Why is the world not responding as Pakistan drowns?

Reuters | AlertNet | Aug 19, 2010 | 2:06pm IST

Scant international donations to flooded Pakistan are being driven by a multitude of factors ranging from the financial crisis, donor fatigue, a low death toll and scepticism that the government can translate the contributions into effective aid, say relief workers and analysts. The disaster, which has killed up to 1,600 people and affected around 20 million, is one of the biggest humanitarian crises in recent years – bigger than the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 or the earthquake in Haiti earlier this year, according to the United Nations. Yet despite the television images broadcast across the world showing large swathes of land submerged, villages and towns decimated and hundreds of thousands of people living in makeshift camps with no food and water, the world has been slow to react to calls for aid.

While some donations in cash and kind have been provided bilaterally or channeled via smaller appeals, only around 50 percent of the $459 million of the main U.N. appeal has been met by international donors – far less than in other recent disasters. “It’s pretty much fair to say that there has been a lot less money generated for the Pakistan floods than the other major disasters that it has been compared to, like Haiti and Kashmir earthquakes or the tsunami,” said Jan Kellett, leader of Global Humanitarian Assistance, a programme that monitors trends in humanitarian financing run by British-based Development Initiatives. “For example, on day 16 after the tsunami, commitments of aid were more than $1.4 billion, whereas the Pakistan flooding has received $200 million over the same period. So there is a huge difference.” He does however add that comparisons between crises at such an early stage are notoriously difficult.


Stretching from the far north of the country to the deep south – an area the size of England, Pakistan’s floods have overwhelmed aid workers and authorities since they began almost three weeks ago. Highways and bridges have been washed away, marooning hundreds of villages. Millions are now in danger of contracting diseases carried through contaminated water and insects such as diarrhoea, cholera and malaria. Aid workers say the lack of funds has meant that only a tiny fraction of the 8 million people in need of urgent assistance have received food rations, clean drinking water and shelter. Donor fatigue has, as in most disasters, become a significant challenge to getting the funds required, aid workers say. “The disaster has not come at a good time,” said Tammy Hasselfeldt, Pakistan director for the International Rescue Committee, an aid group, and chairwoman of the Pakistan Humanitarian Forum, a coalition of 37 of the biggest aid agencies in the country. “First, it comes during the financial crisis and then it comes after the Haiti earthquake where donors have already made a huge aid commitment… It may be hard for them to fund another major disaster in a given fiscal year due to their budgetary restraints.”

Others say the complexity of the disaster – the varying flood patterns and degree of help required in different parts of the country – may have made it difficult for donors to understand its effects. “I think the sheer scale of the disaster means it is very hard for people to comprehend and put it into context,” said Ben Ramalingam, head of research and development at ALNAP, a network of major international humanitarian agencies. “I suspect the low death toll of about 1,600 has also played a part in slow response. Some might argue that if more people died, then sadly it would be easier to mobilise donors. While we have seen pictures of the floods on our TV screens and maps of the affected areas, it may be that there hasn’t been enough of a human face to this disaster yet.”


As the Pakistani military has been spearheading relief efforts, the civilian government has been criticised for its ineffective response and President Asif Ali Zardari has been slammed for going ahead with an official visit to Europe while the disaster unfolded. Many survivors have received no aid and public anger is growing. Some flood victims have blocked highways to demand government help or to try and snatch relief goods from passing trucks. Some analysts believe this tarnished image of the government – and a more general perception of corruption in Pakistan – could be discouraging donors from coming to the rescue. But other experts disagree. “No government anywhere, including in the developed world, would have been able to deal with a calamity of this magnitude on its own,” said Samina Ahmed, South Asia project director for the International Crisis Group. “Zardari’s visit to Europe was a bad political call, but you have to look at the facts on the ground, at the size of the disaster, instead of looking for scapegoats.” Some observers draw parallels with the earthquake in Haiti, which attracted around $3 billion in international aid despite concerns over corruption and the collapse of the entire government machinery.


According to the latest figures from the U.N. Financial Tracking System, the top donor has been the United States – a key ally of Pakistan – contributing almost 40 percent of the $208 million committed so far to the U.N. appeal. Australia and the United Kingdom have each provided almost 13 percent of the money, while the European Commission has provided less than 1 percent. Neva Khan, Pakistan director at aid group Oxfam, said the British government had made “a good start” pledging more than 30 million pounds ($47 million). “But it can and should do much more to help the people of Pakistan. This is a disaster on an unprecedented scale which needs an equally robust response. Britain should be leading from the front by committing more aid money and pressing other wealthy countries, especially its EU partners, to do the same. So far, the response from Europe has been feeble,” she added.

Experts say everyone – Pakistan’s government, the United Nations and aid agencies – need to do more to grab donors’ attention. The weekend visit by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to Pakistan where he described the plight of survivors as “heart-wrenching” has gone some way towards that, but that is not enough. Aid workers say Zardari should declare a national emergency because it would help the world understand the seriousness of the crisis and draw in more funds. Explaining the scale and nature of the disaster, what the needs are and exactly how aid is going to be delivered could also help. “We are planning a whole series and sequence of events from the autumn into the winter to maintain the crucial international attention and focus on the extent of the crisis and the massive needs of the people of Pakistan,” said Kilian Kleinschmidt, deputy to the U.N. Secretary General’s Special Envoy to Pakistan, adding that the U.N. General Assembly would hold a special session on Pakistan on Thursday.



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