Yesterday a non-Pakistani friend here in Seattle emailed me: "I wanted to ask you which you think would be the best organization to make a donation to for the current crisis in Pakistan. We usually give to MSF, but their website doesn't seem to offer the opportunity to give specifically for Pakistan. Can you offer advice?"
This friend is British and greatly prefers British media outlets, but I need to believe that there are many Americans who also want to help flood victims in Pakistan - or who would want to, if they knew the scale and severity of the disaster.
Why don't they know? We can, and I do, blame "the media," but that's unhelpful and ultimately a cop-out. Each of us individually has the opportunity and responsibility to be aware of every tragedy in our world, and we should be willing to exert ourselves to redress them. We're all in this together. But the real problem is that there's too much tragedy, and it's happening too fast, and these days Americans are distracted and confused and worried about serious problems close to home, like our own jobs and mortgages.
This is understandable. But you need to know that all indicators are pointing toward an enormous, long-term human tragedy unfolding in Pakistan, and we need to do something about it, for several good reasons. The New York Times acknowledged one of these when - belatedly, in its first significant coverage of the floods that I noticed - it headlined an August 6 article "Hard-Line Islam Fills Void in Flooded Pakistan."
A related point is that we Americans owe Pakistanis a measure of basic human respect and compassion, as well as gratitude specifically for the sacrifices they've made at our behest in several wars in Afghanistan. When we repay this debt, it will also redound to our benefit. "It's high time we showed Pakistanis the best of America," disaster relief specialist Todd Shea told me last year. "If you're a true friend, you don't run out on somebody when you don't need them anymore. ... Pakistanis don't trust America anymore. We need to show Pakistanis who we really are."
Todd Shea runs a charity hospital in the Pakistan-administered portion of the disputed region of Kashmir, where he has been working since the October 2005 earthquake that killed 80,000 people. He also responded urgently and effectively to the World Trade Center attack, the Asian tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, and the earthquake this January in Haiti. He's currently on the ground in Pakistan, running medical camps and providing drinking water, food, and other relief. An August 11 update on his organization's website suggests the scale of the challenge:
In a recent statement appealing for more aid to Pakistan, UN humanitarian chief John Holmes said: "While the death toll may be much lower than in some major disasters, taking together the vast geographical area affected, the numbers of people requiring assistance and the access difficulties currently affecting operations in many parts of the country, it is clear that this disaster is one of the most challenging that any country has faced in recent years."
Thousands of people are camped out on roads, bridges and railway tracks - any dry ground they could find - often with nothing more than the clothes on their backs and perhaps a plastic sheet to keep off the rain. "I have no utensils. I have no food for my children. I have no money," said one survivor, sitting on a rain-soaked road in Sukkur along with hundreds of other people. "We were able to escape the floodwaters, but hunger may kill us." ...
There is a desperate need to send more well-equipped medical teams to the flood-hit areas to prevent the further spread of disease. The victims of the flood have lost everything and cannot cope with potential epidemics on their own.
I'm writing this article because I live and work between two worlds: the mainstream North America that I come from, and the Pakistani immigrant community. My job is to help bridge the gulf in awareness and sympathy between those worlds. What I'm seeing right now is that Pakistani-Americans and their admirable and effective nonprofit groups are jumping once more into the breach, as they always do. And, as always, they're confined - and confining themselves - to soliciting funds from each other.
The flooding is "well timed" in the sense that the fasting month of Ramadan has just begun, and many Muslims will be directing their annual zakat charity contributions toward flood relief. Pakistani-Americans are generally an affluent community, but there's a limit to what they can do. Wealthy Pakistanis in Pakistan also need to help, and surely are helping. Just as important, we non-Pakistani Americans and Canadians must help. We also must somehow self-raise our own awareness, given the paucity of decent media coverage. This is important both for obvious-enough political reasons, and simply because it's the right thing to do.
I see troubling contrasts between the outpouring of generosity and attention that followed the earthquake in Haiti and the averting of eyes from the flooding in Pakistan. I see several reasons for this: Haiti is nearby; the earthquake killed 200,000 or more people all at once. In addition, though, there's the fact that Haiti is not a Muslim country. The earthquake fit right in with the story we were already telling ourselves about Haiti, which is all about poverty and tragedy. Dr. Paul Farmer sums it up pithily in the title of his book The Uses of Haiti. The uses of Pakistan are different. We need to move beyond the uses of both countries and toward understanding them accurately and respectfully, in their own terms. Our awareness of Haiti should be more political and of Pakistan less so, or differently so.
Anyway, back to my friend's question. The short answer is that, as always, grassroots groups are more nimble and effective, and your money will be put to better use if you give it to groups that are nearer the ground. This is why the nonprofit groups founded and run by Pakistani-Americans are crucially important. I'm including links to several of these below, and I recommend them all.
I was jolted the other day when another friend suggested that being asked to donate to the excellent Islamic Medical Association of North America "could possibly turn some people off." He's probably right, but we goras need to get over our knee-jerk aversion to the word "Islamic." Your doctor might be a member of IMANA. As a Haitian woman told Paul Farmer years ago, "Tout moun se moun" - all people are people. We're all in this together.
Please contribute to flood relief in Pakistan through one of these organizations (listed in alphabetical order):
This post originally appeared at EthanCasey.com.