Pakistan’s Flood Victims Drown in Stereotypes of Terrorism and Graft

Military aid far outpaces the humanitarian help the West has sent.

By Michelle Chen Dec 10, 2010

As the murky deluge washed in and out of Pakistan this summer, so did the international media. A few weeks after massive floods surged in, the press drifted back to the usual coverage of drone attacks, Al Qaeda insurgents and corruption scandals that the U.S. more commonly associates with Pakistan. Millions of displaced people remain stranded on the floodplain today desperate for food and shelter. But on this side of the earth, the Pakistan we see is a counterterrorism quagmire, not a disaster zone.

The international response to Haiti’s earthquake last January, shameful by any standard, actually compares favorably to the aid promised to Pakistan. A Brookings Institution analysis of donations in the immediate aftermath of the two disasters displays a disturbing sympathy gap: 

Contributions per affected person were $157.16 for Haiti two weeks after the appeal, and only $15.24 per affected Pakistani–a ten-fold difference. Brookings Institution researchers Rebecca Winthrop and Justin van Fleet attribute at least some of this disparity to differences in media coverage, finding in the case of Haiti well over 3,000 stories in print and broadcast media within 10 days of the earthquake while Pakistan registered only slightly more than 1,000.

It’s impossible to make a direct comparison between the two disaster-stricken countries, which are similarly impoverished but facing different economic and political challenges. But in numerical terms, at least, the relative lack of public interest in Pakistan’s catastrophe suggests that international donors and media attach a different weight to the lives of victims there.

To some observers, the disparity in public response reflects a certain lack of awareness, perhaps donor fatigue, or, on a deeper psychological level, media myopia and racial bias. Pakistani journalist Huma Yusuf reports in Women’s International Perspective:

The widely held perception of Pakistan as a corrupt, failing nation that harbors terrorists and nurtures extremist groups prevented many from mustering enough sympathy to make a donation. As Elizabeth Byrs, the spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs conceded in mid-August, "We note often an image deficit with regards to Pakistan among Western public opinion."

Notably, this "image deficit" was at its greatest in the run-up to the floods. A CNN poll in June indicated that 78 per cent of Americans hold "mostly unfavorable views of Pakistan." Moreover, days before the U.N. announced its first flash appeal, British Prime Minister David Cameron, while on a visit to India, described Pakistan as a nation that exports and promotes terrorism.

As with Haiti, the question of aid is complicated by the perception of endemic corruption. 

At a recent international donor conference, officials demanded assurances that the money would not be squandered by crooked bureaucrats. The tight-fistedness is colored by longstanding suspicions that agents within the Pakistani state have played both sides of the metastisizing border conflict.

For politicians struggling with domestic budget deficits, it may be good politics to refuse to "throw good money after bad." Except of course, when that good money is being lavished on hopeless military ventures. The Pentagon’s largess flows freely to Pakistan. According to the Congressional Research Service (h/t Federation of American Scientists), "security-related" funding since fiscal year 2002 has snowballed to more than $12.5 billion, more than double the total amount of economic aid. 

Though the U.S. has pledged significant funds for Pakistan’s disaster response, economic aid for fiscal 2010 will once again lag behind security spending, with just $130 million of funds marked for "International Disaster Assistance" and "Migration and Refugee Assistance."

How much of that money actually reaches flood survivors is another story. It’s not just that corruption could siphon away donations, or that the logistics of aid delivery must contend with brutal conflict in borderlands, Kashmir and some cities. Some foreign aid may also get clogged in bureaucratic bottlenecks before ever reaching Pakistan. As of November, all but a fraction of the hundreds of millions in aid pledges existed only on paper.

Humanitarian groups have pressured the U.S. to push a $500 million tranch of aid into sustainable rebuilding efforts. Yet even immediate needs are being abandoned. According to Reuters, the U.N. flood-relief budget runs so thin, humanitarian workers are "turning to Pakistan’s private sector for help." That is, the aid community has resorted to begging industrial magnates like BP and GlaxoSmithKline. It’s hard not to speculate that these companies are motivated by a bit more than pure charity, when the pending long-term recovery effort, projected to cost nearly $10 billion, leaves plenty of room for lucrative contracts and investment deals.

There is obvious failure on both sides to respond effectively to this ocean of humanitarian needs. But the lackluster donor response shows how bitterness over a failing war can displace humanitarian impulse–especially when the victims share the religion and complexion of the "terrorist threats" who have swiftly replaced them in the headlines.

Christine Fair of  Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program points out that the media has focused on two negative, reductive story lines: In one, officials squander relief funds while enriching political cronies–a concern that prompted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to chide Pakistan for not taxing its rich people enough, while foreign taxpayers pick up the tab.

Then there is the alarmist narrative of organizations with terrorist ties swooping in to fill aid gaps in communities that the government hasn’t reached–a realpolitik incentive for charity that further conflates civilian needs with military conflict.

Neither story contemplates the real plight of ordinary Pakistanis. Their desperation doesn’t resonate very loudly in White House, either, which seems more concerned with whether the the food rations trickling into villages come from a group on a terrorist watchlist. 

Fair understands the international community’s frustration, predicting that corruption will remain regardless of whether Pakistan’s government is civilian or military run and that it "is likely to remain a key supporter" of organizations Washington considers security threats. But she adds:

We should not shut our eyes to their plight due to these political concerns, however valid, as even the most effective and transparent government would tremble under the weight of this disaster.

The imbalance between humanitarian and military assistance to Pakistan represents the confused posture of the U.S. presence there: growing militarization alongside eroding generosity toward civilians.

When the flood waters of the Indus River receded, they exposed a gap between Washington’s military endgame and its lofty talk about stabilizing the region. The "image deficit" is now a morality gap, in which millions of refugees face the wraths of nature and war with no allies in sight.