Foreign aid for Pakistan earthquake relief comes with a sting in the take

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Waseem Shehzad

Shawwal 28, 1426 2005-12-01


by Waseem Shehzad (World, Crescent International Vol. 34, No. 10, Shawwal, 1426)

The donors' conference in Islamabad on November 19 might as well have been held on Mars, as far as the victims of Pakistan's devastating earthquake are concerned. Donors pledged US$5.8 billion ($0.6 billion more than what Pakistan had asked for), but the sting is in the detail. First, out of this total $3.9 billion will be in loans, repayable over a period of time that will add to Pakistan's debt-burden and increase its interest-payment costs. The remaining $1.9 billion is to be utilized to pay for helicopters and equipment the US and other countries have brought in to help with rescue and relief efforts. This money will, therefore, not reach Pakistan at all but still increase its debt-burden.

True, one should be grateful for whatever help is extended, but if it is going to increase people's suffering in the long run, it is not much use. Despite the government's spin about exceeding its expectations—prime minister Shaukat Aziz was evasive about what the pledges meant—this is not what Pakistan had hoped for. Its own target of $5.2 billion was meant to enable it to carry out rescue and relief operations as well as build the virtually destroyed infrastructure in the earthquake-affected areas.

Two months after the tragedy, some remote villages in Azad Kashmir and North West Frontier Province have still not been reached. Winter snow has already blanketed some areas, and the bitter Himalayan winds will take a toll of more lives. The tragedy has also sharpened the divide between the government and the people, whose distrust of the former was already high. For instance, individual donors within and outside Pakistan have repeatedly expressed concern about their donations going into governmental coffers instead of being used to help the earthquake's victims. In the US, Canada and European countries, Pakistani diplomats have been urging people to channel funds through the President's Earthquake-Relief Fund, for which special accounts have been opened in these countries. Apart from some hangers-on, there have been few takers.

Similarly, relief-goods sent to Pakistan have found their way onto the black market and are being sold there. Who is responsible for this? The military controls all goods coming intoPakistan, ostensibly to streamline operations. The goods are stored at the military base at Chaklala (Islamabad). A number of consignments, especially of medicines, tents and blankets, have disappeared from the airport, where no civilians are permitted entry. Even after checking where the consignments might have gone, the military personnel in charge would only say that they have released them but cannot say to whom.

The government has established a number of committees to deal with the crisis. There is a major general in charge of relief and rescue work, and a lieutenant general in charge of overall reconstruction. There is also the Prime Minister's Relief Coordination Committee. After the donors' conference, Musharraf said that there would be complete transparency in how the money was utilized. Yet the work of the committees given various responsibilities cannot be challenged in any court of law; so much for transparency.

Tent-cities have sprung up in Muzaffarabad, Mansehra and Balakot, but even these are not enough. In Muzaffarabad there is no more space to put up tents, yet there are still people in need of shelter. A number of proposals have been floated to build temporary shelters; everybody has a scheme but there appears to be little systematic effort. In a society where everything is done on an ad hoc basis, this is not surprising. Lack of clean drinking water and lack of proper sanitary facilities in the tent-villages are adding to the problems. Diarrhoea and other diseases have broken out and may spread unless proper facilities and medicines are provided soon. The stories of orphans, young boys and girls, left without any family are most heartbreaking. A few organizations have taken in some of these children, but their numbers are huge and it will require a massive effort to provide them with proper shelter and emotional support.

The work of Islamic charitable organizations, especially the Edhi Foundation, al-Khidmat of the Jama‘at-e Islami, Jama‘at ad-Dawa, a group whose previous organizational setup was banned under US pressure, and such other NGOs as HELLP, has been phenomenal. Their volunteers managed to reach the most difficult places high up in the mountains very quickly.

Even major foreign NGOs and organizations, including the World Food Program and UNICEF, have been forced to turn to these Pakistani organizations to deliver goods to the remote areas. With years of experience, the Pakistani NGOs are familiar with the terrain and people's culture and values. For instance, they acquired hundreds of mules to carry goods high up into the mountains, where even helicopters are unable to deliver. This comes from experience in working with the people in the area.

Despite such selfless service, or perhaps because of it, they have become the target of much Western and secular ire. While accompanying UN secretary general Kofi Annan on a visit to refugee camps in Muzaffarabad, Musharraf told the people that they should accept help from whoever gave it, but should be wary of those "preaching extremist ideology". The military dictator was clearly playing to the foreign media, but his words ring distinctly hollow: he himself qualifies as an extremist by launching attacks against his own people to appease the US. Besides, there is no proof that any of these groups has been involved in ‘preaching'; they are all there to help. Either Musharraf should mobilize his over-sized army to assist the people and stop stealing the goods being delivered from abroad, or he should hold his tongue.

There have been equally ridiculous allegations from some Western (especially American) correspondents who claim that "extremists" have eclipsed American aid-efforts and are gaining adherents. So fearful are the Americans and their Pakistani puppets that troops are assigned to protect them while they work in the earthquake-affected areas. People see and resent such behaviour; after all, if army personnel are not available to assist them, why are they being utilized to protect the Americans, they wonder.

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