by Beenish Ahmed
United Nations General Secretary Ban Ki Moon has called the recent floods in Pakistan the worst humanitarian disaster he has ever witnessed. With over 20 percent of the country under water, contagious diseases run rampant while the delivery of vital goods and services are all but halted by gushing water and broken roads.
While the 1500 projected dead in Pakistan is a minuscule sum compared to the 100,000 lives lost in the earthquake that ravaged Haiti at the onset of this year, or the 250,000 killed by the South East Asian Tsunami of 2004, exponentially more people are adversely affected by the flood. As cruel as the reality seems, the amount of aid needed cannot be measured in terms of death toll, but in terms of those who continue to live amidst the rubble of their former lives.
The plights of those who survive when all around them falls to a state of ruin is especially heart-wrenching, and tuning in to such atrocity has not come without a response of great empathy. An outpouring of donations to relief work came from all corners of the world as it watched the aftermath of hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, and now a catastrophic flood. Still, with such widespread devastation hitting the globe with frightening regularity, the amount that sympathetic souls can give, especially those who are themselves hard-pressed by a recession of epic proportions is seemingly on the decline.
According to data recently compiled by The Guardian, just over $370,000,000 has been donated to Pakistan at the time of writing. Unfortunately, over half of this amount comes in the way of uncommitted pledges. If this round of relief will follow the patterns seen in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, it can be assumed that the majority of unconfirmed aid will never be seen in Pakistan. Even if the total amount offered does come through, it would mean only $18.50 per survivor. A pithy sum compared to the average of $1500 per 5 million surviors that resulted from the 7 billion US dollars pledged by state actors alone to aid victims of the Tsunami. Much more will be needed in Pakistan, since as the UN has pointed out, in terms of numbers, flooding in Pakistan has affected 2 million more people than the 2004 Tsunami, the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, and the 2010 Haiti earthquake combined.
And while funding to provide displaced and devastated Pakistanis with much needed food, shelter, and medical supplies should rise in the coming days, relief agencies are already beginning to wonder why the world has been so much more hesitant to offer aid to Pakistan than it was in the aftermath of other similar calamities. Has the world grown weary of opening its wallets to natural disasters which seemingly strike with only greater frequency every year? Or is Pakistan a special case, one mired in a complexity that works against the generosity of potential donors?
According to Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the lack of aid pledged to Pakistan is due to the “image deficit” it maintains in the Western world. The reason for Pakistan’s poor report with public opinion can easily be traced to the ties it allegedly has with the Taliban as well as terrorist factions like those held responsible for the November 2008 attacks on Mumbai, India.
Still, it is a sad irony that disaster breeds opportunity, or as some such as Naomi Klein, author of groundbreaking work The Shock Doctrine conjecture, destruction begs re-construction. Writing about the dark side of relief work, Klein offers evidence of how disasters such as the Southeast Asian Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina paid sound returns as land was bought out by hotel magnates and real estate tycoons. Shocking, but not altogether unfathomable as one recalls the new face of New Orleans, re-built, but without the public housing that made the calamity stem from bad to worse as thousands were rendered homeless—unable to return to even the unsound structures that left them seeking shelter in the Silver Dome to begin with.
Following the pattern of relief and re-development, governments and corporations alike might be especially reticent to pay up to Pakistan given its track record of institutional instability. Long-dubbed the “world’s most dangerous place” by The Economist and caught in a dismal spiral of stagflation, rain clouds in Pakistan lack the silver-lining needed to draw investors willing to re-build its ravaged infrastructure.
Still, disaster does hold a very different kind of opportunity. The American government is now deploying troops to bolster relief work in hopes of casting a more favorable opinion in the stronghold necessary to wage President Obama’s revamped War on Terror in which Pakistan is a stage for almost daily drone attacks. Indeed, aid work is quickly becoming the new battleground for winning the hearts and minds of the Pakistani people. As many fear that a lack in western funding for the floods will be filled by Taliban sources, the US is more keen than ever to use relief as a way to quell the influence of Islamist fundamentalists. Many individuals, however, fear that any contributions they make to relief efforts will be lost to the corruption that has so long characterized the country, helping to serve the cause of terrorism instead of those terrorized by weeks of muddy water and the destitution it has wrought across so much of Pakistan.
But while the game of politics is played, 20 million Pakistanis are desperately trying to stave off the very real threats of starvation and the contraction of contagious diseases such as cholera. Without the estimated $460 million required to meet immediate needs alone, the future bodes only murky prospects for people living in the flooded fifth of Pakistan.
Beenish Ahmed recently received an Mphil in Modern South Asian Studies while studying at the University of Cambridge as a Fulbright Scholar to the United Kingdom.