Adrian Hamilton: Aid trickles while the waters flood

Click to follow
The Independent Online

According to Pakistan's representative at the UN, the world's failure to stump up enough money for the flood disaster in his country is down to David Cameron's remarks that it was an exporter of terrorism. But his country doesn't need outside critics to put people off giving. Half his own citizens are shouting from the rooftops they have fled to that their own government has failed to respond adequately to the crisis and that most of the aid will end up in the coffers of the ruling elite.

That may be grossly unfair to the local officials, the army commanders and the doctors who have pulled to, as well as the mosques and religious societies which have been quick to provide shelter and hand out food and drinking water in their localities. The West may see them as taking advantage of the situation to further their own nefarious ends but that is not the point. Their strength comes from the community support they offer and they are fulfilling their function in an emergency.

But the slowness, and the paucity, of the international response does raise some serious worries not just about Pakistan but aid in general. Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, may call the offers of help "absolutely pitiful". David Miliband, the former Foreign Secretary and contender for the Labour leadership, can argue that it plays into the hands of the extremists and the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, may berate the world for offering barely more than half the $460m he says is needed (the UK remains the foremost giver with £31m, while the EU has come forth with an improved offer of £56.7m).

The reality, however, is that emergency appeals are becoming more difficult, and not just with the general public but with governments as well. You can put this down to tightening budgets in the West. You could also argue that global warming is producing just too many catastrophes of huge dimensions. The rather nastier interpretation is that not enough people, at up to 2,000, have died to get wringing hands to move to the chequebook.

There is also the argument that Pakistan is not the world's favourite country at the moment, not least among Arabs – who have been notably stingy in their response to this emergency. India, with a large army, fully equipped with helicopter and transport right on Pakistan's border, has felt unwilling to offer any assistance other than to assist Indian nationals caught up in the flood.

None of this helps. Yet behind it all is a growing sense of despair about how much good all these sums of money, and all the individual sums that ordinary people give, actually does. It's not so much a case of "compassion fatigue", as the aid agencies complain, as "trust erosion". Six months after the Haiti earthquake, around 1.9m people remain without homes and reconstruction, according to reporters there, has just ground to a halt.

The problem lies partly in the weakness and corruption of government, in Haiti as in Pakistan. This is not an East-West point. The L'Aquila earthquake in Italy last year brought exactly the same charges of lack of forewarning, slowness of response, corruption in aid distribution and the continuing failure to provide accommodation and restitution of the victims a year later.

Without effective, and honest, administration on the ground, the task of distributing aid and even more of reconstructon after, is made infinitely more difficult. Hence the offer by Pakistan's government to let outside auditors examine how any aid will be spent as a means of reassuring the potential donors.

Reassurance is no longer enough. Major emergencies have become too frequent, and the failure to meet their challenge, too consistent, to go on treating them as unpredictable events to be dealt with on an ad hoc basis. If natural disasters are becoming more common, they are also becoming more predictable, or at least the weather patterns or earth movements responsible for them have become more measurable. Pakistan's floods were foreseeable and the inhabitants along the water systems warned.

At the same time, all experience says that it is in the immediate reaction to disaster that the best hope of saving lives lies. It is pitiable that the reserves of tents, water, medicines, food and clothing and the helicopters and trucks to move them are not ready in most areas, particularly those most vulnerable to earthquake and flooding.

President Nicolas Sarkozy has suggested a permanent "rapid reaction" force for the EU and has got himself into a splendid spat with the EU Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso, miffed by his suggestions that Brussels failed to step up to the mark. And there are problems about setting up a semi-military force such as this to go around imposing themselves on the world. But the French President is right in his view that something needs to be done.

The UN could institute a series of emergency response bases around the world. The regional association in Africa and Asia should certainly get involved with joint early warning systems and immediate provision of aid. It's mad that India and Pakistan can't co-operate on supra-political matters such as weather forecasting which affects them both.

But then the greatest challenge remains – as we have seen from the Tsunami and Haiti and we are about to witness tested again in Pakistan – post-disaster reconstruction. It's here that the interface between national governments and international assistance is at its most difficult. But it is here also that the international community has most to offer in terms of experience and resources.

As the waters of the Indus recede, villagers will need homes again and the farmers the means to plant their winter crops. It's a task that will require extensive practical help. Money promised in aid means nothing by itself. What matters is people, their livelihood and their survival. If it was just a matter of money then, frankly, I'd prefer to give it to the mosques. It's more likely to reach the victims.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

For further reading

'Disasters, Relief and the Media,' by Jonathan Benthall (MacMillan, 2010)

Comments