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Michael Klosson

Michael Klosson

Posted: October 7, 2010 04:43 PM

The devastation I saw in Pakistan last week, brought about by once-in-a-century floods, remains a huge challenge for millions of displaced people in that country. The plight of the displaced -- while comparable to a flood affecting the entire population of New York state and forcing almost half of the residents to evacuate their homes -- has fallen off the front pages.

They deserve strong and sustained American attention.

Americans are compassionate by nature and instinctively extend their hand to people in need. After the 2004 South Asia tsunami and this year's Haiti earthquake, private Americans contributed almost $84 million in total to Save the Children's response efforts. The Pakistan floods affected four times as many people as those disasters combined. Yet Save the Children, like other humanitarian organizations, has received a relatively small amount ($2 million) for programs to save the lives of children and their families.

When it comes to saving lives in natural disasters, the country in which a child is born should not matter. Nor should political calculations, especially when there are effective and accountable ways -- such as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) -- for getting aid to those in need.

Humanitarian aid from the United States government for the Pakistan floods makes sound foreign policy sense as well, a case that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Special Representative Richard Holbrooke have championed. Pakistan is undergoing a fragile democratic transition while confronting violent extremism. This flooding -- if not addressed effectively -- has the potential to alter the geopolitical landscape in South Asia as dramatically as it has altered the physical appearance of large parts of the country.

A little known fact is that the United States government is providing over $360 million in immediate relief and early recovery assistance, a portion of which goes to humanitarian agencies. U.S. civilian and military flights have delivered tons of assistance.

What struck me most during my visit to Sindh Province, one of the southern areas where floodwaters have yet to recede, was the sheer scale of the disaster. Seven million children and adults are affected in that province alone. We established a sub-office in Sukkur less than seven weeks ago. We have grown that office from scratch to almost 300 largely Pakistani staff working 24/7 to help make a difference at scale for people in desperate need.

Two months into the flooding, the road north from Sukkur to our program areas in Jacobabad remains dotted with spontaneous groupings of plastic-sheeted shelters punctuated by larger camps organized by the Pakistani military. The logos of USAID, UNICEF or DFID were occasionally visible on that sheeting. The road was submerged in sections, so we boarded a tractor-drawn farm wagon for a hazardous ride past trucks that had slipped off the invisible roadbed. Muddy water extended on either side as far as the eye could see.

Since early August, Save the Children has reached over 1.2 million flood survivors in four provinces with lifesaving assistance. That is 10 percent of those most severely affected, who have received support ranging from shelter and non-food items, food, health services, child protection and support for schools.

In Sindh, I saw our mobile clinics -- also staffed by Pakistanis -- treat women and children living in camps for respiratory and other illnesses. We have launched a massive food aid program, supported by USAID and the World Food Program (WFP), and distributed at sites in Jacobabad, Shikarpur and Sukkur. At the site I visited, families who were prescreened by Save the Children teams to meet the WFP criteria for need, lined up to receive two 40-kilo bags of wheat flour. Others who believed they, too, were entitled but had not been screened, gathered across the street. The engagement of community leaders, with the presence of several policemen, kept the situation calm.

Delivering large-scale assistance quickly can be extremely challenging. Logistics and security issues are the most difficult to overcome. In addition to dealing with needy crowds desperate to feed their families, we have to manage risks posed by criminal elements and by anti-Western extremists, particularly in the northwest. Risk management becomes much harder when the United States government insists that NGOs co-brand aid in areas where embassy officers are banned from traveling or where U.S. officials go only with armed security details.

Here's the bottom line: International help needs to be boosted further. The good news is that Save the Children and other experienced international NGOs know how to make every dollar count. We have developed an approach that saves lives and helps put survivors on a path to recovery. We work at the community level with local leaders, while also engaging national authorities and coordinating through the United Nations. This ensures our work responds to local needs and values while being aligned with national priorities. We seek to integrate our program delivery so that water and sanitation programs, for example, work hand in hand with health and nutrition services. We base our assistance on assessment of actual need, count those whom we help, and monitor progress. We are accountable to those we help so the beneficiaries of food aid, for example, are told what rations to expect and are given a telephone number to call if that does not happen. By combining funds from different sources, we leverage government and private aid for greater impact. Finally, we are accountable to donors, reporting on how funds are used.

Ultimately, it is the Pakistan's responsibility to respond to the floods. But the international community, and organizations like Save the Children, have a critical role to play and we are committed to doing just that.