Why we're slow to help Pakistan


Two weeks ago the United Nations declared the massive floods in Pakistan had affected 13.8 million people and eclipsed the scale of the devastating 2004 tsunami. Pakistan government and UN officials appealed for urgent relief efforts. Then UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon inspected the affected areas and was shocked by what he saw, as Pakistan's disaster was being described as the worst in living memory.

'A heart-wrenching day for me and for my delegation. I will never forget the destruction and sufferings I have witnessed today,' he said. 'In the past I have visited scenes of many natural disasters around the world, but nothing like this.'

Estimates of the number affected are now being put at 20 million, and the crisis is deepening as torrential rains continue to fall across the country. The biggest fear remains potential epidemics of waterborne diseases such as diarrhoea, cholera and hepatitis. Malaria outbreaks are also a concern, particularly in areas that remain cut off from the outside world by the flood waters.

But compared to previous emergencies such as the Haiti earthquake at the beginning of this year, international assistance has been slow to arrive.

There has been little clear explanation of why this is so. There is no doubt that potential donors are put off by reports of extremists meddling in relief efforts, though it's likely they are simply human beings helping others in need. Nevertheless they are seen to be exploiting the devastation for political purposes, attempting to win the hearts and minds of flood victims.

There are also 'credible' reports that Pakistani militants may target foreign aid workers involved in flood relief efforts, and consequently many people in western nations don't want to know about the disaster.

It seems that what could be discouraging us from reaching out to help the flood victims is the failing war effort in neighbouring Afghanistan, especially with the mounting number of deaths of Australian military personnel.

When thinking of the long-term, it is certainly relevant to consider the geo-political circumstances that affect the region's prospects. But for now, it is very unhelpful to link flood relief in Pakistan with eliminating political extremism from Afghanistan.

Media commentaries are understandably asking what Australia is doing in Afghanistan. They quote military analysts such as Hugh White, who believes the objectives we've set ourselves are unachievable, and that 'we will leave Afghanistan in a few years with Afghanistan looking very much the way it does today'.

That is hardly relevant to flood relief and attempts to prevent human catastrophe on a grand scale. It is true that the commentators themselves do not always link the Taliban to flood relief. But the problem is that the Australian public is being delivered a profoundly misleading subliminal message that is discouraging us from contributing to relief appeals for Pakistan flood victims.

We apply talk of the Afghanistan war as a wasted effort to Pakistan flood relief, which is somehow also a wasted effort because the Taliban are in the vicinity. Worse, the Taliban could use our aid to score propaganda victories. We do need to ask whether we care more about political points scoring or helping Pakistanis at their hour of need.

International relief initiatives are always hampered by politics, but the media usually manages to keep images of human suffering at the front and centre of their coverage of these emergencies. Such reporting is very effective in helping to ensure the success of the aid agencies' relief appeals.

However in the current emergency, images of flood victims have so far been less prominent than analysis of the geo-political context of the unwinnable war in Afghanistan, and news of the Australian casualties.

It's debatable whether media organisations have a moral obligation to show images of human suffering specifically for the purpose of kick-starting relief efforts. But they do make a profound difference to the success of humanitarian assistance when they do.

Australians have also been preoccupied with the election stalemate. But endless vision of politicians trying to work out their differences inevitably becomes tiresome, and a turn-off for TV viewers.

It's to be hoped that we will indeed forget politics for a while — at home and abroad — and think about the part we can play in helping Pakistanis through their crisis.

The following organisations are now accepting tax deductible donations for their Pakistan flood appeals:Jesuit Mission, Caritas, Red Cross, National Council of Churches in Australia, ActionAid, UNHCR, UNICEF, Care.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street. He also teaches media ethics in the University of Sydney's Department of Media and Communications.

Topic tags: Michael Mullins, Pakistan, floods, taliban, relief, aid



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Existing comments

I am sure our priorities are wrong. We all watched how much media attention in England received for her cruel act of putting a stray cat into a rubbish bin. This event actually received more media attention than the massive disaster in Pakistan. Does the word “Media” come from “Mad idea?”

Beat Odermatt | 30 August 2010  

If we did need additional impetus to put our hands in our pockets, perhaps it comes from the Taliban itself, who insist that no aid is coming from the West, only a lot of interfering foreigners, and that only they are establishing relief camps. Let's tell the truth the obvious way.

Joan Seymour | 30 August 2010  

I have found myself uncommonly reluctant to respond, not because of the Taliban but because of Pakistan's corrupt and selfish government. I was appalled at the insistence of President Zadari to travel to Britain to further his personal and family business and political interests at the start of this crisis. He failed to cut the trip short, despite the dire situation. Then there are the billions of dollars being poured into Pakistan by the US for military and geopolitical ends; why can't some of that money be diverted, I've wondered. I feel sorry for the suffering Pakistanis because their own government and its major sponsor have their attention focused elsewhere. In the end I give to NGOs hoping that every penny will go to the relief effort and not to venal officials.

Myrna Tonkinson | 31 August 2010  

Thanks for these reflections. Oxfam's experience is that the response to our Pakistan Relief appeal is picking up after a very slow start. Why has there been such a slow response? One reason not mentioned by Michael which I suspect is critical is that it is a slow onset emergency, as opposed to rapid onset ones like the Haiti earthquake.This affects perceptions of the scale of the disaster as well as media coverage. The recorded death toll at this stage is also relatively low - around about 1500 compared to close to a quarter of a million in Haiti. There are also "image issues" with Pakistan - to do with corruption and security concerns.

These former concerns have been compounded in recent days by the cricketing controversey. Both affect confidence in the response. Generally my experience is that the security linkage is less critical than the concern re. corruption and don't find Michael's arguments convincing re. the link to the war in Afghanistan.

Andrew Hewett, Executive Director, Oxfam Australia | 03 September 2010  

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