Back in 2010 for Focus86 Caroline S. Connolly explored possible reasons why there was a slow response to the flooding in Pakistan.
According to the UN, the floods in Pakistan are the greatest humanitarian crisis in recent history. Maurizio Giuliano, a spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said: “This disaster is worse than the tsunami, the 2005 Pakistan earthquake and the Haiti earthquake.” Sadly though, this natural disaster did not raise anything close to the measure of aid that these other recent crises provoked. The story of the Pakistan floods has become not one of tragedy for those afflicted but rather one of incredulity as to why we in the West were so lethargic to move. Why the lukewarm response?
It’s all in the timing.
While the waters inundated millions of people in North West Pakistan, our TV screens and print media readily supplied us with headline images and stories of the deluge. Yet, we were slow to react. Perhaps our summer holidays or our festival fervour slowed our response. Do we respond more generously to a natural disaster if it happens at Christmas time? Think. The Haiti earthquake and the 2004 tsunami both happened when we were in the midst of our Christmas and New Year celebrations. We are perhaps more generous during the festive season. If this is the case, what does it say about the motivations behind our donations? Surely if we felt real empathy and solidarity with those suffering we would feel compelled to act regardless of the time of year.
Perhaps it is not so much the time of year as the fact that this disaster has hit on the heels of the financial crisis. In these straitened economic times, does a country that is portrayed with such negativity warrant our attention even when we witness the massive scale of destruction brought upon it by the summer torrents?
There was not a huge immediate death toll, is that why we didn’t rush to react? It took nearly a month for the scale of the disaster to be truly realised. Ban Ki-moon flew over the country on August 15th with the President, Asif Ali Zardari (returned and duly chastened for his absence in July when the monsoon rains first fell). Only in late August did the aid effort truly kick in.
Aid fatigue or image issue?
Even then the aid effort didn’t so much kick in as stroll along. The images of entire villages being evacuated or families perched on treetops waiting to be rescued – we’ve seen them before. It seems we have now become immune to the devastation of such disasters that it takes more for us now to contribute, react and support.
There is an image issue here and arguably this is perpetuated by the Western media. Often there are alarmist features/articles/stories about how Pakistan is harbouring terrorists, training fighters for Afghanistan, or preparing to launch into nuclear combat with India. Internationally, Pakistan does not seem to have many friends. There are strained, albeit improving, relations with the US. Former President Musharraf declared that he feared the country would be ‘bombed back into the stone age’ if they did not support the US post 9/11. In addition, Pakistan is making a, perhaps troubled, journey to democracy. Is the media guilty of inundating us with only negative stories about Pakistan? Can we blame the media’s promotion of solely negative stories about Pakistan for our lack of generosity?
And here we are just a few months on since the floods. If you google Pakistan today, the search engine spews countless articles about its alleged corrupt cricketers. And again the media is highlighting another negative story about Pakistan. Clearly the media has moved on, yet 17 million acres of Pakistan’s most valuable agricultural land remain submerged and entire communities have been obliterated. This disaster is not over by any means – it is after all the greatest humanitarian crisis in recent history. We need to continue to support and contribute to the aid effort. Keep the flood victims in mind. If the front pages of our newspapers choose to move on, don’t let that be an excuse for us to move on too.