Leading article: A foolish failure to assist

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The Independent Online

Things are going from bad to worse in Pakistan. The monsoon flood waters have surged into new areas. One-fifth of Pakistan – an area the size of Italy – has been hit and around 20 million people are now said to be affected. Some 6 million are at high risk from deadly, water-borne diseases. Two million people have fled their homes. It is the worst disaster that the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, has ever seen, he said as he left the country at the weekend.

Yet barely a quarter of the aid needed for initial relief has arrived, the UN says. The response from the international community has been "lamentable". Compared with the reaction to many other such disasters – like the Haiti earthquake or the Indian Ocean tsunami – aid is way down. There are a number of reasons for this. The global recession has turned eyes inwards. And appeals in August, when many people are on holiday and out of touch with the news, are traditionally unpredictable.

But reluctance may have been generated because this disaster is in Pakistan, a country which our Prime Minister has decried as "looking both ways" on global terrorism, and whose president, Asif Ali Zardari, has been perceived to be swanning around the rich world while his people are enduring the worst floods in living memory. Mr Cameron's ambivalence might easily have reinforced a subconscious reticence on behalf of other governments. So might the protests of angry flood survivors against the slow delivery of relief and the perceived inefficacy of the Pakistan government.

It is important not to overreact to any of that. Initial relief is slow-moving because of the sheer scale of the problem and the fact that, unlike an earthquake, this is a slower disaster that is still unfolding. The failure of the West to assist properly could add to, rather than reduce, the risk of political instability and the danger of a dire long-term economic downturn which the International Monetary Fund has warned the floods could bring to a country already highly reliant on foreign aid. That could add to the perils for a Pakistani government already reeling from a militant insurgency.

The British public has been steady if unspectacular in its giving, with charities taking in around £15m. The British Government has taken a lead in the international effort, with donations of around £30m. More is needed from both. But, above all, ministers must press for a far greater and co-ordinated response from other governments. The international community must act, and it must act together.