This is shaping up to be an exceptional year in terms of the US response to natural disasters, and the reason – at least until this month – could be found in one word: Haiti.
Now, Pakistan is facing what could turn out to be the biggest natural disaster in its history in the continuing and worsening flooding there. That means America’s “first responders” to international disasters are coping with an unprecedented one-two punch.
“It’s a normal year in terms of the number of disasters we’re responding to,” says Mark Ward, acting director of the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), part of the US Agency for International Development’s (USAID). “What’s not normal and has been changing is the amount of money we’re spending: That’s been going up and up.”
The main reason for that is the magnitude of Haiti’s earthquake in January. Mr. Ward’s office spent almost a third of its $1.3 billion budget – nearly $370 million – on emergency response to the Caribbean country’s temblor. In fact, OFDA’s budget includes a $460 million supplemental that Congress approved in light of the spending on Haiti.
The Haiti total dwarfs what has been earmarked for the Pakistan floods so far in terms of total emergency response – about $76 million in civilian and military aid. But, Ward says, the $30 million that OFDA alone has provided will grow in the days and weeks ahead as the flooding spreads southward. Also, demand will shift from search-and-rescue to food delivery, shelter, and disease control.
The United States is also responding to China’s deadly flooding and mudslides. And so far, it has provided about $4.5 million in emergency aid – mostly firefighting clothing and other special equipment – to Russia to help fight the unprecedented fires there.
Just the emergency portion of the US response to Pakistan’s earthquake in Kashmir in 2005 ended up totaling $70 million. But this year’s monsoon flooding has already affected 14 million people, according to the United Nations, and is spread over a much wider region.
Both the Pakistan floods and Russia’s massive fires have led to speculation about a cause-and-effect relationship with global warming. USAID steers clear of global-warming polemics, but Ward says his office has witnessed a shift in the kind of disaster it has been called on to respond to.
“We can safely say to the Congress that we are responding to a great number of disasters of different types these days,” Ward says. Typically the bulk of OFDA spending has been on addressing the impact of conflict and other man-made crises in places like Iraq, Sudan, and Congo, he notes. In more recent years (think the tsunami in December 2004), spending on natural disasters has continued to grow.
Whatever lies behind Pakistan’s flooding, the country’s leaders are bemoaning what they consider to be a slow and inadequate international response.
Even President Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, suggested earlier this week that other nations have not yet stepped up to the plate to aid Pakistan as the US has. In addition to the $76 million in financial and humanitarian assistance so far, the US has dispatched more than a dozen heavy-capacity helicopters, plus water-purification units, ready-to-eat meals, shelter materials, and field hospitals.
Haiti, Ward says, may also help explain the “disappointing” international and private donations for Pakistan. “Aid fatigue post-Haiti is very real,” he says. For example, a State Department donate-by-cellphone campaign (you can text “SWAT” to the number 50555 to donate $10) has so far come up short.
Saying there is “no comparison” to the outpouring of private money after the tsunami and the Haiti earthquake, Ward speculates that “people may be tapped out.” And the global financial crisis may be holding back some countries and private companies.
Another explanation for weak private donations to Pakistan may be concerns over where money might end up, especially given publicity about some Muslim charities’ entanglement with the Taliban and other militant organizations. “I think there are real concerns out there,” both in the Pakistani “diaspora” and among other would-be philanthropists, Ward says, “that some of these organizations might have ties to some bad guys.”
That’s one reason USAID is listing the nongovernmental organizations it’s working with on the Pakistan page of its website.
Some would-be donors may also be thinking that Pakistan’s government is shunning help from the US or that Pakistanis are anti-American and don’t want US help.
“Unlike during the refugee crisis following the Pakistani military operations in the Swat Valley last year, the Pakistan government is publicly welcoming a US role in helping to mitigate the impact of the flood disaster,” she says. “The US response can help bolster the Pakistan government’s grip on the situation and strengthen the overall bond between our two countries.”