Reframing a Load-shedding Civil Society


It’s not easy to fight for rights and human dignity when you don’t have power for half the day.  Punjab Province in Pakistan loses it’s electricity every other hour as part of the “load-shedding” so common now throughout the country.  Computers turn off every other hour.  Air conditioners sputter, and the stifling, wet heat makes it’s way in to every room.  The power company, low on funds and lacking expertise, can’t cope with excessive demand.

Half the talks I have given have been in rooms without power.  Talks where I have spoken about the need for strong civil society, strong government institutions and the importance of fighting for one’s civil rights and liberties.  But how can you fight for your rights, when issues like access to power (and related issues like access to clean water, healthy food and security) haven’t yet been resolved?  How do you even begin to challenge the institutions of power when half your workday is spent doing nothing?

The question has no easy answers.  The natural tendency is to pivot to address the load-shedding problem first, and then worry about problems higher up on Maslow’s hiearchary.  The problem with this “resources first” approach is that people in all societies, especially the young, poor and elderly, continue to have resource issues irrespective of how developed their societies are.  And though these issues may sometimes not be as severe as those in Pakistan, the quest for civil rights and human dignity cannot be paused for the equally important work to obtain access to basic needs.

Many folks in developed countries would die to have 4-5 hours a day away from their computers, facebook and other distractions in order to focus on long-term projects.  Perhaps, load-shedding isn’t just an annoyance and a drain on productivity and morale, but a time to work on a long school paper or complicated project proposal.  Perhaps load-shedding is time to take a break and read a book, or check in with loved ones.  Perhaps load-shedding is, for better or for worse, an imposed fast either to take a break or work harder on those things that matter.  

Muslims in Pakistan and across the world fast once a year during the Holy Month of Ramadan.  During this month, which just passed, they drink no water and eat no food from dawn till dusk. They fast not just to become closer to God and to sympathize with those who have less, but also to gird themselves against temptation and motivate themselves to do good work.  In other words Ramadan is just as much about discipline as it is about spirtuality and good deeds. 

Perhaps load-shedding, though not voluntary, is a societal fast of the same order.  A time for Pakistanis to work harder, or work slower.  A time for them to focus on what matters or take a break.  A time, perhaps, to ask tough questions about load-shedding itself, and through focused work and consultation, begin working on a solution to the problem.