It gives me no pleasure to write negatively about Pakistan. Far too many people do that already. Scan the airwaves for articles about Pakistan and the overwhelming majority will be negative. In fact I can predict with some confidence the kind of phrases you are almost guaranteed to read: failed state, nuclear weapons, terrorism, sectarian conflict, human rights abuses. What bothers me is not that these things are untrue – there is some truth in them, at least – but that they represent only one side of Pakistan.
Yet despite my fondness for the country I have come to call home I cannot deny that inequality is one of the most visible aspects of life here. In Pakistan I have visited the homes of the wealthy, with air conditioning in every room, paintings on the walls, crystal glasses, fine china, and luxury food three times a day. I have also visited the homes of the poor, mere shacks of battered brick propped up with planks of wood, where dinner is cooked over a cow-dung fire. And I have seen homes even more impoverished than that: the shacks of canvas and cardboard which shelter the masses of shivering refugees from Afghanistan, Baluchistan, the tribal areas.
In Pakistan luxurious Toyota trucks with sparkling paint drive past children begging for rupees at traffic intersections. The homeless sleep on pavements, huddled in thin blankets, while the children of the wealthy walk past to their expensive schools, dressed in crisply-ironed uniforms. The wealthy splash thousands of rupees on dinner at one of the seven restaurants in the Islamabad Marriott while outside the homeless eke out an existence on the grace of others.
A friend who works in northern Pakistan commented that when he takes his household trash to the dump he is followed by gangs of children who fight over what his family throws away. Once, in Murree, I was so moved by the street kids who followed me around begging for food that I handed over the can of Coke I was about to drink – only to see them fight for it viciously.
Inequality exists everywhere; we live in a world in which billions of dollars is spent on dog food in the West while children starve to death in Bangladesh and Mongolia. But it feels more stark in the developing world. Perhaps welfare softens the starkness of inequality in the West, while the absence of state welfare over here means that the poor really are wretchedly poor.
What’s a Christian to do? We can’t ignore it. We can’t do nothing. But the task seems too great for any personal effort to make a tangible difference. “Be the change that you want to see in the world” said a famous South Asian, Mahatma Gandhi – not a bad place to start, I suppose.