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Stealing our pain

The purported outrage of the former head of UNDP Pakistan over what he considers to be the causes of Pakistan’s mal-development is a case of ‘grief tourism’

Stealing our pain

Last month, the former head of UNDP Pakistan, Marc Andre Franche decided to end his tenure in Islamabad with a confessionary newspaper interview about the country’s many ills. Widely circulated on social media, it describes Franche’s purported outrage over what he considers to be the causes of Pakistan’s mal-development. For decades, Pakistani economists, human rights activists, urban planners and women’s rights advocates have been highlighting far more challenging issues with much more in-depth analysis. Yet, these professionals have been dismissed as traitors and paid native informants while Franche is being revered as a white prophet of political wisdom.

The puritanicals — the easily outraged PTI and vindicated overseas Pakistanis — have been thrilled by Franche’s most basic and superficial laundry list of hurdles. His catalogue of evils includes elite capture, wealth accumulation, political nepotism and unequal opportunities. The list comprises the same sweeping grievances heard over cocktails in Pakistan’s elite drawing rooms and, ironically, usually expressed by retired officers of a monopolistic powerful military, bureaucrats who obstruct policy implementation, and development consultants who depend on cultivating personal relationships to win contracts.

From the beginning of Franche’s tenure, it was clear he enjoyed being in the media’s limelight. Unsurprisingly, this suited our liberal media which loves to regularly cite (with photos) foreign experts as authoritative voices on Pakistan’s issues.

As his term neared the end, Franche decided to unload the post-traumatic stress disorder that he obviously suffered during his tenure in Pakistan. He took a megalomaniacal leap from representing a UN agency to one of an outraged humanitarian that presumed to represent the pain of the people of Pakistan.

Canadian scholar, Sherene Razack, calls such efforts to represent enslaved people the antithesis of genuine outrage and identifies it as “a process of stealing the pain of others.” She notes how the slipperiness of empathy can prevent such moral authoritative compassionate voices from recognising their own complicity and responsibility for the causes of sustained misery of the people. Franche’s technique is reminiscent of what many race experts have termed “race pleasure” where the white master observes and imagines the pain and speaks for the slave.

Disguised intervention

“Authentic knowers” such as Franche, who identify all the domestic wrongs of Pakistan, enable a selective whitewashing of all the violence that structures our relationship with global capital, domestic militarised priorities, and western imperialism — of which UNDP is an entrenched actor and representative. Consider the substance of the analysis rather than voice of the critic.

“Authentic knowers” such as Franche, who identify all the domestic wrongs of Pakistan, enable a selective whitewashing of all the violence that structures our relationship with global capital, domestic militarised priorities, and western imperialism — of which UNDP is an entrenched actor and representative.

First, Franche considers Pakistan’s unspecified elite, politicians and wealthy and their nepotistic ways to be obstacles in the country’s “transform[ation] into a modern, progressive developed country.” In fact, this could be applicable to just about any country on the globe.

Crucial, however, is his guilt of notable omission of the two elephants in the room — the structural impediments that are created by Pakistan’s military, and organised religious politics. The interview gives the impression as if these actors have no capitalist interests, are not guilty of land-grabbing and as if they do not promote anti-developmental agendas that militate against people’s progress. In Franche’s views, the only thing that the military establishment is guilty of is the power of censorship that it wields over the media and to which the greedy and cowardly Pakistani media succumbs. Apparently, advanced developed countries have free, pro-people, altruistic and honest media.

Second, the lesson of humility that he offers foreigners is that they should only be ‘listeners and facilitators’. Yet, over his four year tenure, Franche has invested time and effort in dispensing high-profile opinion through mainstream media and in Islamabad’s social circle of public intellectuals. This advice for humility as a benign broker, peacekeeper and voyeur allows for a disguised form of intervention. These are donor code-words for not messing with the structural impediments and focusing only on broad and vague universal issues such as, elite attitudes, wealth accumulation and strategies for alleviating the ubiquitous “sub-Saharan poverty.”

