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One Young Person Doesn’t Wait for Government to Bring Aid to Pakistan

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Flood victims jostle for food supplies provided by authorities in Keti Bandar, Pakistan, in 2003.

CREDIT: AP / Shakil Adil

Ryan Nadeau, a recent graduate of Boston University, was interning in Islamabad when the flooding in Pakistan hit in late July. Nadeau, using connections he had made during his internship, arranged to see the flood affected regions. “I could not have imagined the devastation I saw,” he says.  

Several weeks after the flood, Nadeau says that neither the central government nor international agencies had reached many of the hardest hit areas, most of which were relatively isolated from the country’s urban centers. “Islamabad is a bubble,” he said, “From inside the city you would not have known that 25 percent of the country was forced from their homes, in an area the size of Germany.”

An estimated 20 million people were displaced in Pakistan during one of the worst humanitarian disasters the world has ever seen. The United Nations says some 8 to 10 million people remain dependant on some form of daily assistance. In the early days of the crisis, John Holmes, the head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, who also led relief efforts in Haiti, told the New York Times that already, “This is a disaster which has affected many more people than I have ever seen.”

Despite knowing all this, Americans generally have not been sympathetic. The Obama administration has pledged more than any other national government toward the relief effort, but the outpouring of support from individuals and private organizations has been severely lacking.

“People compare the situation to Haiti,” Nadeau says. “In Haiti, one million people were displaced and the aid amounted to about $240 per person. In Pakistan, where over 20 million have been displaced, we have seen the equivalent of about $3 per person.”

There have been claims that giving has been low because many fear aid may get misdirected by corrupt bureaucrats. "I certainly think that could be an issue," said Airlie Taylor, communications officer at ActionAid International. "There is perhaps some concern over how aid might be used."

“Pakistan has one of the most corrupt governments on earth. However, there is no excuse for not donating to international organizations like the UN or the Red Cross,” Nadeau contends. Without adequate funding for international relief agencies, suffering Pakistanis have had to rely on the intensive efforts of a few extraordinary individuals—and many have not been so lucky.

On Sept. 6, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's special envoy for assistance to Pakistan announced that the international body will have to at least double its initial $460 million aid estimate announced at the start of the flooding. So far, the UN has only received about two-thirds of their initial request from international donors. In September, the IMF announced a $450 million emergency loan to Pakistan; however, this infusion of funds may prove less than useful as a $500 million payment on previous loans is due back to the IMF this year, according to the Jubilee USA Network.

UN humanitarian operations spokesman Maurizio Giuliano told Reuters, "If we do not respond soon enough to the urgent needs of the population, if we do not provide life-saving assistance as soon as is necessary, there may be a second wave of death caused by diseases and food shortages.”

Nadeau decided to take matters into his own hands. By posting videos, pictures, and articles on Facebook and YouTube, he was able to raise $2,700 from friends and family to buy food and medical supplies. A Pakistani friend connected him with a local pharmacy that donated medication. “A convoy of four cars headed down to the district of Khushad, in the South Punjab province, with two doctors and several tons of supplies. We were able to set up a makeshift hospital that treated 280 families while providing them with food.”

In the first month of the disaster, where relief agencies and foreign nationals like Nadeau could not reach, extremists groups were happy to step in. Hard-line charities linked to terrorist groups have sent thousands of volunteers, according to the Wall Street Journal. In one notable example, the charitable arm of Lashkar-e-Taiba (the group that carried out the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack) had been providing clothing, medicine, and money to thousands of victims in some of the hardest hit areas.

Jumping at the opportunity to destabilize the country, Taliban and other militants have also threatened to kill international aid workers and target religious minorities. Attacks on the large Shia Muslim minority, among other groups, have been reported throughout the months of September and October, including repeated sectarian battles all but shutting down the financial capitol of Karachi on Oct. 17.

In August, Nadeau had the opportunity to accompany a general in the Pakistani Army on a helicopter tour of the flooded areas. “According to the general, in places like the Swat valley, where the insurgency is still active, only 40 percent of the Army is able to focus on relief work,” Nadeau says, “while 60 percent of deployed forces are required to maintain security.”  

In addition to organized militants, Nadeau came in contact with armed gangs who, out of sheer necessity, had begun to ambush rich Pakistanis and aid workers alike. “Our convoy was attacked and many of our supplies were taken,” he says. “After the ambush, my translator informed me that the gunman had apologized for their actions. They were very poor, they said, and this way the only way they could feed their families.” Attacks on convoys have become common as desperate Pakistanis seek respite from starvation and dehydration.

The Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan's lead intelligence agency, reportedly released an assessment asserting that the threat from “[internal] extremists has surpassed the external threat from India." Without the necessary humanitarian support, sections Pakistan could become havens for extremist militants who will in turn be used to plan attacks on Pakistanis, Afghans, and Americans. A little investment in Pakistan now will have a compounding affect.

One reason for the indifference could be related to overall American attitudes toward Islam, since Pakistan’s population is over 97 percent Muslim. Polls show that there is extreme ambivalence, and in some cases outright bigotry, expressed by the majority of Americans toward Muslims. The Pew Research Center reports that in August 2010 a plurality of Americans, 38 percent, had an unfavorable view of Islam. Other polling finds that only 55 percent of respondents believed most Muslims were “loyal Americans.” Islam is not popular right now and that could dampen efforts to ramp up relief efforts in Pakistan.

Madeeha Hameed has just returned from her tenure with a prominent aid organization in Pakistan and has previously traveled throughout the United States as part of the research team for Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam, an exploration of the role of Islam in American life written by former Pakistani ambassador Akbar Ahmed. 

“It is interesting to note that while the entire world, including Europe, was rallying around the Pakistan floods, the American media was not only completely ignoring the issue, but was actively reinforcing the idea of American Muslims as 'others,' with the ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ dominating headlines,” she says.

This public aversion to Islam playing any role in American society other than boogeyman has perhaps contributed to the invisibility of the Pakistani floods in public discourse and thus the lack of material support for the victims. “I completely agree with [prominent British intellectual] Tariq Ramadan about the term 'moderate Muslims.' It refers to those Muslims whose faith is invisible in the public sphere—it seems a Muslim is accepted in this society only if their faith is not apparent in public,” Hameed says.

However, the problem may be more structural than ideological. As The Atlantic’s Max Fisher points out, Pakistan lacks the network of American charities that spread awareness and raised money through their state-side grassroots networks during the Haiti earthquake. In Pakistan, a strong role in the recovery effort by American NGOs could strengthen civil society partnerships between the two countries, allowing sustainable and preventative steps to be taken to improve the lives of rural Pakistanis while preparing them for the increasing frequency and devastation of natural disasters forecasted by climate-change experts.

“I was under the impression that most Americans don’t care about the floods in Pakistan,” Nadeau says, “but when I returned to the [United States], everyone from my local bartender to childhood friends in Texas told me they were following my work and anxiously awaiting my posts.” He concludes that since Americans in general are not exposed to the realities of crisis, they default to their negative of perceptions of Islam to frame the event.

Decisions made during the flood rehabilitation effort will affect Pakistan for decades to come. Like most countries, Pakistan has been and will be reliant on foreign investment to finance its infrastructure development. The floods have changed Pakistan’s priorities: Plans for hospitals and power plants have been sidelined to rebuild the most basic necessities. Americans are able, like at no other time before, to positively affect the lives of Pakistanis who, after years of living on the front line of America’s war on terror, may merit a warm meal and a dry place to sleep. 

Kayvan Farchadi is a staff writer for Campus Progress.

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