Suspicious Pakistan public short on sympathy for flood hit

Aid contributions in Pakistan are scant and the reasons are many, from financial crisis to donor fatigue and scepticism about corrupt government officials.

Flood victims struggle to receive food near a tent camp in Sukkur in Sindh province of Pakistan. Nadeem Khawer / EPA
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ISLAMABAD // Weary of two years of terrorist violence, political bickering and grinding inflation, Pakistanis have been slow to respond to the misery of millions of their compatriots whose lives have been ruined by floods.

In stark contrast to the aftermath of the 2005 earthquake in northern Pakistan, which left more than 70,000 people dead, there has been no nationwide outpouring of sympathy or donations. Twenty days into the flood crisis, which has affected an estimated 20 million people, the Pakistani public's response remains lacklustre. The government's repeated appeals for donations to relief funds set up by the federal and provincial governments have been greeted with suspicion. Many Pakistanis believe that any contributions made through official agencies will be siphoned off by corrupt politicians and officials.

The public is taking a similarly dim view of local non-government organisations, most of which are run by relatives of those same politicians and officials. Affluent Pakistanis, especially those in the relatively wealthy cities of Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore, none of which have been hit by the waters, are often heard to say, "I'd like to make a donation, but I don't know whom I can entrust it to."

During the chaos that followed the earthquake, an outpouring of cash, food, clothing and other aid eased the plight of tens of thousands of Pakistanis and raised their morale. Pakistanis celebrated their nation's ability to reemerge, phoenix-like, from the debris of that natural calamity. The current disaster is even more severe and potentially destabilising, with food shortages and disease threatening millions. Yet even though Pakistan's current travails coincide with Ramadan, philanthropy has been meagre and limited to private fundraising initiatives. Several lorry loads of food and water have been sent to the affected areas, selected arbitrarily or on the basis of family ties rather than on the advice of the government or the United Nations.

People involved in such private initiatives say the poor public response is the result of a general sense of malaise, stemming from the terrorist insurgency and economic recession that has afflicted Pakistan since 2007. The resulting austerity has reinforced pessimism about the government and politicians in general. That sour mood, in turn, has been fuelled by several of Pakistan's major news organisations, which have unabashedly pursued vendettas against Asif Ali Zardari, the unpopular president.

Private fundraisers said cynicism was largely to blame for a general reluctance to respond to calls for donations, forcing many to turn to Pakistani expatriate communities in the Gulf, Europe and North America for help. Influenced by the media's portrayal of the government, the Pakistani diaspora is uncertain where to send its donations. Of course, it did not help that Mr Zardari decided to embark on a long tour of Britain and France after the floods first struck northern Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa in late July.

For the first week of the emerging disaster, coverage by Pakistani cable channels focused on criticism of Mr Zardari's departure, with reporting of the floods reduced largely to a background narrative. During the second week, television audiences were distracted by a nasty confrontation between the government and the two most aggressive channels, Geo News and ARY News, after they broadcast mobile telephone video footage of a man throwing a shoe at the president during a political rally in Birmingham, England.

The attention of the cable channels this week has finally settled on the floods, but the focus remains clouded. Coverage of the enormous human suffering has been transformed into a blame game targeting the government, which has sparked another round of finger pointing and name-calling, some of it in the form of televised shouting matches between anchors and government ministers. The terrifying prospect of a wave of deaths from starvation and illness, predicted by the United Nations, has so far not topped the newscasts of media organizations.

One exception has been Dunya News, which has provided unparalleled coverage since the floods hit. It was among the first broadcast outlets to use the celebrity power of its anchors to badger Pakistan's richest people to make sizable donations. The station's anchors were the first to suggest that distrust of government was no excuse for the miserly response of many affluent Pakistanis. Selfishness was also to blame, they said.

Alarmed by the lack of national solidarity, Pakistan's politicians on Saturday, the 63rd anniversary of independence from British colonial rule, agreed to call a halt to their own bickering and focus instead on raising the hundreds of millions of dollars needed for flood relief and rebuilding efforts. But they will not do it themselves. Mindful of public sentiment, they nominated highly respected judges and philanthropists to serve as members of a commission that would raise aid funds. These prominent public figures are politically active, too, but nobody associates them with the political parties in power.