Pakistan's 'image deficit' affecting flood aid

UN and aid groups note the lack of international response to Pakistan's devastating floods.
Flood victims fight over a bag of flour distributed by a charity organization in a relief camp on the outskirts of Karachi. (Athar Hussain/Reuters)

One week after launching its appeal for the Haiti earthquake in January, the Humanitarian Coalition in Canada had raised $3.5 million.

Now, a week after a similar campaign for the devastating floods in Pakistan, the coalition has received only $200,000 in public donations.

World Vision Canada has seen much the same response. In two weeks of fundraising for the Haiti earthquake, the group raised $10 million in Canada. But as of today, Canadians have donated only $313,000 to World Vision for the Pakistan flood victims.

In recent days, aid agencies have begun voicing their concerns over the slow donor response to the Pakistan floods.

Canadians, it seems, have been far less generous than in the past, despite the UN saying the number of people suffering from the massive floods — an estimated 20 million — could exceed the combined total of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2010 Haiti earthquake and the 2005 Kashmir earthquake.

The reasons for this, aid groups suggest, include the relatively low, reported death toll of 1,600 as well as the slow onset of the flooding compared with the more dramatic earthquakes and tsunami.

Relatively low-key coverage in the international media and a lack of celebrity involvement has also kept the flood disaster off many potential donors' radar, Molly Kinder, a Pakistan aid expert with the Washington-based Center for Global Development told The Associated Press.

There may also be concerns about how the aid money will be used.

"We often note an image deficit with regards to Pakistan among Western public opinion," said Elizabeth Byrs, a spokeswoman at the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

"As a result," she added, "Pakistan is among countries that are poorly financed, like Yemen."

'One fifth of the country'

The floods began in northwest Pakistan more than two weeks ago and have spread throughout the country.

Current estimates suggest as many as 20 million people and 160,000 square kilometres of land — about 20 per cent of the country — have been affected.

Aid agencies are working with government officials to assess the damage and deliver humanitarian assistance, but bad weather and damaged infrastructure are creating challenges for aid organizations.

Islamic Relief Canada said the reported death toll does not reflect the devastation that has been inflicted on people in the affected regions.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Sunday that the flooding in Pakistan is the worst disaster he has ever seen. "This has been a heart-wrenching day for me," he said.

"I will never forget the destruction and suffering I have witnessed today. In the past, I have witnessed many natural disasters around the world, but nothing like this."

The UN has been struggling to obtain $460 million US to provide emergency aid. Only 20 per cent of the money has been pledged since the appeal was launched on Aug. 11.

United States biggest donor

The U.S. has been the largest international donor. It has pledged $76 million in assistance. Eighteen U.S. military and civilian aircrafts are also being used to support relief operations.

"We've continued to increase our level of support and commitment to the relief operations there," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said.

Care Canada's communications manager, Kieran Green, blames the lazy days of summer for the lukewarm response to the disaster.

"People are not around and may not be paying attention to the news to understand how widespread the devastation really is."

Red Cross Canada has received $540,000 in donations to date.

"It is slightly lower than we have seen in the past for other disasters but this crisis is due to a series of floods that have been taking place over a three-week period. It does not have the same impact as when you see a disaster like an earthquake, which has an immediate cause and effect," said Pam Aung Thin, a spokesperson for Red Cross Canada.

Steady rise in donations

Robert Fox, executive director of Oxfam Canada said the group is now beginning to see a steady rise in donations.

"While the initial support from the Canadian government was modest, the increase from $2 million to $35 million is a positive sign and helped underline for the public the severity of the situation in Pakistan," he said. "Increased media attention has also drawn the public's attention."

Dave Toycen, the president of World Vision Canada, said people have raised concerns over whether the aid would get through and if it would be effectively used.

"The government has made it easier for aid workers and journalists to get in and we will be able to provide more evidence-based assurance on how the funds are being used and be able to show that those who need the relief are getting it."

Toycen acknowledged the reasons for the lower rate of donations but said, "I don't think any of these justify as reasons not to help."