Pakistan - October 2005: there were 75,000 killed, 140,000 injured and an affected area of over 30,000 square kilometres in the remote and inaccessible Himalaya. A disaster on a scale to attract attention? A disaster on a comparable scale to the Boxing Day tsunami.
Add the huge number of children killed, the 3.5 million left homeless and the harshness of a Himalayan winter bearing down. Pathos, drama and a timeline. Enough to attract Brad and Angelina to Muzaffarabad and get me an unusual afternoon tea invitation.
Tension? Well the setting is bordered on one side by the Line of Control (LOC) between Pakistan and Indian-administered Kashmir and on the other by the tribal areas of North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Afghanistan.
The under-funded flash appeal suggests it was not enough to capture the imagination of the general public or the donors. While under-funding of disasters is nothing new (consider the Sudan, Niger, the DRC, well most of Africa really) why did we choose to throw endless dollars at the tsunami and not at the Pakistan earthquake?
Some of the answers are obvious: donor fatigue (tsunami, Katrina, Niger and Pakistan all in 12 months); and a lack of western affinity with Pakistan (another way of alluding to the terrorist associations in many people’s minds) compared to the beach playgrounds of Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka. It sounds like I'm blaming the unidentifiable "them"?
What interests me is where did the humanitarian community go wrong in their efforts to attract support? We were all slow in determining the scale and requirements of the emergency. The original flash appeal on October 14 called for $311 million which was raised to $550 million in a revised appeal on October 26.
We were slow to convince donors that we could effectively and efficiently manage the disaster leading to an infuriating loop: no money; can't do the job; not doing the job; don’t get money.
Sitting in a tent in Muzaffarabad, at the epicentre of the earthquake, and being part of the process to convince donors we could do the job was an interesting experience. That it could come down to one-on-one conversations where an individual's competence would seem to speak for the whole of the UN is not a sustainable model.
We didn't sell the story: was this poor PR or was it a story the world wasn't interested in hearing? Did we not want to tell how well the military had done, afraid of questions about the irrelevance of the humanitarians? The success story of the operation was the job done by the Pakistan military: not a classically user-friendly face of humanitarianism and one that raises questions about the need for, and role of, the international humanitarian community. Was it the bad press about other aspects of the UN’s work that was just too hard to compete against?
John Dauth, Australia's former ambassador to the UN, made a point of acknowledging the work of programs like the WFP (World Food Program) in saving millions of lives, even as he slammed the effectiveness and integrity of the UN as a whole. Even if you have no faith in the other functions of the UN - and I am idealistic enough and naive enough to believe we need the UN and can make it work - the lives saved every year are irrefutable evidence that we must ensure the survival of the relief arm.
On the ground how did this affect the operation, and more importantly the people? Am I forgetting that it's the human face that sells a disaster?
Well, the operation was not affected as badly as we all feared would have to be the honest answer. But this has more to do with the amount Pakistan was able to do for itself then anything else.
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