Zardari's Katrina

Why is Pakistan’s president junketing while his people drown?

View a slide show of Pakistan's great flood.

This week, Pakistan's president, Asif Ali Zardari, boarded a private Gulfstream jet along with his family and his hundreds-large entourage to visit the European countries included on the president's grand tour. Yesterday, Zardari -- who was married to my aunt, the late Benazir Bhutto, before her 2007 murder -- landed in London. As soon as the plane touched down, the president and his Very Important coterie were chauffeured in a dozen luxury vehicles to a five-star hotel where the president will be staying in a £7,000 ($11,160) per night Royal Suite.

His welcome, however, was less than royal. On the drive to the hotel, protesters held placards reading "Zardari King of Thieves," "Zardari 100% Pure Corruption," and "GO Zardari GO." While Zardari was schmoozing with his cronies in luxe London hotels, Pakistan was reeling from the deadliest floods to hit the country in 80 years. In short, it looks like Zardari's Katrina.

More than 3 million people in the northwestern region of Pakistan have now been affected by the floods. Parts of the north are facing terminal food shortages even as they are inaccessible to relief workers. The U.N. World Food Program says that 1.8 million will urgently need something to eat in coming weeks. The death toll has risen steadily in recent days to more than 1,400 people. About another million have lost their homes.

The news is also unlikely to get any better: Officials now say that the waters are expected to hit Punjab and Sindh provinces, Pakistan's food-producing regions. New flood warnings are still being issued, and the country is bracing for further monsoon downpours.

Zardari takes a lot of overseas trips -- so many that one local TV pundit estimated somewhat anecdotally last year that Richard Holbrooke, U.S. President Barack Obama's special envoy to the "AfPak" region, had spent more time in Pakistan than Zardari had recently. But the timing of this particular visit has angered not only his subjects but also his hosts. Two prominent Asian Britons refused to meet the visiting head of state. Khalid Mahmood, a member of Parliament, vigorously condemned Zardari's decision to visit London. "A lot of people are dying," he told the press. "He should be [in Pakistan] to try to support the people, not swanning around in the UK and France." Lord Ahmed, a labor MP, continued that Zardari had a responsibility to be "looking after people, not [be] over here."

Yet the protests seem to have fallen on deaf ears -- which really shouldn't surprise anyone who has watched the Zardari government in action. The floods are just the latest, most tragic example of how inept the Pakistani state truly is. The inundation was predictable; Pakistan suffers monsoon rains every year at exactly the same time. But in a country -- and with a president -- so endemically corrupt, dealing with the entirely preventable, whether terrorism or natural disasters, has become impossible. There is simply no will, and more importantly no money, to spend on the Pakistani people. The country's coffers are constantly being diverted to more pressing programs -- or pockets, for that matter. Before he came to office, Zardari was facing corruption charges in Switzerland, Spain, and Britain. (As president, he withdrew Pakistan's cooperation with the latter two countries' courts; his presidential immunity prevented a Swiss case from reopening.)

And thus the tragedy unfolds: There are no emergency evacuation plans for natural disasters, nor is there money for institutions that could help victims of such crises. What there is money for -- almost $600,000 -- are such programs as the Martyr Benazir Bhutto Income Support Scheme, a cult-of-personality initiative named after the president's late wife. Those who sign up receive meager cash handouts and find themselves on the president's ruling party's election rolls -- which themselves received more government funds than two whole federal departments of Pakistan put together.

Meanwhile, if rumors in the Pakistani press are right, Zardari's European tour is even more cynical than it already seems. The trip is meant to kick-start the president's young son's political career. That launch has to take place overseas to avoid the inevitably hostile reactions such a dynastic coronation would draw back in Pakistan. Speculation has it that Zardari's son Bilawal, a recent college graduate who is already co-chairman along with Zardari of their political party, will proclaim himself the future leader of Pakistan to a select audience in Birmingham on August 7.

Pakistan's The News newspaper summed up popular sentiment in a laundry list of questions posed to the country's High Commission in London. "Who is paying for the buses and coaches being booked to bring people to the Birmingham rally?" the paper asks. "Why will the president not cancel his visit?" And the most crucial question: Shouldn't the money for the trip be better spent on the flood victims? In response, the Pakistani High Commission issued a one-line blanket response: "This is an official visit and procedures for official visits are being followed."

