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Email: lwcapristo@smcm.edu
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My View: a Missed Political Opportunity - A Tale of Two Disasters

Written by Sahar Shafqat, Chair and Associate Professor of the Department of Political Science

As many as four million Pakistanis were displaced from their homes as a result of this unprecedented fl ood, and the overall number of people affected grew to as many as 20 million. Eventually, as much as a quarter of the country was under water.
© Powel Opasta/Bigstockphoto.com

The year 2010 was marked by two major natural disasters: the earthquake in Haiti in January and the floods in Pakistan that began in July. Of course, no two disasters are alike, but these calamities of nature engendered very different responses from the United States in particular and by the international community in general.

The earthquake in Haiti was truly devastating, taking approximately 200,000 lives and impacting many more due to injury, disease, starvation, and displacement. The Haitian government estimates that as many as one million were made homeless by the earthquake. The damage to the country’s infrastructure was also massive.

The floods in Pakistan were also an unprecedented natural disaster. The scale of the flooding had not been seen for over a century in the region. Although the death toll from the floods was much lower than in Haiti, approximately 2,000, as many as four million people were displaced from their homes as a result, and the overall number of people affected by the floods grew to as many as 20 million people. In contrast to Haiti, where most of the casualties occurred in the first few days after the earthquake, the impact of the Pakistan floods only grew in momentum as time wore on. Eventually, as much as a quarter of the country was under water.

The Scale of the Disasters

The international community responded very differently to each of these disasters. In the case of Haiti, international agencies and governments mobilized very quickly. Rescue efforts were led by major international relief organizations such as the Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières, as well as the United Nations; but the biggest player has been the U.S. government. It mobilized and coordinated aid efforts, and the Obama administration announced a high-profile campaign to raise funds for disaster relief in Haiti, led by former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. President Obama vowed publicly that the U.S. commitment to Haiti’s recovery would be long-term, saying: “We also know that our longer-term effort will not be measured in days or weeks, it will be measured in months and even years. And that is why it is so important to enlist and sustain the support of the American people.” Several Hollywood celebrities organized a telethon which raised millions. According to The Washington Post, the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission will dole out $4.5 billion in assistance this year.

By contrast, the response to the Pakistan floods was minimal, even though the number of people affected exceeded the combined total of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, and the 2010 Haiti earthquake. The international community was slow to respond, and little aid was pledged in the immediate aftermath of the floods. And it wasn’t just the U.S. government that responded differently to the Pakistani disaster than it did to the Haitian disaster. As an example, individual Americans donated $31 million to a Red Cross texting campaign after the Haiti earthquake, but a similar campaign for the Pakistani floods raised only $10,000. By the end of the year, the total amount had risen to approximately $1.7 billion. But given the scale of the disaster, the pledged aid in Pakistan only amounted to $16 per affected person, compared to $1,000 for every affected person in Haiti.

Why Such a Different Response?

Why was there such a different response to these two disasters? Many theories have been suggested to explain the stark difference between these two cases. There’s donor fatigue, which argues that Americans – and the rest of the world – had already responded generously to previous disasters and were overstretched financially and emotionally. There is a feeling that Haiti is our responsibility more than Pakistan. Some also suggested that donors were wary of giving to the Pakistani government since it was perceived as corrupt and ineffective. And some argued that since Pakistan was a nuclear power, it was perceived as being able to take care of itself.

One of the most compelling explanations, however, is that the West simply didn’t want to give aid to Pakistan, because it is perceived as the bastion of extremism and violence and is the home to terrorists, and by implication the victims of the floods were also somehow tarred with the same brush. That is, by extension, the victims too were extremists and violent and therefore not worthy of compassion and aid.

I would argue that it is not just Pakistan’s image in the West that is to blame for the tepid humanitarian response. The blame must be placed much more squarely on the shoulders of the Obama administration. After all, many of the same negative perceptions that Pakistan suffers from are also associated with Haiti: corruption, lawlessness, violence. But the Obama administration pulled out the stops in its public efforts to mobilize aid for Haiti, and a variety of government officials made the case that Americans should give generously to the Haiti relief effort. In the case of Pakistan, however, no such effort was made.

This was disappointing, most importantly to the victims in Pakistan who continue to deal with the aftermath of the floods. But it was also a short-sighted political decision. The United States had an excellent opportunity to engage in some much-needed image repair in Pakistan, where anti-Americanism runs high due to the United States’ military occupation of the region. The only interaction that Pakistanis have with the United States is as a hostile military force. The floods gave the U.S. the chance to be seen as a friend and as a source of aid and comfort. Certainly, robust and sustained action on the part of the United States wouldn’t have eliminated distrust and hostility completely. But it would have punctured the sense among Pakistanis that all the U.S. cares about is itself and its military objectives, and that Pakistan’s status as an ally is dependent entirely on what the U.S. can get from Pakistan, not on a genuine partnership that takes both countries’ concerns into account.

There is too deep a sense in Pakistan that the U.S. will just walk away once its immediate military objectives are met, as the U.S. has done before with Pakistan – and the lack of response to Pakistan’s suffering did much to reinforce this sense. In so doing, of course, the U.S. also undermined its own foreign policy objectives and may have just made its task in the region even more difficult.