US outspends Islamabad on flood relief in Pakistan

But instead of helping repair US-Pakistan relations, the flood aid looks as if it is feeding into old patterns of distrust between the two countries.

By , Correspondent

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    Local residents wade through a flooded area caused by heavy monsoon rains in Dera Ghazi Khan, Pakistan, Sept. 10, 2012.
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The US government has pledged more money toward this year's flood relief efforts in Pakistan than the country's own government, according to a report this month from the Congressional Research Service.

Floods have devastated swaths of the Pakistani countryside this year. And once again the United States is contributing substantial funds, despite strained ties between the two governments and large anti-American street protests. 

According to a little noticed detail in a report titled “Pakistan: US Foreign Assistance,” the country's central government has pledged $91 million toward flood relief, a third less than the $134.6 million promised by the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) as of the end of September 2012. 

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But instead of helping repair US-Pakistan relations, the flood aid looks more likely to harden the existing pattern in which Americans tire of financially supporting a country where elites are barely taxed and the majority of citizens dislike the US. Pakistan, meanwhile, points out that US pledges are often much greater than the aid actually delivered – and what aid does come is spent in a self-serving manner.

"These aid figures are on paper and never really materialize into anything. The foreign aid pledge is always about – this will come, that will happen, but it never does," says Irshad Bhatti, spokesperson for the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), an autonomous government body that looks after disaster relief in Pakistan.

Mr. Bhatti stressed that the Pakistani government with the help of NDMA distributed 45,000 tents and 100,000 rations this year to the flood-affected areas. He also says a total of around 25 billion rupees (about $261.78 million) was kept aside for natural disasters like floods this year in the federal and provincial budgets.

"As far as I know, we did everything ourselves this year. We did not get any direct funding from US or any other government,” Bhatti says, and he complained that foreign aid comes with too many conditions. “I do not believe it is for our help but to serve their [the donor country’s] own interests,” Bhatti replied when asked to comment on the US report, claiming that the American government aid pledge is more than that of Pakistan.

The US Embassy in Pakistan said that for floods this year USAID has disbursed around $100,000 so far. Since 2009, the US government has spent over a billion dollars in humanitarian assistance.

The floods in Pakistan this year have killed more than 400 people over the past five weeks and affected more than 5 million people, according to NDMA data. However, the aftermath of flooding in the past two years has not been as bad as in 2010, when Pakistan suffered the worst floods in its history; almost 1,800 people were killed and some 21 million were affected.

Commenting on the extent of disaster, Bhatti also says that Pakistan's management of floods and other natural disasters needs to improve to minimize the damage. “We need to plan better to avoid the catastrophic impact of floods and people are not learning from their past. Why will the international community help us if we do not help ourselves?” 

US frustration

In the aftermath of the 2010 crisis, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton pushed Pakistan – a country with one of the lowest tax compliance rates in the world – to get the country’s elites to pony up.

“It’s absolutely unacceptable for those with means in Pakistan not to be doing their fair share to help their own people while taxpayers in Europe, the US, and other contributing countries are all chipping in,” Ms. Clinton said just over two years ago.

Since then, Pakistan has made promises to its lenders at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to expand its tax net, but has consistently failed to do so.  

“Essentially, I think it is outrageous that the American taxpayer is continuing to bail out Pakistan when the elite there continue to not pay taxes,” says Christine Fair, a Pakistan expert at Georgetown University in Washington. “What’s even more outrageous, the Pakistanis have consistently made commitments to the IMF to expand their tax net in exchange for getting very lucrative bailouts, knowing full well they will never implement those commitments.”

Part of the problem, says Ms. Fair, is that Pakistani officials know that the US will pressure the IMF to keep providing money to the government, even when it fails to implement promised reforms.

Pakistani donations play role

Bhatti, the spokesman for NDMA, stressed, however, that funding from charity and donations from Pakistani individuals is significant, giving the agency revenues unmatched by any international assistance.  Many welfare organizations working in Pakistan for relief assistance in flood-affected areas also say Pakistani philanthropy is key.

“If the US government is doing more, then it’s a positive step, but [the] Pakistani government should have the leading role. Sadly, they do not care much about their own people and lack planning. However, local organizations were at the forefront of helping flood-affected population this year,” says Ibtisam Elahi Zaheer, head of an Islamic welfare organization in Lahore.

Like the NDMA official, Mr. Zaheer does not trust the claims of the American government.

“The US can easily be lying about it because they are always exaggerating about aid to Pakistan. And even if they are giving more than the Pakistani government, it is only compensating the destruction and loss American drones are causing in the country,” he adds.

 * Ben Arnoldy contributed to this report from Boston.

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