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Story Publication logo November 1, 2010

The Politics of Humanitarian Aid


Media file: Pakistan_Flood_Victims.jpg

Epic floods recently inundated vast expanses of Pakistan in the worst natural disaster in its recent...


The roads snaking through Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province wax and wane, the route obscured by the record monsoon downpour that recently battered bridges and eroded pathways throughout this verdant northwestern region. In the district of Kohistan, the floodwaters surged over riverbanks, burst dams, and swallowed entire villages. Hundreds of thousands of mountain dwellers from these remote enclaves would have starved had not humanitarian workers quickly mobilized relief efforts. However, there is probably no place in the world where aid is more politicized than in Pakistan.
The Chinese ambassador to Pakistan recently traveled to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and expressed his condolences to those affected by the tragedy. His country is helping repair the battered Karakoram Highway, which connects Pakistan with China, and has already provided 320 million yuan ($47.1 million) worth of humanitarian supplies to Pakistan. Along with the Chinese, the Saudis have a strong presence here. As of September 17, Saudi Arabia had allocated $362 million for its Pakistani relief operation, more than any other country.

Many Pakistanis wonder if the floods will force the United States to reexamine its approach to their country. Will the U.S. follow China's and Saudi Arabia's lead by investing in Pakistan's infrastructure, or will it continue its unpopular drone attacks and create more enemies? Already, the U.S. military is trying to show its softer side by spending an estimated $216.5 million on flood aid and dispatching some 26 helicopters to evacuate trapped villagers throughout the rugged mountains and the Indus valley. From a strategic standpoint, the Americans hope their humanitarian cargo will change what recent polls revealed: about 60 percent of Pakistanis view Americans as the enemy.

Pakistanis say the U.S. cannot win their "hearts and minds" through a schizophrenic policy of distributing food with one hand, and arming drones with the other. Many Pakistanis tell me they are infuriated that CIA drones carried out 21 strikes in September - the highest number since the clandestine operation began six years ago - just a month after their country experienced the worst natural disaster in its recent history.

"In the U.S., almost ten years ago, you experienced 9/11 but, here in Pakistan, almost everyday we are experiencing 9/11," says Hassan Ali Khan of the Omar Asghar Khan Development Foundation (OAKDF). A rare public opinion poll sponsored by the New America Foundation and conducted in Pakistan's ethnic Pashtun tribal areas in July shows that U.S. drone strikes are deeply unpopular and likely to become even more unpopular. Pakistanis tell me they believe the U.S. has ulterior motives for distributing humanitarian aid. They note that Pakistan's collapse would imperil the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan and pose a risk of extremists tapping into the country's nuclear arsenal.

America's decision to drop food parcels from helicopters is not likely to wash away its history of propping up Pakistan's dictators and deploying unmanned drones. Over and over again, I am told that America's foreign policy breeds resentment, fails to address the causes of extremism, and simply creates more anti-American militants.

Mumtaz Tanoli of OAKDF says terrorism is rooted in the growing divide between the haves and have-nots. "The people are impatient with unemployment, poverty, injustice, and inequality," he says. "The growing disparities, poverty and desperation are the roots of terrorism . . . Here, the opportunities are only for those with money or inroads in society and the rest feel poor and frustrated."

Tanoli left his job as a translator for USAID to work with OAKDF--a decision that cost him the rare opportunity of obtaining a U.S. green card and also slashed his salary by 90 percent. He says his decision was partly based on the sadness and uneasiness he felt while watching his USAID colleagues live a life of relative opulence and waste. "The Americans were buying fancy waterbeds, but the locals had nothing," he said. "How can you win people to your side that way?"

Overall, the U.S. quest for the hearts and minds of Pakistanis seems like a dismal failure. Pakistanis say they are unhappy that U.S. Apache helicopters in late September killed up to 50 Pakistanis as they fled across the border from Afghanistan in what was the fourth such cross-border strike in a week.

Feryal Ali Gauhar, a Pakistani filmmaker, actress, writer and human rights activist, and Ali Sethi, a Pakistani author, have drawn attention to reports that the U.S. military, operating from a secret base on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, may have breached the Indus River and flooded a Pakistani village in order to protect a strategic airstrip used to launch unmanned drone attacks. Pakistanis also believe that U.S. forces supervising an airbase in the Jacobabad district of Sindh province denied permission for the airstrip to be used to deliver much-needed relief to submerged areas where 700,000 people were trapped. And according to the Guardian newspaper, U.S. soldiers in Chinook helicopters are generating additional ill-will during relief missions by donning helmets with patches that commemorate their fellow soldiers killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, wars that are regarded as morally offensive in Pakistan as in much of the world.

The hard hit northern regions of Pakistan are likely to provide fertile ground for rogue groups eager to exploit the flood tragedy to gain new sympathizers. These groups are able to make inroads because the government is seen as a lame duck and the U.S. is regarded as a foreign aggressor. For the staff of OAKDF, the answer does not lie in waging a "war" against extremists but in providing impoverished Pakistanis with an alternative that is neither starvation nor bellicosity.

"The people are vulnerable and desperate but they realize those [extremists] who help them still have an agenda," says OAKDF's Rashida Dohad, noting that rural Pakistanis are rational actors, not marionettes of extremist groups. Instead of forcing these Pakistanis to choose between lives of poverty or allegiances with intolerant groups, OAKDF offers an avenue for reengaging in the political process and demanding that government meets people's basic human rights.

"Humanitarian aid is only effective if it's based on a relationship of mutual trust" and there are no strings attached, said Dohad. "If your attitude is sincere, you are able to demonstrate that you're genuinely there because you care . . . only then will people welcome you." She recalled a recent experience of traveling on a long, bumpy road to an isolated 30-mile stretch of the Kandian Valley right after the floods damaged bridges and highways. "The people were so amazed and touched to see the effort we made to bring them food," she said. "They were eager to hear our message."

Pakistanis such as Dohad are asking the tough but important questions in wake of the flood: Will the Pakistani government subsidize food now that prices have skyrocketed? Will political leaders vote to levy a flood-relief tax on the wealthy to help rebuild the demolished homes of the poor? Will Pakistanis insist their government stops marching in step with the dictates of the IMF and incurring more debilitating debt? Will political leaders actually invest in Pakistan's infrastructure and reject bribes to rebuild bridges with sand rather than cement? And, finally, will the government invest less in its military and more in its people.



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