Thursday, September 2, 2010

We Are the World, Except for Pakistan

Frequent Quarterbacker Edwin dropped me a note earlier this week to suggest that I might like to write about the flooding in Pakistan, seeing as how it is being branded one of the worst natural disasters ever.  In case you missed it, 20 million people have lost their homes and an estimated two thousand have died.  Those surviving are, aside from being homeless, at tremendous risk for disease and starvation. 

This is certainly a crisis, and certainly the sort of thing I write about.  So why haven't I?  My reasons are somewhat specific to me.  The flooding in Pakistan hit the news in this country during the second week in August.  It may have gotten coverage before that, but certainly not a lot.  My regular readers know that during the second week in August I was in Haiti, doing crisis intervention following their earthquake in January.  I first heard about the flooding the day I returned and, to be perfectly honest, I was resentful that there was another natural disaster.  My gut, emotional reaction was that Pakistan was stealing the spotlight from Haiti, and they should wait their turn.  That was not a rational reaction, of course, but it was real.

I shared that reflection with Edwin when he asked, and he said that, in some ways, he had a similar reaction.  The floods were too much, too soon after the Haiti earthquake (not to mention the Chile earthquake, the gulf oil spill, etc.).  It's interesting that he described it as being too much, as though he (and by extension, we) couldn't absorb it all.  Others would say that the rapid succession of disasters has made us numb.

Edwin and I are no alone, however, in not really focusing attention or assistance on Pakistan.  In contrast to the reaction to Pakistan, international aid has been very slow in funneling to Pakistan.  I haven't seen any cell phone text message fundraising campaigns, and there is no "We Are the World for Pakistan."  I'm absorbed with Haiti.  Edwin feels like it's too much too soon.  What's up with the rest of the world?

I think there are a number of factors in play here, and any one of them may play more or less of a role for one person or another.  If one doesn't resonate with you, keep going down the list.  Something will.  In addition to what I'll call the "natural disaster overload" described above, here are some things I think are going on:

  • Floods are calamities in slow motion.  Unlike an earthquake, there is no shocking breaking news that shakes us all out of complacency.  The moment when a flood goes from a problem to a catastrophe is not clear, and the more time we have to get used to something the less likely we are to feel like it requires action.
  • The impact is measured in lives displaced, not lives lost.  Two thousand people is a very large number, but the death toll from the Haitian earthquake was more than one hundred times as great.  Death gets our attention.
  • It's Pakistan.  Americans, at least, don't particularly like the Pakistani government, despite the fact that they are technically our allies.
  • It's Pakistan.  The Pakistani government is notoriously corrupt, and the country has a significant Taliban presence which makes operating there very difficult.
  • It's Pakistan.  There is a tremendous anti-Islamic sentiment in this country right now.  While relatively few Americans would consciously decide not to help because these are Muslims, the anti-Muslim rhetoric makes it much easier to not notice that these are people.
I've taken way too long to start blogging about the situation in Pakistan.  I'll devote some more space to it in a few days.  In the meantime, I'd like to recommend two of my favorite disaster relief charities, both of which are doing relief work in Pakistan because they already had people on the ground when the flooding started.  Please consider a donation to Doctors Without Borders, the American Jewish World Service, or the relief organization of your choice.  Disaster is disaster, and disasters shouldn't have to compete for whose is more important to get our attention.


Edwin Aoki said...

Thanks for helping to start the conversation around this. Today's PBS NewsHour had a pair of stories on the flood. One was the heartwrenching tale of what effect the flood is having on the millions of children in the affected region and the real health crisis that's already starting to break out there. The second was on the issue you talked about here - relief. As it happens Americans (individuals, companies, and non-governmental organizations) have donated $25 million to the Pakistani flood efforts in the first five weeks since they happened. In the first five weeks after the earthquake in Haiti, the Indonesian floods, or the 9/11 attacks, donations were close to $1 billion. 5 weeks after Hurricane Katrina, we'd donated $2 billion. There are a number of reasons for this, many of which you point out. But as you say, disaster is disaster, and there are real people in need. Thanks for not forgetting them.


P.S. Links to the stories mentioned:

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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