Friday, March 31, 2006

# Posted 6:46 PM by Patrick Belton  

THE KARACHI WORLD SOCIAL FORUM - A PORTRAIT OF ENFEEBLED CIVIL SOCIETY IN PAKISTAN: There's not been a civil society event on this scale in Pakistan since 1970, its many organisational failings providing a window into how much further Pakistan's civil society has to develop before it can provide a basis for a democratic politics here. An organiser who I befriended on the opening night told me they were three days behind in their preparations; many events started an hour off schedule or not at all; the loos in the campgrounds in succession lacked water, flooded and ceased to work. Rhetoric of speakers often consisted of one person shouting in a tent over a microphone pitched too loud, amid other tents with other speakers doing the same; it was not the articulate political rhetoric of the Indians who visited and spoke, nor were its numbers of 30,000 more than a fifth those of the 2004 World Social Forum in Bombay. But this is a country whose political participatory traditions have stifled under a legacy of military rule for half its existence since Lord Montbatten handed its sovereignty to the Quaid-e-Azam. And if the WSF's failings proved a barometer into the weaknesses of the civil society sector, which like a middle class, Pakistan lacks and, if it is to be a democracy, needs, then it may just prove an important moment in helping it to get there. It was a place for protests, some silly, some substantive, but more importantly it was a place for ngos to exchange cards and begin coalescing into a civil society. It was, besides, a place for subcontinental discussion at civil society level, with Bangladeshi and Indian delegations present despite the Pakistani government's granting them visas only hours before the last flights to Karachi. All of these are comparative rarities, except the last.

Democracy in Mexico can be traced in part to an earthquake, in Mexico City, the lack of response from a paralysed state causing neighbours to help one another out of the wreckage and to eat. The last seismic shocks were to the state, forming habits new to that titanic city of talking to the people who live across and on the other side of its high walls. Democracy in Pakistan has already had its earthquake and pauce government response to provoke it; when it comes, democracy here will rather bounce from the new taut fabric of institutions capable of treating across institutional or sectoral lines, to form one viable body in this country separate its army. Inshallah, this is a beginning from small things, with its plugged loos and abysmal scheduling, amid its crossing of telephone numbers from the staff of its ngos in their hundreds.
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