neither in 2005 nor in 2010. Today, restrictions abound: road, rail and air. Even movement within the city/town is checked.
Unless volunteers are going to be selected from the most vulnerable districts themselves - which has not been the case historically - logistics alone will be a challenge. Yet, selecting the desired number of volunteers from each district is also a formidable management challenge. Which means that the police and the army, who are expected to liaise with the volunteers, will have to go about selecting volunteers in every district since web and smartphone-based registration may not be equally accessible in every part of the country.
These are not easy problems to address. The opposition is right in their critique of PM Khan’s unilateral management so far. Granted, that imposing a health emergency was a provincial affair, but a nation-wide response requires the whole of federation to come together. To that end, PM Khan’s failure to call the Council of Common Interests to meet hasn’t gone unnoticed. Neither has the failure to call the meeting of the National Disaster Management Commission (NDMC).
Soon after the earthquake hit Pakistan, a National Disaster Management Act was passed, which mandated constitution of NDMC. Chaired by the PM, the NDMC is to comprise of leaders of opposition in both houses; ministers of defence, health, foreign affairs, and finance; provincial chief ministers, and civil society representatives. As per law, the NDMC can meet as and when the chairperson – the PM – deems fit. Strangely, weeks into the crisis, PM Khan has not deemed it fit so far.
That Act also gives wholesale powers to National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) to coordinate response in the event of any threatening disaster situation; to give directions to the concerned ministries, provincial governments, and Provincial Disaster Management Authorities (PDMAs); promote general education and awareness in relation to disaster management, and so forth. Yet, neither did the NDMA give out early warning when in fact, the first Corona cases had emerged in China as early as in November 2019; nor have the PDMAs been given the central role of coordination and management in any of the provinces so far.
Few in this country know that Pakistan also ought to have District Disaster Management Authority (DDMA), which is to be chaired by the head of local council at district level (by whatever name called), and District Co-ordination Officer, District Police Officer and the Executive District Officer, (Health) as its members.
Among its key functions, the DDMAs are to establish stockpiles of rescue and relief materials; provide information to PDMAs; encourage the involvement of NGOs and voluntary social-welfare institutions working at the grassroot level; and organize and coordinate voluntary rescue workers in the district. The DDMAs, however, are not functional - not even in Sindh.
In absence of an active PDMA/DDMA structure, there are limits to what corona tigers can achieve. The PM therefore would do well to meet the provincial leaders and activate that structure, before galvanising the citizens to volunteer for the cause. Another option is to create a legal instrument to use the local government structure, which is being used to some extent in Sindh.
At the local level, union councils (or equivalent) are the most effective unit of management that normally cover a radius of four to five kilometres. Since the Union Councillors (UC) also know the local population, having run for election from door to door, they are in a position to understand local dynamics, whereas the local population also knows that face very well. If relief trucks are sent to the UC office, which has already galvanised local volunteers, then relief measures could be undertaken in the presence of police or paramilitary staff.
The only problem is that whereas Sindh still has UCs until August 2020, the other three provinces haven’t since the positions got vacant at different times in 2019. However, Anwar Hussain, Executive Director of Local Council Association Punjab and Sindh, says his office has details of all the 58000 current and former UCs all across the country.
If provincial governments can find a legal instrument to activate them temporarily, and then those UCs can do a much better job at getting volunteers to manage relief supplies, teaching self-quarantine, and other related work. UCs have local knowledge, and they have the social relations with the local population. And unlike the tigers, who are volunteers, they are accountable to people.
The preparation, response and recovery of disasters, especially this one, has to be done at local level. The UC would know more about the people poor and vulnerable at local level than the DMG official or a police/army focal working under the command of provincial government. Afterall, the poorest may be in government database (courtesy BISP, etc), the poor are just statistics. Which is why local knowledge is needed.
Without thinking through the strategy and ensuring smooth coordination, PM’s tigers can only do so much. And even if, like the cornered tigers of 1992, the corona tigers are successful by some stroke of luck, know well that tigers are no substitute for a system. Come next disaster, there will be new tigers beaming with pride and compassion in their selfless support for a cause, but without an iota of reflection over their failure in collective action to ensure sustainable institutions.