Floods in Pakistan affect millions; U.N.-led relief effort lacks financial support

Flood waters were still rising in parts of Pakistan Wednesday, weeks after heavy rains started deluging the country. The aid effort was ramping up, to reach out to millions affected by the disaster. (Aug. 18)
By Colum Lynch and Griff Witte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 19, 2010

UNITED NATIONS -- The United Nations will convene a high-level donors meeting Thursday to prod frugal governments to contribute more to relief efforts in Pakistan, where massive flooding has affected nearly 20 million people but where aid contributions have paled in comparison with previous large-scale disasters.

The sluggish response has underscored how difficult it is to mobilize international relief for slow-building natural disasters that, unlike tsunamis or earthquakes, don't instantly kill tens of thousands of people. It has also underscored the degree to which emerging powers, particularly oil-rich Persian Gulf nations and the new Asian economic powerhouses, have been hesitant to channel their wealth into the United Nations' emergency relief efforts.

The vast majority of funding for the U.N.-led relief operation so far has come from traditional donors -- principally the United States, Australia, Denmark and Britain. Many of Pakistan's regional allies and neighbors, including China, Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as other developing countries, have sent only a trickle of aid in the crucial first weeks of the crisis.

"It's been abysmal, it's been terrible. There is no relationship between the number of people in acute need of help and what has actually been provided in this first month," said Jan Egeland, a former U.N. relief coordinator who managed the international response to the tsunami in South Asia in 2004. "We got more in a single day just after the tsunami than Pakistan got in a month."

The floods have killed about 1,500 people. That toll is far lower than the toll in other recent disasters, including the 2004 tsunami, the earthquake in South Asia in 2005 and the earthquake in Haiti in January. But the floods have left more people in need of food, shelter and other life-saving assistance than those disasters combined.

Many analysts have blamed "disaster fatigue" for the paltry commitment in aid. On Thursday, U.S. and U.N. officials hope to overcome that by emphasizing the dire nature of the situation and pointing out that the problems will linger after the waters recede.

The stakes are particularly high for the U.S.-led military coalition in Afghanistan, which fears that an inadequate response in Pakistan could destabilize the government there and undermine military goals across the border.

While money was slow to start flowing, U.N. officials said that they are roughly halfway toward meeting a goal of $460 million in aid. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is attending the gathering Thursday, is expected to announce an increase in U.S. aid to Pakistan.

The lack of assistance from Pakistan's allies in the Islamic world has been a source of frustration among the country's officials.

State media in Saudi Arabia reported Tuesday that the country had raised $20.5 million to support the Pakistani flood victims. But that was the kingdom's first significant donation, and it came three weeks into the crisis. Pakistan considers Saudi Arabia one of its closest allies, and the Saudis have in the past lavished money on charities and religious organizations in Pakistan.

Before the Saudi announcement, no Muslim nation had given Pakistan more than the $5 million donation made by Kuwait, according to U.N. records.

Pakistan's former ambassador to the United Nations, Rustam Shah Mohmand, said donors from the Islamic world traditionally prefer to work through networks of nongovernmental organizations and private charities, rather than through the United Nations or even the government.

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