By Jennifer O’Connell
I can see why Brian Cowen might be said to suffer from an image deficit. Or, say, Lindsay Lohen. Or Mel Gibson. Or Simon Cowell, Ivor Callely or Sean Fitzpatrick.
But the concept is a little bit more difficult to understand in the context of the 16.8 million Pakistanis, who have been severely affected by the flooding which has swept their country for almost four weeks.
They haven’t got food, shelter or access to fresh water. Their crops have been destroyed, so they are likely to go hungry for many seasons to come. Three and half million of their children are facing the threat of imminent death by disease or starvation. Cities have been left without a power supply as the flood waters demolished natural gas pipes. Schools and hospitals have been destroyed. Doctors in the region have reported the first signs of a cholera outbreak.
But what these people need most, the UN tell us, is a PR makeover.
This is the only explanation the organisation can come up with for what it calls the “quite extraordinary” reluctance by the rest of the world to offer aid, and for the shameful speed at which so much of the world’s media collectively slid the crisis off the front pages.
It’s hard not to agree with the UN’s conclusion that there is a kind of selective compassion at play here.
The flooding in Pakistan is a greater humanitarian disaster than the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2005 northern Pakistan earthquake and the 2010 Haiti earthquake combined, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Unfortunately for those involved, though, the television pictures aren’t as dramatic as an earthquake or a tsunami, and no white-faced holidaymakers have been swept to their deaths or separated from their loved ones.
But there’s more to our failure to respond to the Pakistani crisis than a dearth of dramatic TV footage or an inability to identify directly with the victims. After all, donors in the West have found it in themselves to rise to countless humanitarian disasters in Africa and Asia in the past.
The former Chilean diplomat Jorge Heine believes the classified documents released earlier this month by WikiLeaks may have been partly responsible for muting donor responses to the flood.
And it is possible to imagine potential donors wondering why they should send money to a country whose government is covertly backing Afghan insurgents and international terrorists.
But is it right to hold the entire populace accountable for the actions of a corrupt administration?
And , if so, where would that leave us in the eyes of Europe and the wider world if such a disaster were ever to befall Ireland? Would the rest of the world shake its head and tell us that since, based on its woeful track record, our government couldn’t be trusted to spend the money wisely, it was best they gave us nothing at all?
The Irish population has pledged €2.5 million, on top of a further €2m from the government. It’s not a lot, in the context of the somewhere-between-€24-and-€36-billion we’re likely to end up investing in a single zombie bank.
At home, discussions on Twitter and other internet forums revealed a suspicion over how a government wealthy enough to pursue a nuclear power programme could fail to have enough resources to supply its own flood relief.
But this, too, is a simplistic, reductionist viewpoint, especially since those living in the flood regions worst affected have suffered for many years from the government’s ineptitude – not mention an incredibly hypocritical one from a country as capable of squandering wealth as this.
As an editorial in the Daily Times of Pakistan put it last week:
“By the end of July when flooding started in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the civil administration had still not come out of its stupor. Our own political eminences continued playing politics with the floods and, despite being filthy rich, they did not contribute at all to alleviate the misery of the people.”
But while the writer accepted the notion that the country’s leadership suffered from a justifiable “trust deficit”, he pointed out that “the world community could [still] have funnelled their aid through international relief agencies. But it has not. The UN has appealed for $ 460 million for immediate relief. Not even one quarter has come in so far.”
It may be that there is something deeper at play here too, than our suspicions about the motivations of the Pakistan government.
Before the current crisis unfolded, Newsweek reporter Joshua Kurlantzick identified something he called ‘the death of generosity.’
Reporting on the last G8 summit in June, he wrote how, in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake in January 2010, the international community pledged $ 5.3 billion - but only $ 505 million had been received at that point by the Haitian government. “The issue that had dominated the summit just five years ago, foreign aid, got little mention. Perhaps, it is not surprising, given how many rich nations are busy bailing themselves out of the debt crisis, but is emblematic of a wider malaise: the death of generosity itself.”
Kurlantzick speculated how, in an instant gratification society, donors like to get more bang for their buck than donating to long-term disaster relief efforts allows.
Oxfam agrees: “Donors typically set unrealistic time frames for reconstruction, and the level of infrastructural and political damage inflicted in Haiti suggests that they must think in terms of years, if not decades,” it observed recently.
Hillary Clinton may have been more right than she realised when she said: “This is a defining moment - not only for Pakistan, but for all of us. “
Do we believe that all people forced out of their homes because of confict or natural disaster are equally deserving of our empathy and help – or don’t we?
This column first appeared in the Sunday Business Post on August 29, 2010