Pakistan's Floods Reveal an Emerging Geopolitics

By Saskia Sassen and Razi Ahmed

Here is another revelation brought forth by the floods in the form of four actors that are, or considered to be, at the centre-stage of rescuing flooded Pakistan: a newfound power for civil society organizations intersecting with global partners for coping with state-failure.

First, the disastrous failure of Pakistan's National Disaster Management Authority and its provincial chapters, which it turns out were mere shell entities. The tardy response to the slow but relentless spread of the flood is not new. A similarly slow response was evident in the post-2005 earthquake in Pakistani Kashmir.

Second, the much-vaunted Middle Eastern association with Pakistan, curiously, has yielded a poor relief response. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have in the past channeled funds to champion the Wahhabi variant of Islam in the now flooded Southern Punjab. But it appears that the devastation wrought by the titanic floods do not merit petro-dollar humanitarian assistance. Initially, Saudi Arabia contributed modestly, but now has announced an additional US$ 80 million, for a total of over US$ 106 US million, still modest for a Kingdom with a Sovereign Fund of $410 billion.

Third, there is the the international system, which has finally responded: a plea by the UN for $ 460 million has secured at least half of what was asked from potential donors; Western governments are beginning to make commitments, particularly the US which has committed $77 million, and has now raised that to US$ 150 million. Also much of this help is going though civil society organizations, increasingly recognized as well-functioning institutional actors.

Fourth, diverse civil society actors have worked hard (against all odds!) to get help -from the state, from private donors, from the international community. George Soros has announced $5 million to boost Pakistan's civil society. One effort of these civil society actors has been setting up a database,, for coordinating philanthropy of citizens and firms to avoid duplication and waste.

In many ways, the hard work of Pakistani civil society actors keeps being sidelined in global media accounts of the situation. Many of these civil society actors include, of course, Islamist charities -and perhaps, for much of the western media, the Islamist identity overrides the actual work at the heart of these charities. We in the West do not gain anything by having our media emphasize jihadists work and overlooking, for example, the work by the aging and leading Pakistani humanitarian Abdus Sattar Edhi who, among many other initiatives, flew half around the world to spearhead a team of Pakistani volunteers to help in post-quake Haiti.

To take one case, Pakistan Rising that runs two community centers in Swat and one in Southern Punjab's Uch Sharif. Named after iconic sufis of these areas, these projects aim at mainstreaming madrassah-enrolled children. Not unlike Pakistan Rising is Hum Pakistan with its signature program, ably led by Dr. Feriha Piracha, focusing on reverse indoctrination of Taliban-recruited children in Swat.

An odd marriage of necessity.

One of the key dynamics that is becoming evident is the effectiveness of the military and of civil society in massive emergencies. It is helpful to see what happened after the 2005 catastrophic earthquake. Civil society organizations and the effective logistics of the army, compensated for the absence and subsequent failure of the state's Disaster Management Agency. They also enabled global civil society to participate: in walked the Cubans with their health-care ready-to-attend planes, Americans with their Chinooks and MASH units, and celebrities queuing to raise the profile of the catastrophe on far away stages.

A second dynamic is that the specialized agencies for disaster management in many countries, not only Pakistan, but also in the US, are simply not ready for the new types of large-scale disasters happening with accelerated frequency. The Haiti earthquake brought this to fore. The US units moving in to help spent a whole day setting up their air-conditioned tents, the kitchen and dining rooms, etc; and then did not organize the distribution of water and food in effective ways to handle 200,000 desperate people. In contrast an Israeli civil society medical rescue team arrived from a long trip and without rest set up the portable hospital and went to work. We saw this difficulty in getting going at the required speed and scale also in the so-called Katrina disaster (though it was caused by the poor quality of the levies, not by the hurricane). The intentions in all these cases, and the dedication to the task were total, but the model of rescue operation seemed to belong to another era or to another type of emergency.

Amidst the Pakistani army's improving reputation among the public when it acts professionally rather than politically, Pakistani democracy itself is at risk of falling out of favor with the public. One way to prevent this is if the ruling PPP were to voluntarily thin its pudgy government (that includes a Federal Minister for Postal Services, Defense Production in addition to Defense and other such inane portfolios) and authorize resources for a more independent, and more importantly, functioning Disaster Management Authority that takes a page from the good work of Pakistan's civil society.

Saskia Sassen is the Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology and a member of the Committee of Global Thought at Columbia University (, and author of most recently of Territory, Authority, Rights (Princeton 2008); Razi Ahmed is a graduate student in Energy Studies at Columbia who has written OP-EDs for DAWN, Pakistan's leading English daily.