Waiting for the aid tide to turn
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called a special session of the UN General Assembly today to draw attention to the calamitous situation in Pakistan and the urgency of raising $460 million for flood victims. The lukewarm response to the UN’s appeal (less than 40% pledged so far) compares unfavorably with the $1 billion committed to Haiti within 10 days of the earthquake last January.
The difference in the speed and generosity of the international response to these two humanitarian tragedies is stark. Why does one catastrophe strike a chord and win a boat-load of funding while another elicits compassion but little cash?
With 1,500 dead, 20 million people displaced, and millions of hectares of agricultural land underwater, Pakistan would seem to have a solid claim on international support.
We have heard many explanations for the disappointing response. John Holmes, The UN’s emergency relief coordinator travelling with Ban Ki-moon in Pakistan last weekend, contrasted the drama of an earthquake or the tsunami with the ‘slow burn’ of this crisis, as the flood waters slowly engulf a fifth of the country.
Others point to the humanitarian overload of the last few months, with the Chilean and Haitian quakes followed by this summer’s fires in Russia. After witnessing so much suffering, people’s reserves of emotion are running low. This is compounded by the economic doldrums—and associated self-absorption—that continue to grip much of the donor world.
Or maybe it’s just that people are on vacation. After all, it’s August. But holidays did not prevent governments and ordinary citizens pumping millions of dollars into aid agencies when the Tsunami struck on December 26, 2005. It is true, that particular holiday, with its huge emotional pull and its associated over-indulgence, probably played a decisive role in mobilizing support.
So why is Pakistan having such trouble attracting support? When the earthquake struck, the proximity of Haiti to the US, historical ties to the Europe, and the large Haitian diaspora all played a part in embossing the country’s plight onto people’s imagination around the world. Pakistan also has historical ties—notably to the UK—as well as a large diaspora. But somehow these factors have not been clinchers.
People battered and displaced by Pakistan’s floods are the victims of the country’s image. One day the country is on the cover of news magazines, identified as one of the world’s most dangerous places. The next day people are called on to pony up cash for a place defined in the popular imagination by instability and nuclear weapons. It is a tough sell.
There may be other subliminal factors at work. One is the extent to which people see the crisis as fixable and, if it is, whether they believe the funds they donate will contribute to the fixing.
We see the same bind in countries whose fragility makes them prone to violent conflict. Most development instruments and donors reward strong performers, particularly performance on governance indicators. This is driven by the belief that aid is likely to be less well used, and less productive, in poor governance environments. The result is that fragile states as a group receive less funding per capita than other countries.
Whatever the reasons, Pakistan is getting less help than it needs. The hope must be that the aid tide turns in Pakistan’s favor lest the scope and scale of this natural disaster place unbearable stress on an already troubled state.