Interesting post a few days ago on Nick Kristof’s blog about the floods in Pakistan. A 17-year old girl named Sher Bano gives her account of the situation in Peshawar. Bano is a surprisingly thoughtful writer and does an excellent job conveying the reality on the ground. Based on her observations, the situation is, as other mainstream media outlets are reporting, a major humanitarian crisis made particularly acute by corruption and inefficiency within the Zardari government.

“The areas from where the water receded look like scenes from a Hollywood catastrophe movie. There is an aura of creepy silence in the markets, depression among the people, a stench that will make one vomit and piles of filth and mud everywhere.”

A number of commentators have already taken notice that international aid to Pakistan has been less than one might expect for a disaster of this magnitude. While the World Bank has set up an aid fund with initial pledges of $60m, the response from the general public in both the United States and Europe has been remarkably muted and contributions from OECD states have been low.

Max Fisher speculates in The Atlantic that at least part of this gap is due to Pakistan’s Muslim identity – both in the sense that it discourages Christian aid organizations (major sources of assistance in many crisis situations) from providing help and leaves US media outlets reluctant to devote significant coverage to the crisis. Fisher’s analysis seems intrinsically logical, especially given the recent Wikileaks document disclosure which implicated Pakistani intelligence in cooperating with Afghan insurgents. It is easy to understand why small-scale donors in the United States might be reluctant to donate funds that would very possibly end in the hands of the Pakistani government.

Bano, however, provides at least one compelling reason why the international community must not neglect flood victims.

“It’s a known fact that terrorist activities are sometimes initiated in my country. With no sign of a bright future, no education and no optimism, some Pakistanis might be encouraged to adapt the wrong ways of life, like embracing terrorism (maybe in the name of Islam). This is not a threat, but a bitter reality.”

International disaster relief, particularly in fragile and post-conflict states, can alleviate human suffering and demonstrate the United States’ commitment to basic humanitarian values. It can also increase national security. Radical faith-based organizations often gain credibility and traction with local populations after natural disasters that compromise the ability of the government to provide basic services. If flood reconstruction in Pakistan is not properly supported by the United States and other developed nations, the risk exists that extremist Muslim organizations will co-opt select reconstruction efforts and increase their public support. A Pakistani Taliban spokesman already called on citizens to, “reject…aid to maintain sovereignty and independence.”

While the United States has already increased emergency funding to Pakistan to $150 million, it must continue to distribute aid in innovative ways that will tangibly impact low income populations. Of particular importance is forming partnerships with local organizations and other alternate aid distribution channels that bypass the Pakistani government. Such a strategy would help deliver aid more efficiently (by virtue of cutting out the notoriously corrupt central government), be more tenable in domestic politics, and be less vulnerable to criticism from extremist leaders.

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