In Pakistan, pledged donations aren't enough

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The Pakistan floods have affected more people than the Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2005 Pakistan earthquake and the Haiti earthquake put together.

Over the past three weeks, as the world has begun slowly to comprehend the scale of the disaster, government donors and the general public have stepped forward with increasing generosity. But the United Nations appeal for Pakistan remains less than 60 percent funded. Substantial additional amounts have been pledged — but pledges don’t buy clean water or sanitation.

Total commitments so far amount to less than half a billion dollars, or less than $30 per affected person. After the 2005 earthquake, the international community committed more than $2 billion in the first month — $570 per person affected. So why do we still have so far to go this time around?

It may be that we’re seeing some Pakistan fatigue. Pakistan has in recent years been hit by one disaster after another — an earthquake, floods and an internal conflict that last year forced more than 3 million people to flee their homes. In the northwest, many of the communities affected by the floods were only just beginning to rebuild their lives after having been displaced by fighting between the Pakistani military and militant groups in 2008 and 2009.

Many donors have already given substantial assistance to these communities, and perhaps feel they’ve done their bit. But the fact that many of the worst affected communities have been devastated time and again is more of a reason to give. Already vulnerable prior to the floods, they simply do not have the resources to recover from the crisis on their own.

The disaster has also come at an unfortunate time. Donor governments, many still reeling from the financial crisis, responded with extraordinary generosity to the Haiti earthquake earlier this year — contributing more than $1 billion in the first month. Some have perhaps found it difficult to fund two major disasters in such quick succession.

And it seems hard to believe, but there’s a lively discussion amongst potential supporters as to whether they should support a country they believe to be associated with militancy. Governments and institutional donors presumably know better: few countries have suffered more from violent extremism than Pakistan, where violence has for years blighted the lives of millions of Pakistanis.

But it does seem that this awful misperception — that the more than 15 million Pakistanis whose lives have been torn apart by the floods are less deserving of our assistance because of the presence of militants in their country — may indeed have affected private giving.

Finally, it may just be that different types of disasters affect us in different ways. Many will remember the devastating footage of the Indian Ocean tsunami. The extent of the devastation — entire villages obliterated so that you’d hardly know they’d ever been there — took your breath away. Nearly a quarter of a million people were killed. You couldn’t not be moved. And perhaps consequently, one of the defining features of the response was the unprecedented size of private donations — so much so that the public’s generosity became a news story in itself. More than $5 billion was donated by the general public.

The devastation caused by the floods takes a bit more understanding. The death toll is relatively low. Without walking along the roads where people have congregated and are crouching under bed-frames draped with cloth to get some relief from the sweltering heat, and without talking to people about what they’ve lost, it’s hard to grasp the extent to which lives have been devastated.

I spoke to a woman yesterday who’d fled her village with her husband and six children, carrying nothing but the clothes they were wearing. They’d lost their cows and buffalos, as well as the season’s rice crop. She said they didn’t expect to be able to cultivate their fields again for at least six months, and that she was worried about what they’d do when the winter came.

In the coming years, as the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events continues to increase, more and more countries — many of them the poorest in the world — will be hit by weather-related disasters. The Pakistan floods must serve as a wake-up call.

Agencies such as Oxfam have been doing their best to scale up their operations as fast as possible, utilizing as best they can the contributions made by donor governments and the general public. But we’ve only been able to meet a fraction of the needs. Across all affected areas, the U.N. estimates that we’ve met less than 10 percent of the urgent need for clean water and sanitation.

The World Health Organization said last week that 3.5 million children were at risk of waterborne disease. But with the U.N. appeal so critically under-funded, agencies simply do not have the funds to scale up with the speed required to avert what is rapidly becoming a serious public health crisis.

The public and private response to the tsunami and the Haiti earthquake give us an indication of what as an international community we are capable of. Somehow, and soon, we need to find it within ourselves to respond with the same generosity to the people of Pakistan.

Neva Khan is Oxfam's country director in Pakistan.