The skewed narrative on Pakistan flood aid: “help me or I’ll kill you”

September 10, 2010

handsOne of the arguments that comes up frequently for helping the victims of Pakistan’s floods is that otherwise Islamist militants will exploit the disaster, and the threat of terrorism to the west will rise. It’s an argument that makes me wince every time I read it. 

It implies that wanting to help people simply because they are suffering from hunger, homelessness and disease is a hopelessly outdated concept; that until these hungry, homeless and diseased people turn up at a bombing near you, then there is no reason to give them money.  (For a great take on this, do read Manan Ahmed’s “I am a bhains” at Chapati Mystery).

Perhaps I am caricaturising a bit – many well-intentioned people who have urged the international community to give more aid to Pakistan’s 20 million flood victims have tried to give their appeals added urgency by lacing them with dark warnings of what might happen if they don’t. 

But I’d like to ask readers here whether they think people are more likely to give money out of fear or out of kindness.

First some comments.

The Pakistan floods have been a slow-developing disaster, yet on a scale which defies comprehension, and as such have had relatively little television coverage, particularly in the United States. The aid given has lagged far behind money provided, for example, for the earthquake in Haiti.

You might argue, therefore, that ringing alarm bells about the threat from Islamist militants is necessary to get people to pay attention.  But does aid-giving work that way?

On the ground, you don’t see evidence of Islamist militants trying, as the cliches would have you believe, to turn flood victims into suicide bombers.

True, the UN blacklisted Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the humanitarian wing of the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group, is out helping flood victims under their new public name, Falah-e-Insaniyat. But they don’t have the resources to be out in force - such is the scale of the devastation with so many roads cut off that only institutions like the Pakistan army and navy have the helicopters, boats and trucks needed to reach people.

Anecdotally, we went out of our way to find the Falah-e-Insaniyat in south Punjab, and between stopping to talk to other flood victims, the journey took the best part of 14 hours by road. So it was not as though they were popping up at every corner.  Where we found them, they were taking flood relief by boat to stranded Shi’ite villagers - hardly the kind of people you would expect to sign up to the Sunni Islamist cause.

That is not to say that the political situation in Pakistan is not bad. For a very gloomy assessment, do read Ahmed Rashid’s latest piece in The National Interest. For a sign of how this malaise is playing out, read this report by Mike Georgy, one of my colleagues at Reuters, about two teenage boys, both promising students, lynched by a mob over a case of mistaken identity.

But to return to the flood victims, none of that is their responsibility.

The Pakistani establishment has a tendency, according to its critics, of negotiating with a gun pointed to its own head – an argument that often works well in a nuclear-armed country threatened by al Qaeda-linked militants.

I did not see that mindset among those affected by the floods. I will donate more money to Pakistan aid appeals not because I am afraid of being bombed, but because I saw people who were anxious to get on and rebuild their lives

I will donate more money because I have a clear picture in my mind of the young girls in a relief centre who all beamed and said “thank you” in English in unison after I had done no more than sit down and talk to them for five minutes. Or of the other stranded villagers who insisted on giving me a sour glass of lassi since they could see I was too hot. And who then lined up en masse on the shore of their newly created island and waved goodbye as our boat took us back to “the mainland”.

I don’t need fear to want to help these people – though admittedly I don’t know easily what best to do. But I’d like to know what readers think. Is the narrative that we need to help the flood victims for our own safety helping or hindering compassion?

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