It is as if other than Africa, there are no other countries nor comparable pockets within France or Canada that are poor or subject to systemic, racialised, property-usurping inequality and poverty. How are these particular universal symptoms of inequality a uniquely Pakistani and not, American problem, too?

Fourth, the simultaneous growth of ghettos and big malls in the same country is another trauma that seems to be a specific Pakistani paradox, according to Franche’s clearly, expansive global experience. On the one hand, Franche is critically indignant over the neglect of FATA by the government of Pakistan but on the other, when asked about donor disregard for Balochistan, he is only regretful. The stress on his many visits to several districts of Khyber Pukhtunkhwa are attempts at legitimacy that are reminiscent of metaphysical encounters with the Heart of Darkness into which the “wandering European enters at his peril” (Achebe).

Also, the most interesting choice of words in the interview is that by which Franche protests “the apartheid of opportunities” in Pakistan but he seems to miss the irony of it. This is such an unwittingly apt term for a system of racial colonisation in southern countries that was followed by an extractive industry under the guise of humanitarian intervention, and in which the UN plays a critically important role to give it a humane face. Franche’s observation of ‘opportunity apartheid’ in Pakistan is then countered by his citing the examples of the ‘good practices’ of well-meaning capitalists such as Babar Ali, and the businessmen of Sialkot who compensate for lack of public service provision by building their own airport.

A pity party

Clearly, Franche has no sociological or economistic understanding of what comprises the elite or classes in Pakistan and uses the terms loosely and interchangeably. This is why the vague stress on behavioural change of ‘the elite’ rather than a focus on structural policies regarding land reforms, tax regimes or those to do with redistribution of wealth. He offers no deeper understanding of the changing modes of production in the land economy of Pakistan nor over the fragmentation of power amongst “big landowners” who, in Franche’s opinion, still dominate Pakistan’s power dynamics. Neither is there any mention over the nature and methods of the middle classes’ capturing of “opportunities”.

Such limited and unhelpful analysis is not benign. Serious independent thinkers in Pakistan have dismissed such invitations to join Franche on his moral high-ground but many others have unfortunately chimed in with his ‘universalizing authority’.

Amazingly, unquestioning editorials have lamented with no evidence at all, how Franche has left Pakistan after “trying his best” but regret that “sadly Pakistan did not do its best for you.” Several Islamabad-based admirers have promoted Franche’s op-eds as if they are leading developmental mantra and others have been impressed because he’s socially agreeable to the criticism of the role of the Pakistan military in policy and development.

This invitation to understand ourselves socially, politically and even racially is, as Razack points out, a call to join “a fraternity of those who are neither of the hacked bodies on an African landscape nor of the unscrupulous U.S. or incompetent UN.” (In the case of Franche, his followers would be party to the UN chatter but that’s quibbling). The anxiety over western efforts to rescue Muslim women should not be limited but should also apply to the altruism of men such as Franche. By applauding his account, we help such commentary and observations that portend to mark out the terrain of what is good and what is evil. Why do we need such foreign officials to help take us to the depths of grief and trauma and build a misplaced diagnosis of the obvious via abstractions?

There is tremendous value to strengthening the universal bonds of brother- and sisterhood and in raising voices of solidarity for the marginalised and discriminated. The pretense, that development is a purely domestic panacea and magic bullet that can counter imperialist policies, is motivated by white men’s compassion that is not based on self-reflection, but contempt and/or pity. Pakistan’s officials, politicians, elite and powerful, including the military, have a lot to answer for. However, to distort the lens such that the sufferers are decentred at the expense of the non-representative authoritative figure who speaks for them is irresponsible at best and worse, it is to steal the pain of others.

(The News on Sunday would welcome more thoughts on the subject in order to take the debate further)

Afiya Shehrbano Zia

aafiya sheharbano
The writer is a researcher based in Karachi.

One comment

  • I had not taken the UNDP ‘lecture’ seriously, bu I should have, as the author illustrates, fiercely. I am well removed from the development set, so unaware of who all have taken the lecture seriously. Do wish they will take this author’s critique seriously. I would add a few things but most prominently the aversion to speak of ecological destruction by most celebrated human rights advocates, even sadly from the left. People matter, but that is not the end of the matter.

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