The article was updated on August 25, 2010.
It shouldn’t have to be said, but apparently it does.
“There are many realities in Pakistan and many kinds of Pakistanis, just like in any other country,” Amal Rana, a Pakistani activist living in Vancouver, told the Georgia Straight by phone. “People need to understand that the majority of Pakistanis don’t believe in terrorism, that the majority of Pakistanis are peaceful.”
Since massive floods began to ravage swaths of her country of origin in late July, Rana and other Pakistani-Canadians have been working in the Lower Mainland to raise funds for those affected by the natural disaster. But, she said, negative perceptions of the country and its government are making things challenging.
Rana is on the board of directors for the South Asian Network for Secularism and Democracy and a member of the Pakistan Action Network, a Vancouver-based group that aims to promote democracy and social justice in Pakistan. She expressed concern that funding is being adversely affected by false images of Pakistan that characterize the South Asian nation as a failed state rife with Islamic extremism.
“Pakistan is perceived as not doing enough—by conservatives in the U.S. and the Canadian government and others—in terms of the war on terror,” she explained. “And is blamed, to some degree, for what’s happening in terms of the Taliban and the Afghan situation.”
But, Rana continued, the reality on the ground is very different. “There is a really successful civil society that is thriving, that is countering what the Taliban is doing,” she said.
While the amount of donations is slowly beginning to grow, what has so far been pledged remains a fraction of what Canadians gave to Haiti after an earthquake struck the island nation earlier this year.
According to a Globe and Mail report, one week after fundraising efforts for Pakistan’s flood victims began, Canadian charities had raised $200,000. One week after the Haiti earthquake, that number was $3.5 million. Factor in the number of people affected by the two natural disasters and the disparity is even more poignant. Pakistani prime minister Yusuf Raza Gilani has said that 20 million people have been affected by the floods. Haiti’s earthquake hit three million people.
Farrukh Alam, president of the Pakistan-Canada Association, also said that negative perceptions of Pakistan could be affecting donor efforts. But he emphasized that the differences in the nature of the two disasters is also likely impacting donations.
“With Haiti, the damage was assessed right away,” he explained. “We knew there were a lot of deaths, a lot of damage. But with this, really, people have tended not to grasp what we have here in Pakistan.”
Reached on his cellular phone on August 18 on the way to a radio station to talk about the floods, Alam described the enormity of the current tragedy in Pakistan as so huge that the need for aid is simply incomprehensible.
“A lot more is needed,” he said. “Actually, more than we can even imagine.”
Women carry aid distributed by the Pakistan Red Crescent in response to the August flooding. Canadian Red Cross photo.
However, Alam remained positive, noting that fundraising efforts within the province’s Pakistani and Muslim communities are going very well. He said that members of those groups had already donated an estimated $100,000. Then, in a follow-up interview on August 20, Alam said that an August 19 a fundraising effort hosted by Red 93.1 FM raised a further $180,000, and that a second push is scheduled to take place Thursday, August 26.
That endeavor is receiving the support of a number of radio stations, Alam said, including News1130, CBC Radio One, RJ1200, Sher-E-Punjab, and Red FM. Donations will go to the Canadian Red Cross.
The provincial government has also pledged $150,000 in aid for Pakistan’s flood victims. And on August 22, the federal government announced that it would match Canadians’ private donations to registered charities from August 2 through to September 12.
Further pledge drives are also in the works, Alam said. “So good things are happening.”
But he expressed concern about the relative lack of donations coming from Canadian citizens who do not identify themselves with Pakistani or Muslim communities.
“The problem is, the mainstream Canadian population has not come to aid,” Alam said. “We have tried and tried.”
He also singled out the Conservative government for not doing enough to help those in Pakistan. Alam noted that in neighbouring Afghanistan, the Canadian military currently has a lot of equipment that could have been very useful in assessing the initial extent of the damage caused by the floods.
Alam said that the Pakistan-Canada Association has requested that the Conservative government make helicopters and other equipment in Afghanistan available for use in helping Pakistan’s flood victims, but has so far not received a response.
According to an August 17 Canadian Red Cross media release, the organization is working with the Canadian International Development Agency in Pakistan and has now delivered $1 million in federal relief supplies.
But Ottawa’s failure to act in the initial period of flooding was also criticized by Derrick O’Keefe, cochair of StopWar.ca and a collaborator on Malalai Joya’s memoir A Woman Among Warlords: The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Raise Her Voice.
O’Keefe went on to slam the Obama administration as well, arguing that the U.S. military is in an even better position to help than the Canadian government, but has still done relatively little.
“The U.S. has a lot of the equipment [in Afghanistan] necessary for flood rescue and relief in the form of helicopters,” he argued during a phone interview. “I’ve read that they’ve sent some [helicopters] now, to Pakistan. But in the days when they were most-needed, in the days of the flooding, they weren’t able to free up any of their Chinook transport helicopters. Afghanistan is full of them and they’ve got 100,000 troops there, massive resources that could be mobilized for humanitarian relief, but weren’t.”
O’Keefe also noted that despite the ongoing humanitarian disaster, the Obama administration has continued to carry out unmanned drone attacks in Pakistan’s north.
Like Rana and Alam, O’Keefe expressed concern for the possibility that false perceptions of Pakistan are adversely affecting donations to victims of the floods.
“I could speculate that it is related to a general perception of Pakistan as being an enemy country,” he said.
Heavy flooding caused by monsoon rains in Punjab province, near Multan, Pakistan, on August 15. UN Photo/Evan Schneider photo.
As of August 24, the death toll for the floods was an estimated 1,300 to 1,600 people. However, Hossam Elsharkawi, director of international emergencies and recovery for the Canadian Red Cross, warned that the worst is likely still to come.
He explained that after floods like those Pakistan has suffered, a “textbook” turn of events would be the spread of waterborne diseases.
“The worst-case scenario is cholera,” Elsharkawi told the Straight by phone from his office in Ottawa. “It is highly infectious and it can spread like fire.”
What’s more, he continued, as waters settle, valleys flooded to the horizon are becoming ideal breeding grounds for mosquitoes, which are vectors for malaria, dengue fever, and other parasitic infections.
Elsharkawi described the probability of the spread of these sorts of diseases as “very high”, going so far as to guess it is probably already happening.
“I would anticipate that the casualty rate will be corrected to a much higher figure, versus the 1,400 that is being quoted now,” he said.
According to Elsharkawi, in past disasters where diseases like malaria have run rampant, death tolls can rise to the tens of thousands. “And if you have cholera spreading, you’re talking in the hundreds of thousands.”
Responding to these realities, the CRC—which has had an office in Pakistan since an earthquake struck Kashmir in 2005—has made epidemic prevention its primary focus, Elsharkawi said. “Positioning and prestocking some of the things you would need to respond to those epidemics, should they hit.”
He cautioned that with the scope of the disaster being what it is, the international community cannot pretend that it will be able to help everybody in Pakistan.
Alam emphasized that with the number of those affected by the flood now in the tens of millions, it is simply not a time to dwell on politics.
“What about the human-being factor?” he asked. “Shouldn’t they be treated no different than any other human? We should put negative connotations and all this talk on the side and help as one human being will help another human being.”
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