Aid finally flowing to flood-hit Pakistan as agencies struggle to explain slow public response

By Jill Lawless, AP
Wednesday, August 18, 2010

After slow start, aid finally flowing to Pakistan

LONDON — Crops destroyed, millions homeless, children hungry. The scenes from flood-hit Pakistan are wrenching — but the global response has been criticized as sluggish.

The United Nations says it has yet to raise half its $460 million target. The World Health Organization has received commitments for just 25 percent of the $56 million it has asked for. One aid group has called donations from European countries “feeble.”

Relief agencies say they are puzzled by the lack of generosity, while analysts cite a mix of factors: the disaster’s low death toll, its timing during the northern hemisphere’s summer holidays — and fears that aid money will be squandered through corruption or make its way into the hands of the Taliban.

“We are perplexed as to why the international community has not responded as generously and as quickly as it can do,” said Ian Bray, a spokesman for Britain-based aid agency Oxfam.

After a slow start, the U.N. and relief agencies say donations are now rising as the scale of the calamity becomes clear. But the response has been far less spectacular than the global generosity that followed Haiti’s earthquake and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

According to Oxfam, donors committed $742 million and pledged a further $920 million within the first 10 days after the Haitian quake. For Pakistan, the figures over the same period were $45 million and $91 million.

Earlier this week, the U.N. said governments had pledged more than $150 million to Pakistan, but $300 million more was still needed. On Wednesday, it said funding had more than doubled in the last two days and the appeal was now 50 percent covered.

“We’re moving in the right direction,” said Elisabeth Byrs, a U.N. humanitarian spokeswoman.

However, U.N. officials describe a palpable sense of fatigue among donors, and even among themselves. Employees of the global body organized a “Haiti staff fund” for their private donations earlier this year but haven’t done anything similar for Pakistan.

One factor is that individuals in many countries are feeling less generous as austerity sweeps Europe and North America.

Another is the gradual spread of the disaster — a flood is a creeping catastrophe rather than a sudden shock like an earthquake or a tsunami — and the relatively low death toll.

Since late July, floods triggered by monsoon rains have washed through Pakistan from its mountainous northwest, destroying hundreds of thousands of homes and an estimated 1.7 million acres (nearly 700,000 hectares) of farmland. Some 1,500 people have been killed, and 20 million are affected.

“The problem is that it’s not as immediate as an earthquake,” said Melanie Brooks of aid group CARE International. “It can’t be captured on a photograph like in Haiti. Someone wading through the water is not the same as seeing someone pulling a relative out of the rubble.”

Partly, it’s a question of proximity. Many Americans saw Haiti as a neighbor and responded generously. Pakistan is farther away, both geographically and psychologically.

The U.S. government is the largest bilateral donor, however, donating more than $70 million and sending military helicopters to rescue stranded people and drop food and water.

In Britain, where almost 2 million people have roots in Pakistan and where the flood has led many TV news bulletins, donations have been relatively robust.

The government has provided 16.8 million pounds ($26 million) in emergency aid and said it could offer a total of up to 31.3 million pounds. An emergency appeal has raised 19 million pounds from the British public.

Britain has been critical of the slow response from other nations. International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell, who toured affected areas of Pakistan on Wednesday, said aid was now starting to arrive “after a desperately slow start and a woefully inadequate response from the international community.”

Oxfam has also been also critical of the European contribution.

“So far, the response from Europe has been feeble,” said Neva Khan, Oxfam’s country director in Pakistan.

Some of the reluctance may be due to what the U.N.’s Byrs called Pakistan’s “image deficit” in the eyes of the Western public. The country is sometimes seen by critics as an unstable and corrupt nuclear-armed state that has been the crucible of many international terrorist plots.

British Prime Minister David Cameron angered Pakistan but echoed many of his constituents’ concerns when he said last month that Pakistan must not be allowed to “promote the export of terror.”

Wajid Shamsul Hasan, Pakistan’s ambassador to Britain, rejected claims aid was slow because of Pakistan’s image problem.

“It’s true that the aid is trickling in, but it has nothing to do with comments like these,” Hasan said. “The fact is our death toll has been relatively low when you look at disasters like the tsunami and the Haiti earthquake. But our infrastructure and industries are completely devastated now by these floods.”

Gareth Price, head of the Asia program at London-based think tank Chatham House, said that even before the floods, corruption had hampered Pakistan’s development programs and made countries less willing to give. Islamist groups capitalized on a lack of concrete results.

“If you are plowing money into Pakistan that is going into politicians’ pockets, it’s not just bad in itself — it’s supporting the movement you are supposed to be fighting against. I think that is one reason why the aid has slowed down.”

Others worry that this perception could cause a dangerous cycle — donors hold back for fear the money will be squandered, which in turn strengthens the hand of insurgents.

“What concerns me is the message of extremist groups — ‘The Pakistani government has abandoned you in your time of need’ — will be combined with a sense that the Western governments don’t care about you either,” said George Grant of The Henry Jackson Society, a right-of-center think tank in London. “That’s dangerous.”

In Switzerland, where the public has so far given about $4 million toward the relief effort — just a fifth of what was donated after Haiti’s earthquake — President Doris Leuthard urged people to put aside concerns about Pakistan’s political situation.

“Whatever you think about the politics in this part of the world, it’s women, men and children who are suffering,” she said in a radio appeal.

Klapper reported from Geneva. Associated Press Writers Paisley Dodds and David Stringer in London contributed to this report.

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