Beyond dried milk and biscuits

Emphasising access to education may give IDPs a reason to trust those who have disappointed them for a long time.

Muhammad Hamid Zaman July 21, 2014

Hyperbole and noise, while a hallmark of our political discourse, cannot be a substitute for policy. The issue of the IDPs has, once again, exposed empty promises, poorly thought out policy, and outright racism by some politicians and government officials who do not want anything to do with the citizens of their own country. But even those who are supposedly the well-wishers of the IDPs, and often discuss the issues on TV or through their facebook posts, are failing to provide real ideas and real solutions. The campaign by the NGOs and private individuals, while commendable, is also focused exclusively on the short term. There is no doubt that there is an immediate need for shelter, food, security and clean water, and there should be no debate in ensuring that these basic commodities are available and accessible. But if we believe that our responsibility to those who now have somehow earned the status of refugees in their own country ends with providing non-perishable food items, we are not only kicking the can down the road, we are also going to help create a new generation of disgruntled, frustrated and desperate citizens.

I am particularly concerned and bothered by the lack of any discussion on providing educational opportunities to the IDPs. Somehow our vision for their settlement ends with providing food for a couple of weeks and access to bottled water. Did we not realise that a key contributor to the current crisis is the lack of social integration and national unity? In a fragmented society, the last thing we need is to create a subsection within our midst of people who are vulnerable, and do not provide any means for them to seek a better education and a better life. By refusing to do anything substantial to create harmony and integration among our inherently and increasingly tribal society, we have cultivated distrust and frustration. Now with the IDPs, we are faced with both a new challenge and a new opportunity. The challenges do not need to be reiterated, but the opportunity to provide education to young boys and girls — that in many ways was denied to them before — is immense. Policy does not need to focus on just today or tomorrow, but on the outcomes a generation from now.

There are those who make the argument that education is not an immediate concern and our concern should primarily be on the safety and basic commodities for survival. The two arguments are not mutually exclusive. Just because we need to provide food today does not mean that long-term settlement and integration will take care of itself by some miracle. We have been waiting for such miracles in every sphere of our life for far too long.

We have to ask ourselves two basic questions. First, is education, in our vision of Pakistan, a right for all citizens? Or is it a privilege for the lucky? If we do agree that regardless of gender, political affiliation, ethnicity and tribal ancestry, education is a right for all citizens, let’s ask ourselves the second question. Do we consider the IDPs equal citizens as ourselves? The answer to this may be a lot harder than we may care to accept.

As we start to mobilise efforts and resources to integrate our own citizens, displaced by war and violence, let’s not just focus on the IDPs as victims. Lets consider them citizens with an immense potential to shape our future, to usher a more integrated social order. Emphasising access to education may give them a reason to trust those who have disappointed them for a long time, and create a union that we so desperately seek.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 22nd, 2014.

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