Monday, April 6, 2009
Valuing Life in Pakistan and Afghanistan
"This consistent pattern of readiness to inflict civilian casualties - often when striking targets that are not of vital military significance - suggests that Bush and other pro-life American leaders have less concern for the lives of innocent human beings in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, than they have for human embryos."
The preceding words, attributed to Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer, condemned the hypocrisy of President George W. Bush's policy of finding "collateral damage" to civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq acceptable, while forbidding the use of embryos for stem cell research on moral grounds. Almost three years have passed since Singer issued this condemnation, President Barack Hussein Obama has now replaced George W. Bush in the While House and the ban on the use of human embryos in stem cell research has been lifted. But the drone attacks causing increasing number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan and Pakistan have continued, even intensified recently.
In his new book "The Life You Can Save", Professor Singer continues with his theme of valuing life. Being a bioethicist, he begins his book by challenging the reader by quizzing about a situation involving the life of a child about to drown. He writes, "On your way to work, you pass a small pond. On hot days, children sometimes play in the pond, which is only about knee-deep. The weather's cool today, though, and the hour is early, so you are surprised to see a child splashing about in the pond. As you get closer, you see that it is a very young child, just a toddler, who is flailing about, unable to stay upright or walk out of the pond. You look for the parents or babysitter, but there is no one else around. The child is unable to keep his head above the water for more than a few seconds at a time. If you don't wade in and pull him out, he seems likely to drown. Wading in is easy and safe, but you will ruin the new shoes you bought only a few days ago, and get your suit wet and muddy. By the time you hand the child over to someone responsible for him, and change your clothes, you'll be late for work. What should you do?"
In a Princeton University course called Practical Ethics, the professor begins his class by talking about global poverty and asks his students what they think you should do in this situation. Predictably, they respond that you should save the child. "What about your shoes? And being late for work?" he asks them. They brush that aside. How could anyone consider a pair of shoes, or missing an hour or two at work, a good reason for not saving a child's life?
And yet, that's exactly what most of us are doing by ignoring the deaths of 27,000 poor children every day. Some die because they don't have enough to eat. More die from measles, malaria, diarrhea, and pneumonia, conditions that either don't exist in developed nations, or, if they do, are almost never fatal. The children are vulnerable to these diseases because they have no safe drinking water, or no sanitation, and because when they do fall ill, their parents can't afford any medical treatment.
More than a billion people in the world do not have access to safe drinking water. In Pakistan alone, 38.5 million people lack access to safe drinking water and 50.7 million people lack access to improved sanitation, according to published data. Pakistanis are facing unprecedented shortage of clean drinking water and electricity due to the lowest recorded levels of water in the country's dams, according to Pakistani Meteorological Department. The mortality rate for children under-five in Pakistan is 99 deaths per 1000 children, according to Global Health Council. About half of under-five deaths occur in six countries with large populations: India, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Pakistan and China. Water and sanitation related diseases are responsible for 60% of the total number of child mortality cases in Pakistan, with diarrheal diseases causing deaths of 200,000 under-five years’ children, every year. Unsafe drinking water is shown to lead to poverty through time spent by women and girls to fetch ‘drinkable’ water from long distances. The combination of unsafe water consumption and poor hygiene practices require treatments for water borne illnesses, decreased working days, and also contribute to lowering of educational achievement due to reduced school attendance by children.
Edhi Foundation, Hidaya Foundation, HDF, UNICEF, Oxfam, and many other organizations are working to reduce poverty and provide clean water and basic health care, and these efforts are reducing the toll. If the relief organizations had more money, they could do more, and more lives would be saved.
In addition to the charitable organizations, there are social entrepreneurs joining in the effort to try and alleviate the effects of poverty. Saafwater, Inc. is a startup helping people in Karachi, Pakistan with access to safe drinking water. The company founders, Sarah Bird, Saira Khwaja and Khalid Saiduddin, emerged as finalists in Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s 100k Entrepreneurship Competition in 2007, and received $10,000 to put the concept of SaafWater into practice.
Dr. Akhtar Hamid Khan is the force behind Orangi Pilot Project to help residents of Orangi Town, a katchi abadi (shanty town) in Karachi to help themselves. It has helped in a number of projects to build better low-cost housing, improve sanitation and establish schools with the participation of the community. “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Acclaimed social scientist Dr. Akhtar Hameed Khan used to reference this well-known proverb (according to his son, Akbar Khan), as it quite fittingly represents his philosophy on community development.
Greg Mortenson, an American, has been working with the local villagers to help build schools and promote education in northern Pakistan. While he has raised funds from various sources, Mortenson has insisted on community involvement in his efforts. Because of community 'buy-in', which involves getting villages to donate free land, subsidized or free labor ('sweat equity'), free wood and resources, the schools have local support and have been able to avert retribution by the Taliban or other groups opposed to girls education.
To deal with ongoing water and electricity crises, a number of community-based micro hydro projects are being executed with the help of the Agha Khan Foundation in Pakistan's Northern Areas and NWFP. Within this region, out of a total of 137 micro-hydro plants, the AKRSP has established 28 micro-hydros with an installed capacity of 619kW. Initially, in 1986, these plants started as research and demonstration units. These projects were extended to Village Organizations (VOs) and became participatory projects. A Village Organization (VO) is a body of villagers who have organized themselves around a common interest.
After formation, each village organization signed a partnership with AKRSP to abide by all terms and conditions necessary for the village development. The entire responsibility of implementation was passed on to the VOs. AKRSP provided the negotiated cost of the plants and technical input required during the construction period. All the VOs completed the civil work of the plants. They purchased and transported machinery from other parts of Pakistan. The VO members provided subsidized or free unskilled labor and locally produced building material.
While the problems faced by Pakistan are huge, I believe that a serious and organized initiative by a tiny percentage of Pakistan's large middle class of at least 40-50m people can begin to make a difference with their time, effort and money. Pakistanis owe it to themselves and their poor brethren to step up and take responsibility for improving the situation of the most vulnerable citizens of their country. By practically demonstrating that they value life, the people of the region can hope to reduce the extreme violence and terrorism in the future when today's children will become tomorrow's adults. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. But we must persevere by taking one step after another until we see results.
We must learn to value life at home by our words and our deeds and then expect others to do the same.
Here's a video of Dr. Singer's interview with Riz Khan:
Plight of Pakistan's Children
Can Slumdog's Success Improve Poor Children's Lives?
India's Innovative Social Entrepreneurs
Youth Engagement Services (YES) Network in Pakistan
Water Shortage in Pakistan
United Nations World Water Development Report
Water Resource Management in Pakistan
Water Supply and Sanitation in Pakistan
Light a Candle, Do Not Curse Darkness
Safe Drinking water and Hygiene Promotion in Pakistan
UN Millennium Development Goals in Pakistani Village
Orangi Pilot Project
Three Cups of Tea
Volunteerism in America
Dr. Akhtar Hamid Khan's Vision
Volunteerism in America