Disaster Politics: The American Reaction to Pakistan's Floods

08/09/2010 01:44 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Last year in the Moldhara village, nestled in the mountains of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, Naseer, a young schoolteacher tells me, "The Americans are clearly good people who want to help, but a lot of mistakes have been made."

Today, a few miles down the mountain, residents in the small town of Bagh surveyed the remains of the 13 homes and 23 shops washed away by the unusually heavy monsoon flooding -- the worst Pakistan has seen in 80 years, affecting nearly 12 million people. At a critical time in U.S.- Pakistan relations, a window of opportunity has opened for the U.S. to employ a more nuanced humanitarian diplomacy. This is the moment for the American public to affirm Naseer's faith, and the Obama administration to prove him wrong.

For the most part, he is right. Americans are indeed empathetic and generous. But this trait, of which we are so proud, can be remarkably selective. There appears to be a complex formulation of political and religious requirements that must be met before the media glare focuses on a natural disaster abroad and Americans reach into their pockets. As an entirely privately-funded disaster relief group, Operation USA has witnessed the rise and fall of the public's interest from one disaster to the next.

In the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, non-Muslim Sri Lankan children flashed across the front page of newspapers across the world. Many aid organizations found similar photos of Indonesian Muslims less useful for raising funds in a post 9/11 U.S., despite the country suffering the highest mortality rate (200,000 in Indonesia; 30,000 in Sri Lanka).Similarly, soon after Hurricane Katrina garnered global support and sympathy, the massive earthquake that hit Pakistan a few months later (killing 80,000 people in a matter of minutes) received little media attention and even less financial support.

Donor fatigue? Perhaps. But response patterns increasingly reveal that most Americans part with their money, perhaps unknowingly, in ways that reflect American geo-political anxieties. (i.e. our funds are reserved for those who seem helpless and non-threatening to American interests)

It isn't too surprising that this website (Huffington Post), along with several others, have been inundated with vitriolic comments from Americans angered by recent revelations regarding Pakistan's involvement in Afghanistan. The comments highlight problems here at home (the Gulf Oil Spill), and decry that we've given them (Pakistan) enough money.

As thousands of Pakistani villagers wait on rooftops recalling footage of the 9th ward during Katrina, we must distinguish between the needs of a population and the policies of its government. Just as in Katrina, anger directed at a President who seems unconcerned with the impact of a natural disaster is justified; condemning the population who suffers as a result is not.

But the public is not entirely to blame. It was inevitable that the long-time practice of strong, if not overlapping, ties of humanitarian aid to U.S. foreign policy interests would eventually penetrate the public consciousness. The question remains then, when the same territories central to the United States' "Overseas Contingency Operation" (formerly known as the War on Terror) become a disaster zone, what is the appropriate response? Getting the answer wrong may not only be a blow to our collective self-perception, but a matter of national security.

In a recent article looking at the U.S. Government policy of Foreign Assistance, David Rieff finds that the frontlines of battle in Pakistan are largely manned by government contracted NGOs. It is likely that much of the $35 million thus far pledged by the U.S. Government for the flood disaster will be funneled through these groups, operating in the required manner of "civil-military co-operation."

These NGOs will conduct immediate relief operations themselves (with new vehicles and large staffs), or partner with large Pakistani NGOs. They must somehow strike a balance between providing effective and sustainable humanitarian assistance while complying with the strings tied to funds from the Obama Administration. The few US NGOs actually responding to the Pakistan flood disaster (and the many which have not responded) fear potential prosecution by the US Government for "materially aiding foreign terrorists" even if theirs was unknowing assistance through a local third party, even just one villager in a sensitive area of the country.

As a result---some civilians, in some of the affected areas will receive some immediate relief in the form of food or shelter for a finite amount of time. Large swaths of land irrelevant to U.S. foreign policy interests will be overlooked. Smaller, community-based organizations with the most intimate knowledge of the needs of affected communities will not receive funding or support.

The village of Moldhara falls between these very large cracks. Since 2005, Operation USA has supported a community-driven initiative to construct of a primary health clinic. Here the formula is not complex: Young men and women engaged in useful community activities and employed in development projects do not turn to militancy. And it is here that the campaign to win the 'hearts and minds' of the Pakistani people could have some success, if the tools for relief and rehabilitation are placed in the hands of the affected communities themselves.

The overlap of political and humanitarian crises is perhaps most acutely felt by those worst affected - Afghan refugees who fled the fighting only to see flimsy shelters and loved ones swept away by the powerful floods. Acknowledging that U.S. foreign policy drives private donations and public perceptions, perhaps this latest disaster in Pakistan will spur a shift in the administration's approach and prove that America's empathy is universal.