The devastation caused by mass floods in Pakistan over the past three weeks is of catastrophic proportion, yet the world has turned a blind eye.
Some 20 million people, almost the entire population of Australia, have been effected by the floods, with UN secretary general Ban-Ki Moon saying on Sunday he had never seen a disaster of such proportion.
To provide relief, the UN appealed for $460 million in aid which, roughly one month on from the disaster, is a target which still falls 50% short. The World Health Organisation estimated that of the near 20 million effected, only about 1.2 million have access to safe water supplies.
Foreign humanitarian efforts have been slammed as woefully inadequate, with the UK’s deputy prime minister Nick Clegg calling the international response “lamentable … absolutely pitiful”. Oxfam has also slammed the sluggish response from international governments to the crisis, reporting that the amount pledged totals to just $3.20 per affected person.
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Compare the slow international response to Pakistan’s crisis to that of the Haiti earthquake in January this year, where 10 days after the disaster $742 million had been pledged by the international community. Ten days into Pakistan’s disaster, a fraction of this, just $45 million, had been pledged.
It is not a question of supply; there are generally copious amounts of goodwill to be shared between global citizens, as demonstrated through the overwhelming response to the Haiti disaster and, closer to home, the Victorian bushfires of 2009. Nor is it a question of accessibility to flood-stricken sites: the New York Times reported aid workers in the region have cited the biggest challenge in the humanitarian effort not as access to those in need but a shortage of the most basic supplies — drinking water, food and shelter.
Why then the hesitation by the international community to provide relief? The lack of action is baffling even political analysts. According to Foreign Policy’s Afpak channel, it would be in the US’s best interest to provide relief to Pakistan — one of its few allies in a region of high strategic interest. So far the US has pledged just $76 million for immediate humanitarian relief in ad hoc payments — an insignificant sum, a senior Afpak policy analyst says considering what’s at stake for US-Pakistani relations.
Setting aside any notions of humanitarian motives from the US and focusing purely on its vested interest to further its strategic interest in Pakistan as a geographical base in its ‘war on terror’, even then, the numbers don’t add up.
One possible explanation for a lack of charitable donations might be the belief that the terrorists will take it and run — most likely to develop weapons of mass destruction, like the ones Bush’s regime uncovered in Iraq. Surely these suspicions, fuelled largely by propaganda and political agendas, could not be so strong as to override the need to give? For every possible terrorist in the region there are millions of real civilians suffering and dying.
The BBC reports those on the ground in Pakistan have cited fears of aid falling to extremists as unfounded. The US ambassador to Pakistan, Anne Patterson, played down the fears, saying that stories of extremist groups monopolising relief work were “greatly exaggerated”. The UK’s International Development Minister Andrew Mitchell, speaking in north-west Pakistan, said he felt the Pakistani relief teams were doing well in getting supplies to many of the victims in the face of great difficulties. The greatest difficulty being a trickle in international donation, to battle a flood of devastation.
If not this fear of extremist monopolisation of charitable funds that is stifling the flow of aid, then perhaps not enough has been done to ‘sell’ or personalise the plight of the millions suffering in Pakistan. If we are a consumerist society after all, then why should charity remain untainted of our need to get the most bang for our buck? Has charity been reduced to nothing more than an exercise in marketing, media and product selection? The dribs and drabs of media exposure received have been squandered on people who look different and speak English with a thick accent, if at all. Not many identities for the wealthy Western consumer to relate to.
Indisputably, the response from Pakistani government officials has also been less than inspirational. Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari is missing in action, not returning from a trip to Europe earlier in the month despite the growing crisis. If the country’s own leaders are deserting the victims in this time of need, it instils little faith in other countries to do otherwise. Disillusionment with the lack of internal leadership and with the neglect of the international community, vigilante uprising will seek to fill the gap in welfare programs. It is the ideal situation for groups, not all of them violent, but some of them only one or two degrees of separation from the armed militants and others with very narrow ideologies, to seize power. Not surprisingly, this will only lead to more devastation down the track.
The plight of the Pakistani people must veer out of the world’s blind spot. After all, charity sees. It sees the need, not the cause. It sees beyond the politics, into the realm of human suffering. It sees this, and it gives unconditionally, without seeking a return on investment.
Heavy rains continue in the region and disease threatens to spread rapidly. Mother nature provides no reprieve. The question is, will we?
*Durkhanai Ayubi is a policy analyst at the Australian Communications and Media Authority