Pakistan floods: Why aid is so slow compared to Haiti earthquake

Pakistan floods have displaced 4 million people, but aid to the country has been at a trickle compared to other catastrophes, such as the Jan. 12 Haiti earthquake.

Aaron Favila/AP
A man signals to another driver to give way as they negotiate a road in flood hit Muzaffargarh district, Punjab province, Pakistan, Thursday. Despite the thousands killed by the Pakistan floods, the estimated 4 million rendered homeless, and the 8 million people who have now become reliant on aid for their very survival, aid to the country has been slow compared to Haiti earthquake.

By the third week of the Jan. 12 Haiti earthquake aftermath, the outpouring of individual aid donations was so huge that some aid workers worried the country couldn’t absorb them all. That, apparently, won’t be a problem in Pakistan, where unusually high rainfall has created floods not seen for a century.

Despite the thousands killed by the Pakistan floods, the estimated 4 million rendered homeless, and the 8 million people who have now become reliant on aid for their very survival, individual aid donations from around the world are coming in at a trickle.

Some blame “donor fatigue,” where traditional donors to worthy causes find themselves broke after giving so much to Haiti and other causes. Some blame timing: The Haitian earthquake happened just after the start of the year, when people still had money. And some blame politics, and the lingering ill feelings that some in the West have toward Pakistan in the now-decade long war on terror.

IN PICTURES: Pakistan floods

“I do feel this lack of sympathy, or at least a lack of engagement that you would see in other parts of the world,” says Asim Qureshi, a British citizen of Pakistani descent, and executive director of a London-based human rights group, Cageprisoners. “This is the result of the vilification, especially of those living in the northern regions (of Pakistan), who are portrayed as monsters, who carry out barbaric acts in the name of jihadist Islam. You had people writing stories about whether if people gave money it might end up in the hands of the Taliban. Now, the only people giving are the Islamist groups, like Jamaat e-Islam, Jamaat ud-Dawa, and Lashkar e-Taiba. So if you wanted people to turn to those kinds of groups, you’ve given them a reason to do so. You abandon these people and left them to the people you dislike.”

Lack of funding

The lack of funding has created a kind of a crisis, aid workers say. The United Nations has issued an additional appeal – with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon visiting the flood affected area last week – and this seems to have created a spike of new donations. But the need in the Pakistani flood zone is far outpacing the donations, and with rains continuing to fall, the problem is far from over.

According to the United Nations, half of the $460 million requested to assist Pakistan in flood recovery efforts has been received, with another $42 million pledged. The US is the largest source of donations, with Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts in the flood-zone announcing yesterday that the US would give $150 million, followed by Britain, donating about $40 million thus far.

But for large international aid organizations, which usually compete against one another for the chance to lead emergency aid operations, the overall dearth of donations has meant that they are having to play things slow.

“We’re at 15 percent of our $10 million emergency appeal,” says Melanie Brooks, spokeswoman for the emergency team of Care International, based in Geneva. “We don’t necessarily pull back from operations, but we don’t necessarily put up our hands as much either. We can only do what we have the money to do.”

Coming just 7 months after the Haiti earthquake, the Pakistani floods are coming at a time when the people who generally donate aid are feeling the pinch of a tough economy, Ms. Brooks adds. But the scale of the floods in Pakistan had also made it difficult for people to grasp. “When the flooding started, people thought, 'This happens every year,’ and the floods will recede and people will go home. But it’s still raining there. This isn’t going away, and people are starting to understand the magnitude of the crisis, and the consequences.”

The UN Wednesday said the pace of donations has increased in recent days from the immediate aftermath of flooding. “We thank donors for their generosity, and ask them to keep up this accelerated pace of donations. The road ahead remains long. We should all also be ready for any increase in requirements,” said John Holmes, UN Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator in statements on the UN website.

A comparison to Haiti

But the pace of giving still pales in comparison to other disaster recovery efforts, most notably the Haitian earthquake in January.

According to Shannon Scribner, Senior Policy Advisor for Humanitarian Response at Oxfam America, nearly three weeks into the disaster in Pakistan, the roughly $230 million committed to help 15 million people affected breaks down to about $15 committed per flood affected person. Within 10 days of the Haiti earthquake, $742 million was committed (and $920 million pledged). With some 1.5 million people directly impacted, that breaks down to $495 per person committed, she says.

Ms. Scribner says the sluggish response may be due to donor fear over how the government in Pakistan will use funds. So-called donor fatigue, just six months after historic giving went to Haiti, and concerns over UN inefficiency could also be playing a role. “It’s also an unfortunate fact that different types of disasters attract different levels of attention and different levels of funding,” she says. “Tsunamis and earthquakes, for example, historically have tended to attract higher levels of funding than slower onset disasters such as droughts and floods.”

Kenneth Ballen, the founder of the DC-based Terror Free Tomorrow, agrees that the slow-moving nature of this disaster could be a reason that the world has not mobilized. “It is a less visual, less dramatic and immediate disaster, even if it threatens to be a far greater one,” he says.

The distance factor

He also says that Pakistan might not draw as much empathy from American donors because of distance. Haiti is considered by many in the US a southern neighbor. Another factor, he says, could be “the image of Pakistan as a haven of extremism.”

Aid organizations are calling for more help, with Mr. Ban hosting a meeting at the UN Thursday to attempt to mobilize the international community. Some 20 million people have been affected by the floods in Pakistan, and according to UN data based on government figures, 8 million require emergency assistance. Nearly 800,000 people have received food from the UN and its partners, and 1.4 million have received access to clean water.

Nearly a million have received shelter material, but this is just a fraction of what is required moving forward.

Scribner says that with huge swathes of the country under water, water-borne diseases are risks ahead, as well as severe malnutrition. The US has committed $82.8 million, according to the UN, which outpaces other countries.

Ballen says, however, that in the long-term the US could lose if it does not respond faster and more forcefully. During the 2004 tsunami, which killed over 200,000 people, and the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan that killed 75,000, the US launched massive recovery efforts. His organization polled residents in Indonesia and Pakistan in the wake of both tragedies on their attitudes towards the US and its recovery operations. In Indonesia approval soared, to 65 percent.

In Pakistan, after 2005, approval ratings doubled to 46 percent after American aid began to pour in, up from 23 percent six months prior to the quake.

“Right now some of the radical groups in Pakistan are on the frontlines of delivering aid, as they did during the earthquake, until the US stepped in with a massive effort,” he says.

IN PICTURES: Pakistan floods

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