Posted by: Jeff | August 18, 2010

Why Aren’t We Doing More for Pakistan?

Photo via Boston.com's Big Picture

The horrific flooding in Pakistan is still affecting millions of people, and still occupies a place front and center in the news.  As rain poured down in Washington this morning, even my bus driver commented that “at least we’re not in Pakistan.”  Public knowledge of the catastrophe is high, as is the need for humanitarian assistance, yet many of the reports coming out of the stricken country indicate that aid is not arriving.  Why the dearth of support for those affected by this disaster?

According to Devex, the need in Pakistan is huge:

More than two weeks into the fatal monsoon floods and a week after the United Nations aid appeal for USD459.7 million, aid experts and the media are trying to analyze why aid for Pakistan’s flood victims has been sluggish.

The disaster is bigger in size and scope compared to the 2004 Asian tsunami, 2005 Pakistan earthquake and 2010 Haitian and Chilean earthquakes combined, according to news agencies. But the response to this latest catastrophe is nowhere near as fast as the outpouring of sympathy and aid money for the aforementioned calamities.

One factor that helps explain the disconnect between need and assistance: Pakistan is not a popular country.  Pakistan’s ambiguous role in the War on Terror, poor record on good governance and human rights, and status as an insecure nuclear power have all been well-reported in all forms of journalism.  In addition, it is Pakistan’s mountains that have allegedly sheltered members of the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda, including Osama bin Laden himself.  Dire warnings about the possibility for political implosion in Pakistan have been made for years now, alerting the American public to the possibility of a new front on the war against radical fundamentalism in Afghanistan.  As Islamophobia runs rampant in the US (e.g. the New York City Mosque Controversy), Pakistan is not near and dear in the minds of most Americans.

To me, this is highly unfortunate.  Not only does this represent an opportunity to do the right thing and help millions of people survive and regain their livelihoods, but it marks an incredible public diplomacy opportunity.  One of the reasons that Pakistanis are skeptical of US military involvement in the region is the perception that the US pursues its own national interest exclusively, often to the detriment of the local well-being.  The United States has worked hard to reverse this sentiment in Afghanistan, with the military spear-heading infrastructure, development, and community-outreach projects nation-wide.  We don’t have that kind of logistical capacity in Pakistan, where according to Pew, public support for the United States is only 17% (the lowest national support metric measured by Pew in 2010).

The United States is in desperate need of a bolstered image in Pakistan – especially given the impact its location and political instability may have on the War in Afghanistan.  This is a win-win situation – the American capacity for goodwill and technical support can and should be employed to help Pakistan recover from this major disaster.  Some of the most adversely affected regions (i.e. the Swat Valley), are the very ones in which US support is most paltry.  By committing to a real and effective relief effort, the United States can make a real attempt at winning hearts and minds that may prove instrumental in achieving our objectives in the War on Terror.

To some extent the Obama Adminstration seems to realize this.  From the Devex article:

The U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke said the Obama administration is using flood aid to help boost its image among Pakistanis, according to Sify News.

“If we do the right thing, it will be good not only for the people whose lives we save, but for the U.S. image in Pakistan,” he is quoted by The New York Times. “The people of Pakistan will see that when the crisis hits, it’s not the Chinese. It’s not the Iranians. It’s not other countries. It’s not the E.U. It’s the U.S. that always leads.”

This is the right idea, but we need to do more to succeed.

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