The famine

We should not allow our best to stay at the bottom of the pyramid, we should stop feeding the famine


Muhammad Hamid Zaman September 07, 2020
The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of Biomedical Engineering, International Health and Medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

In 1973, Mukhtar Masood published his book, Awaz-e-Dost (the call of the friend). The book, while only having two essays in it, has over the years become an Urdu classic and is now in its 31st reprint edition. In the second essay titled Qehat-ur-Rijaal (the famine of men), Masood goes through the various stages of his own life, and that of Pakistan, to talk about the absolute dearth of good people in the society. He ends the chapter with a hope that after the years of drought, there will be years of a healthy harvest. That was 1973. Nearly, 50 years later, looking at the political arena, we are doing much worse. There is abject poverty that engulfs our streets, and a crippling famine when it comes to leadership. Looking at those who run several institutions of the government now — and those who have run them in the recent past — one is forced to ask: is this the best we can come up with? Instead of transparency, we have murky businesses in food chains abroad; instead of decency, we have vile attacks on women journalists; instead of accountability, we have vindictiveness. The famine is real and deeply rooted.

Today, our society is in the form of a pyramid, where the bottom of the pyramid is rich with people who are decent, kind, respectful, hardworking, intelligent and whose dealings are above board. People who have nothing to hide in their assets, and have lived their lives playing by the rules. Progressively, as we move up that pyramid, we are left with few of such people. At the very top, there is nothing left of the riches of the bottom. Instead, there is a famine of talent and competence at the top. There are occasional, and rare signs of life — but overall it looks pretty desolate. Because we refuse to nurture life, the famine engulfs it, leaving us all poorer. When you look at the pyramids of Giza in Egypt or the ones in Mexico from a distance, the eyes drift towards the top, not the bottom. When you look at the pyramid of leadership of the recent past, it is not a pretty sight.

Yet we choose to look the other way, come up with bizarre excuses to support the status quo, and decide that only a few people in the nation are smart and hence should be given complete and absolute authority to make decisions, irrespective of history telling us otherwise.

We deserve better. There is no shortage of good men and women in the country. In every institution, there are people who espouse the best of values. In the last few months we have seen the valour, selflessness and dedication of healthcare workers as they have been at the forefront of Covid-19. Even when things were messy and their needs were genuine concerns about availability of appropriate equipment, there were plenty who inspired everyone around them. The pandemic is not the only instance where we see the clash between values of those in the limelight and those who are the light of humanity. We see the decency of men and women on the frontlines of the battle against polio every day, working for pennies, and feeding on broken promises, routinely sacrificing their lives. They do their job even when the leadership fails them repeatedly. While some may call them ordinary Pakistanis, they are anything but. Perhaps we should look for these ordinary folks, and for a change, move away from those who think that they are extraordinary or indispensable. We should not allow our best to stay at the bottom of the pyramid, we should stop feeding the famine.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 8th, 2020.

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