Monday, August 23, 2010

Floods in Pakistan: Why is aid so slow?

You might ask if issues surrounding aid and aid distribution are a legitimate concern of environmental geography. I would argue anything that will impact upon the environment and people’s interactions with that environment is important. This includes flows of capital, aid, materials and their distribution to populations as well as the geography of these flows and their materialization in the environment. You may disagree with this vision of environmental geography but even in this case I hope the discussion below raises some questions concerning aid in general by focusing on this disaster in particular.

According to the Bank for International Settlements (BIS, an intergovernmental organization of international banks), the average daily turnover in foreign exchange markets as of April 2007 was estimated to be $3.98 trillion ( The New York Stock Exchange in 2008 had an average daily trading value estimated at $153 billion ( I mention these figures only to show that the volume and rate at which capital can be moved around financial markets, presumably as recorded and confirmed transactions between at least two individual parties, seems to be extremely rapid. Transference of aid seems to be a lot slower. I am sure it will be pointed out that aid is different; relief organisations collating individual pledges as well as governments pledging sums for aid. My question would be so what systems are these aid and governmental organizations using, why are they so much slower and couldn’t the systems financial markets use to speed transactions be looked at for lessons about how to move aid funds around more rapidly?

Two recent articles about the floods, one by Adrian Hamilton (Aid trickles while the waters flood, The Independent, 19th August 2010, ), the other by Rob Crilly (Pakistan flood aid from Islamic extremists. The Telegraph, 21st August 2010, present the key arguments and concerns that may underlie this issue of the slowness of aid contributions from the world.

Hamilton raises a number of issues that may be summarized by the term ‘trust erosion’ as he notes. The claims by David Cameron that Pakistan is an exporter of terrorism, the expectations amongst Pakistanis themselves that most of the aid will end up in the hands and accounts of the ruling elite, the recent experiences of government corruption in disasters (including the recent L'Aquila earthquake in Italy suggesting the issue is not one confined to ‘developing’ countries) are all mentioned as affecting the willingness of the public, specifically a Western public to give aid to help the victims of the disaster. People do not necessarily believe the funds will reach the people who need it most. Problems of the increasing frequency of ‘natural’ disasters (inducing 'compassion fatigue'), the tighter economic climate and the relatively low number of deaths (so far) are also put forward as possible factors but with less force. As an aside it woudl be interesting to know if there was any ethnic or regilious variation in hte amount of aid pledged by people - tricky to get at but it would provide very useful information.

Hamilton does make the comment that the general assumption of corruption is grossly unfair to the local officials, the army commanders and the doctors who have pulled to, as well as the mosques and religious societies which have been quick to provide shelter and hand out food and drinking water in their localities.” The Western view sometimes interprets such activity as terrorist, or other such groups, trying to take advantage of a tragic situation. This is a topic developed at some length by Crilly in his article in the Telegraph. He reports from north-west Pakistan, from Nowshera where he outlines the relief work of the Islamist charity Falah-e-Insaniat, a charity he states is linked to the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), the terrorist group involved in the Mumbai terrorist attacks of 2008. Crilly notes that these militant charities are providing food, water, shelter, medicine and funds to local families and are winning the hearts and minds of local people by their reliable humanitarian actions, or by exploiting the disaster situation – depending on your viewpoint. He states that the charity claim that they can raise in a day the same amount as the Prime Minister’s disaster relief fund has obtain in total, about £1 million. They also add that they have thousands of volunteers and hundreds of collection points. They too state that no-one trusts the government, such is the general view of the level of corruption.

So what can be taken from these two articles. Firstly, I am not advocating supporting terrorist groups. I abhor violence. What both articles highlight is the need to plan and distribute aid using an appropriate network at the appropriate scale. Give a large, bureaucratic organization a task and it is likely to come up with a large, bureaucratic solution - unless that bureaucry is extremely felixble, innovative and open to novel solutions. The local religious organizations, the local Islamist charities, the local officials mentioned in each article seem to have developed or used local networks for allocation and distribution of scant resources. In the case of Falah-e-Insaniat, they also seem to have organized a system for rapidly acquiring funds and distributing them. If this organization can do why can’t others?

It may be that the context of these local organizations aids their relief work. The remoteness of the north-west and the recession of the flood waters plus the distribution of population may aid the development of such supportive local networks and hinder their translation to other parts of the country. It maybe that these local relief organizations ride on the back of existing local social and economic networks to achieve their goals. Such social and economic networks may not exist at the same scale in the rest of the country, again restricting the translation of the efforts of such organizations. But figuring out if such networks can be translated might enable aid to be more effective distributed and help slow down or even reverse trust erosion (trust deposition doesn’t sound right, so I will stop developing the metaphor there). If the West is worried about extremist groups winning the battle for the trust of people during and after this disaster maybe they would be wise to look at how this success is being achieved and to think about what is an appropriate scale of response and what scale of organization or networks need to be encouraged or created to achieve their goals at an appropriate scale. Funds can pour into Pakistan, but it the effectiveness with which these funds are used to support the victims by which the aid and the aid-givers will be judged. As Adrian Hamilton notes in his article:
“Money promised in aid means nothing by itself. What matters is people, their livelihood and their survival. If it was just a matter of money then, frankly, I'd prefer to give it to the mosques. It's more likely to reach the victims.”

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