Disaster Times Two in Pakistan

Pakistan flooding

Pakistan flooding

A year ago, monsoon rains devastated Pakistan, leaving nearly 20 percent of the country underwater, killing 1700-plus people, and doing about $43 billion worth of damage. In 2010, the Pakistani government was accused of incompetence and international donors of a sluggish response to the crisis. In August of that year, Associated Press journalist Nahal Toosi wrote that the apparent apathy could be attributed to the relatively low death toll, the slow-onset nature of the disaster, the lack of celebrity involvement, the perception of government incompetence, and global “donor fatigue” — or at least “Pakistan fatigue.”

With the country still recovering from the last go around, the country again faces major flooding in its southern provinces. Thus far the response to this year’s flooding has been even more anemic. Oxfam, Save the Children, CARE, and ACTED have all reported that, without an influx of funds, they will have to scale back relief programs. The UN has raised less than a third of the $357 million it needs to adequately respond to the crisis.

After last year’s failures, and with monsoon season a fairly predictable occurrence, why are Pakistan and the international community again unprepared for the flooding that has been looming for months? So far, U.S. bilateral assistance has been limited to a modest $19 million emergency relief package from USAID. In a political climate where Mitt Romney and other Republican candidates have suggested cutting off all aid to Pakistan, Washington appears reluctant to offer more help.

Relations at a Low Ebb

Opinion polls indicate that about three-quarters of Americans agree with Romney and would favor eliminating the approximately $20 billion in annual aid that Pakistan receives unless it demonstrates a greater commitment to combating terrorism. A Pew Global Attitudes poll shows that the animus is far from one-sided, with only 12 percent of Pakistanis holding a positive view of the United States. Following the Navy Seal raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad six months ago, Pakistan balked at the violation of its sovereignty while the U.S. questioned how the world’s most notorious terrorist could have been living undetected less than a mile from the Pakistan Military Academy. The U.S.-Pakistan relationship has now reached an all-time low, exacerbated by ongoing American concerns about the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency’s relationship with the Haqqani Network insurgent group.

The mutual distrust appears to affect both official US development assistance and donations from private American sources. There is an additional layer of complication for U.S. NGOs operating in Pakistan. Broadly interpreted, the PATRIOT ACT prohibits “material aid” to terrorist organizations, which has left many NGOs concerned about the consequences if their aid supplies inadvertently fell into the hands of insurgent groups. Although the State Department eased these restrictions during the Somali famine crisis, it only did so only under certain circumstances, leaving many NGOs hesitant to take any chances.

Another complicating factor is the U.S. drone campaign, which has long been a source of aggravation for most Pakistanis. Sources differ on how many civilian casualties these strikes cause, but regardless of the exact figures, there is little doubt that they are undermining any goodwill U.S. aid generates — almost three-quarters of which currently goes to the Pakistani military in any case.

Clive Stafford Smith, director of Reprieve, an international human rights NGO, described why strikes can be so counterproductive in a recent New York Times op-ed. On a recent trip to Pakistan, he met a group of Pashtun elders from the border region with Afghanistan. The men were incredulous when informed that, according to the official U.S. position, precision drone strikes had not killed any civilians in 15 months. Some of them had collected wreckage from drone missile strikes and taken pictures of the civilian casualties to prove that this was inaccurate.

Eager to help, a teenage boy named Tariq volunteered to gather evidence if it would help to safeguard his family in the future by discouraging future strikes. A couple days later, Tariq was dead, killed alongside his twelve-year-old cousin Waheed Khan by a Hellfire missile launched from a CIA drone. Even though such strikes have been effective at targeting high-level militants, and may even be slowing terrorist attacks in the region, the total impact is complex and often unquantifiable. The anger drone strikes cause may fuel more extremism than they prevent by radicalizing ordinary Pakistanis.

Disaster fatigue is also playing a role. With the devastating Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan less than eight months old, the ongoing crisis in Somalia still fresh in the public consciousness, a recent earthquake in eastern Turkey, and severe flooding in Thailand, it is certainly possible that a bleak global economic outlook and a host of disasters have overtaxed the world’s generosity.

Disaster Impact and the U.S. Response

With recovery efforts from the previous year still in progress, the latest floods could become a humanitarian catastrophe if more help does not arrive. According to The Guardian, more than 9 million people have been affected by the flooding, more than three-quarters of whom have not received any shelter. An additional 800,000 are still displaced while more than 1.58 million houses in Sindh province and 26,000 in Balochistan province have been destroyed or damaged. Approximately 3 million people are in need of emergency food assistance, while 2 million adults and 3 million children are at risk of contracting diseases.

In Washington, the assumption that drone strikes in Pakistan are necessary to maintain regional security largely goes unchallenged. However, it is not clear that the policy has actually reduced levels of militant violence or that the benefits outweigh the costs in terms of civilian casualties and damage to U.S. prestige in the region. At the very least, this is a question that that warrants a more rigorous analysis.

In the meantime, a more comprehensive relief package from USAID might not repair the rift between the U.S. and Pakistan or even reverse public perception of America for many Pakistanis. But it would at least provide a measure of goodwill in what has become an increasingly strained relationship and help avert a disaster that should transcend political considerations.

Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Nick Scott has a Master’s degree in Near and Middle Eastern Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He currently works at the Foundation Center, a leading source of information about philanthropy worldwide.