Pakistan floods - Unpopular thoughts by an aidworker on the sideline

Pakistan floods

Watching the images on TV, and reading the reports, it is impossible to stay untouched by the misery caused by the massive Pakistani monsoon floods.

As an aidworker watching (for the moment), from the sideline, I have three thoughts that might make me unpopular in the aid community:

  1. Last year's Pakistani Swat emergency was hugely underfunded, which, according to me, showed a donor fatigue towards South-Central Asia and Pakistan in particular. It also showed a political unwillingness from "the West" to assist Pakistan, other than the "minimum needed".
    Unless some of the main donors take the lead and come up with big bucks now, the 2010 flooding will go into history as the worst international humanitarian response failure ever. Caused by lack of funding.
    And time is of crucial importance, as it always is for natural disasters: the response needs to be massive and immediate, as three months down the line, the accute need (and the majority of life saving actions) is no longer there.
    ...Leaving alone that anyone would still hick up money for a natural disaster three months after the facts.

  2. As of yesterday, I see press reports popping up with cries like affected people may outnumber the tsunami, 2005 Pakistan and 2010 Haiti earthquake combined. And the worst disaster in the UN's history. Both phrases were uttered by aid agencies, and not invented but eagerly picked up by the paparazzi... Reporters have been waiting for some exciting news stories in these slow summer months now that the Gulf oil spill is over.
    I would urge caution in using tabloid catch phrases like "the biggest ever"... Love is a drug. So are disaster figures, and crying foul. Like a drug, it is addictive, and numbs your senses on the longer term.
    Soon we won't raise a penny's donation anymore unless if the affected population is over the 20 million, and unless we make appeals over 1 billion (to get 100 million)...
    There has been a clear tendency to exaggerate figures in the past years. And the donors have happily played the PR game: Just as the aid community, donors have come out with billions and billions worth of pledges. Remember the billions promised for the Afghanistan rebuild? And the multi billions pledged as a response to the global food crisis. All pledges which never materialized, but were pitched at the press at the time. A press which eagerly took it over as "shock and awe"-reporting. A PR win-win for all those involved, but unfortunately as they sing in Italian: "Parole, parole!"
    This is what happens when aidwork reporting is taken over by tabloids.

  3. And most importantly. A subject very close to my heart. Staff security...
    A wise man once told me: "You can no longer reduce the threat, so reduce the risk": we have gone beyond the point where we can reduce the external threat of terrorist attacks on aidworkers, so we should confine to reducing the risk. And the more aidworkers sent into a high risk environment, the higher the risk. Simple as that.
    Now that every single self respecting NGO, UN agency, nonprofit organisation will be scrambling to show its face and "plant the flag" in Pakistan, we should not forget: In the past year, the aid community has been directly targeted by bold terrorist acts several times: In March 2009, seven WorldVision staff died in an attack on their office. Mercy Corps had their staff abducted and in June 9 2009, the bombing of the Pearl Continental in Peshawar, destroyed the hotel where most aidworkers stayed. The bombing of WFP's office in Islamabad, on October 5 2009, left five dead and several wounded.
    The Taliban has made no secret in targeting aidworkers in the whole region. A point made clear in this weekend's killing of 10 aidworkers in Afghanistan.
    Every single relief agency should hold back on the impulse to "pump in as many people as they can" to respond to the emergency.
    As a matter of fact, many support functions (finance, administration, procurement, reporting, mapping, etc etc) can be done in a remote support base, keeping the strict minimum of people in harm's way. In an emergency, more than half of the people needed on the ground can work remotely. And probably they would work more effectively too!
    I suggest for every single person any organisation sends in, the question is asked: "Do we really need this person to be there, on the ground?".
I think it is appropriate at this point to repeat the disclaimer at the bottom of this blog: "This blog expresses my personal opinions, and not those of my current or past employers."

Picture courtesy Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images, discovered via The Boston Globe's "The Big Picture" series on the floods


A Lady's Life 10 August, 2010 17:37  

I am upset that the Taliban isn't doing anything.
Even Palestine is not taking care of its people.
I see women being abused and grow old before their time.I saw them carrying anorexic women in the flood without their burkas and its a shame.The problems are bigger than just a flood.The problems are getting to be too big . We went in to get Bin Laden and he disappeared and we lost track of what we are doing.
The Arabs have sooo much money and none of it is used for their people.They sit pretending to believe in Allah but instead they are laughing at him. The people sit in poverty and hate. No wonder they hate and mistrust everyone.
Right now the world is in crisis. Moscow, China,etc...sooo many need help everywhere. It makes you want to cry.

Anonymous,  11 August, 2010 00:39  

Thank you Peter for this excellent post! As a geographer having worked on the ground during 20 years, I bear no more the incapacity of the humans generally, and international organizations in particular, to face the fundamental problems of current poverty! The risk prevention is really the only way to protect the most vulnerable populations against natural disasters and I regret that there is no more energy in this sense(direction) both on behalf of the governments of the concerned countries and of the western countries! It is revolting!!!

Kevin 12 August, 2010 10:29  

Peter, I couldn't agree more with your third point. Aid organizations will quite rightly be focusing their efforts on providing appropriate assistance to those most affected by the flooding. Unfortunately that focus could easily bling aid workers to the real risks they face.

The flood has once again brought rapid change to Pakistan. Aid agencies are flying in new staff. New programs and projects are being set up. Hundreds of villages have been evacuated and in some cases people have been forced to move several times. Militant groups are sending their humanitarian wings to assist and win over popular support. The Pakistani military finds itself split between fighting the militants and rescuing their fellow countrymen from the flood waters.

I've always thought that aid workers are at greatest risk, not when the apparent danger was at its greatest, but when the risks are changing the most quickly. The flood has certainly qualifies as rapid change.

Aid agencies shouldn't let their mission blind them to the risks faced by their staff. Constant reassessment is required so that new risks can be identified and mitigated.

Keeping staff ceilings to manageable levels should be part of every agencies risk reduction measures.

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