These days we are constantly lamenting the fact that our government is falling apart fast. The law and order situation in the country is deteriorating daily, there is no electricity, clean water, etc. While it is apt that we try to focus and help rectify the problems of governance, we also need to focus on building up a strong civil society. It is perhaps even more important now to have strong, organised and very local level civil society organisations so we can weather this storm.
Pakistan has always had a very weak civil society and a great dearth of civil society organisations. Gauging by the number of registered NGO’s, Pakistan has about 12,000 to 15,000, while India has over three million — we have a few very good organisations, but we need a lot more of them.
When I was a child living in Lahore, we used to know our neighbours. Nearly every evening, a lot of the people from the area used to go walking in a nearby park and as a result chatted with each other and knew about each other’s problems and issues. Now, I only know one family on the street, and even when their house was burgled a year ago, no one had a clue about it for days. This lack of contact, hence interest and concern, within even small localities is adding to the deterioration of the social fabric of the country. This aspect is also adversely affecting our security. Again, when I was a child, the local community had arranged for a night watchman to go around the whole area (of about 50 houses), blowing a whistle. While this was not the best of ways to prevent theft, it was a local community-led initiative and did indeed work for its time. Now, even that level of organisation in the civil society is absent.
This is the time for Pakistan’s civil society to mobilise drastically and organise at the local level — and here, I am not only taking about NGOs but also local level ad hoc organisations and committees.
In 1961, Rushbrook Williams, a former member of the Indian Civil Service and then a fellow of All Souls, Oxford College, wrote a glowing book on Pakistan. The premise of the book was the Basic Democracy model of Ayub Khan. Excepting the obvious motives of the dictator of the time, what was distinctive about the idea was that it organised people at a very local level. Professor Williams extensively toured East and West Pakistan, and saw, in both wings, people involved in development projects at the very local level. Organisation at the ward level was key to making things happen and getting people involved. We need to follow such a plan, but now outside the ambit of the political system — it must be civil society led.
Countries in the West have only developed after strong civil society organisations have filled the gap left by government agencies, which is inevitable in almost every country. For example, in the United Kingdom, there is a very good network of local primary schools, mainly sponsored by the local parish church with primarily parent residents of the area on its board. So while the state provides good secondary and tertiary education, the local community has a significant role at the primary formative level. Similarly, neighbourhood watch committees are very active in most of the UK, providing very ground level support to the government agencies in law enforcement.
In Pakistan, our usual refrain is that the government has failed us and, therefore, anarchy must ensue. While the government is indeed unable to fulfil its very basic roles, we must not forget that there is a very strong role that we as citizens can also play. Almost every aspect of civil life is deteriorating, but rather than becoming despondent, we need to see this as an opportunity to build and strengthen our civil society organisations and networks.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 30th, 2011.