Pakistan can ill afford a president who prioritizes his personal political future over the lives of millions of his citizens. We have always known in Pakistan that the rest of the world's attention comes at a tremendously high cost. Yet we seem to keep paying.

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Digital Diplomacy

So what if Hillary Clinton's "21st Century Statecraft" isn’t exactly reinventing international relations for the information age? It's still a worthy endeavor.

This summer, techies across Africa are racing to develop mobile-phone "apps" that make their users' everyday lives just a little bit better. The best among them will be chosen as the winners of the "Apps <4> Africa" contest, sponsored by the U.S. State Department and three local technology communities: the Nairobi-based iHub, Kampala-based Appfrica Labs, and the Social Development Network, which works throughout East Africa. Judged on such criteria as their "usefulness to the citizens, civil society organization or government of East Africa," the winner will receive "a small bit of fame and fortune" and the tools to keep honing his or her craft. What the United States hopes to get out of the project is a little bit of grassroots, bottom-up development driven by nothing more than African ingenuity and the continent's mobile-phone network.

This is "21st Century Statecraft," a new diplomatic initiative that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has fully embraced over the past year. Forget the grandiose name; the idea behind it is actually a modest, practical one: In today's interconnected world, individuals and organizations -- not just countries -- can play a defining role in international affairs, and the State Department needs to capitalize on this new landscape. Ultimately, Foggy Bottom plans to infuse its mission with an understanding of how the global communications network ties the world together; for now, the initiative consists of a series of smaller projects designed to use the Internet, mobile phones, and social media to promote U.S. foreign-policy goals.

Just months into the new strategy, there are already many skeptics of tech-based statecraft. Last week, Emmanuel Yujuico and Betsy Gelb argued in Foreign Affairs that this new strategy -- which they equate with previous U.S. efforts at "social engineering" -- will fail to change societies and governments. The authors compare Washington's efforts to a screwball attempt by automotive entrepreneur Henry Ford to construct an idyllic Midwestern-like town in the heart of the Amazon rainforest to supply him with rubber. The idea that "U.S.-directed methods can spur development in other nations" is, they argue, flawed from the outset -- with or without new technology.

Thankfully, however, the State Department's recent work bears little resemblance to the sort of social engineering that Yujuico and Gelb describe. In fact, it is if anything more pragmatic and humble than much of the statecraft that the United States has practiced over the years.

The new strategy is essentially a recognition of the networked world we live in. The global network of information and communication technology now connects more than half of all people on Earth, mostly through mobile phones. More than 4.5 billion people currently own a mobile phone, and within the next decade, that number will reach 90 percent of the global population. So when Clinton speaks of "a single Internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas," she is not describing some messianic attempt to impose American technological solutions on the rest of the world. She is talking about the world as it soon will be -- and in many ways already is.

Although its methods are different, the initiative's goals and ambitions are the same as those sought by the United States for decades. Connective technologies are simply the latest tools available to address diplomatic problems. Take the example of Haiti, where the State Department helped build a system for earthquake victims to seek aid via text message. The SMS messages were then translated from Creole to English and forwarded to relief workers in a matter of minutes. The State Department sponsored the creation of a mobile-based social network in Pakistan that boasts some 450,000 users and runs entirely over SMS, since most Pakistanis don't have smartphones. In Mexico, Washington is working with the Mexican government, a Mexican telecom firm, and Mexican NGOs to create an SMS system through which citizens can report crimes anonymously and thereby avoid retaliation by the country's increasingly fearsome drug gangs.

The hope in all of this is that the U.S. State Department can be a cut above other governments in becoming a technologically adept diplomatic machine. Think of it as the polar opposite of what the United Arab Emirates have done this week in vowing to shut down web browsing, email and instant messaging on Blackberry devices. Technology, Foggy Bottom realizes, can cause major headaches for authoritarian regimes. But it also opens possibilities for people everywhere. And those opportunities are precisely the point.