PBS Wide Angle [an Emmy Award-winning international affairs documentary series] recently posted some online-exclusive documentary shorts, part of a series entitled, “Pakistan at the Polls,” how shadow forces are shaping political outcomes in rural Pakistan. One of the shorts in particular caught my eye and raised some thought-provoking questions.
Called, “You Cannot Hide From Allah,” the film profiles Ishan Khan, dubbed by PBS as the “Michael Bloomberg of Pakistan.” Not long ago, Ishan was just “a regular guy,” a Pakistani immigrant who drove a taxi cab in the United States. However, his life dramatically changed after he won over $30 million in the lottery. Unlike many people though, Ishan decided to return to his hometown of Batagram, NWFP and run for mayor. It was his way of “pitching in.” As the PBS synopsis wrote, “Days later, an earthquake struck, killing 70,000 people, 4,500 of them in Batagram. Now, as mayor of this economically devastated town, Khan has to govern a constituency that seems to believe that his money can solve all of their problems,” [click on the image below to watch the film].
Following the earthquake, Mayor Khan was self-financing the disaster relief in Batagram, pledging 20 million rupees to the town. However, although many praised his efforts, calling him “a blessing from God,” others claimed things were not getting better. The film noted, “Some blame the disaster. Some blame the Mayor.” One Batagram resident noted, “After the earthquake, people became more corrupt. Everyone started to run to an organization to get relief…The word ‘relief check’ was on everyone’s lips.” As the PBS short noted, there has always been a patronage system in the region, but expectations after the earthquake were high. Mayor Khan soon grew frustrated with the daily onslaught of requests for money, at one point noting, “This is not a bank.”
PBS interviewed several people who both praised and criticized Mayor Khan’s work. Although one older man noted, “There used to be no political system here. It was a tribal area. The feudal landlords had everything and we had nothing,” another claimed he bought his votes to get elected. One Batagram resident in particular asserted, “And so the voice of democracy was diminished by money.” In response to such statements, Khan noted resigned, “Everyone is entitled to their opinion…You can’t run from your own village.”
The film is poignant and thought-provoking because it addresses a fundamental problem in the developing world. The people of these towns have witnessed years of organizations and government agencies throwing money at their problems [for the most part]. However, money is just a band-aid over the wound, a short-term solution. It does not address the long-term problems facing Pakistan’s numerous underdeveloped towns and villages. In the case of Batagram, Ishan Khan had admirable intentions with the money he won – he wanted to give back to his hometown. He should be commended for that. However, his intentions soon got muddied by the cacophony of requests and demands. It was dulled by the entrenched mentality that “money solves everything.”
Breaking that mentality is necessary if we want to see any kind of progress. Money should be used to empower communities to help themselves, not as a crutch. Incentives have to be created in order to strengthen society’s capacity at the grassroots level. Programs must be developed to fit the ground realities. For Mayor Khan, his lottery win was behind both his rise and fall in Batagram, [he lost his 2008 election for the town’s seat in the Parliament by a wide margin]. But this film and ones like it are significant because they put these issues in the spotlight and create discourse. With Congress slated to increase Pakistan’s funding by a significant margin, discussing how to improve its application is increasingly necessary.