Bridge Over Troubled Water: The Importance of Relief for Pakistan

Aug 18, 2010 | Updated May 25, 2011

It seems like the universe is conspiring against Pakistan. As if the price paid by Pakistanis caught in the crossfire of the "war on terror" wasn't enough, now the country has been hit with a natural disaster of such magnitude that the UN has had to classify it as a "mega-disaster". Some 700,000 homes have been damaged or destroyed and 1.4 million acres of crops lost. More than 20 million people have been affected - more than the number of people affected by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, and the 2010 Haiti earthquake combined. More than the population of Illinois.

Given the magnitude of this disaster, one would expect to see an outcry of sympathy for the victims from the American public. Unfortunately, that has not been the case. Even though the United States has committed $76 million, the most funds from any country, this amount pales in comparison to other relief efforts the US has pledged to in the past. Given that the US considers Pakistan as a valued ally, this is a shame. The US is missing out an opportunity to improve its image in Pakistan - something it has failed to accomplish despite investing significant efforts and funds. By addressing the immediate and dire need of Pakistan, not only would the US be showing their support to the people of Pakistan in the most tangible manner, but this would be the fastest way for the US to change their image in Pakistan.

The current situation also provides Americans with a unique opportunity to reach out to the people of Pakistan. The funds that people in the US send to Pakistan will be viewed in a different light than those donated by the US government. By supporting the relief effort, Americans can show Pakistanis that they genuinely care about their plight. And the two peoples will be able to connect on a human level - without politics and ideology distorting their interactions.

In addition to changing public perception of the US in Pakistan, the US would be able to address their concerns of Islamists winning public sympathy by helping in the relief efforts.  Right now, Pakistanis in need could care less where the aid they receive is coming from. So the US has the same opportunity as the Islamists to win the "hearts and minds" of Pakistanis. By being at the forefront of relief efforts, the US would undermine the Islamists' attempt to cynically capitalize on the situation. This, in turn, would help the US prevent Islamic radicals from establishing an even deeper footprint in Pakistan.

The US media is at least partly to blame for the lack of response from the US public. Instead of spotlighting the plight of the Pakistani people, the media have been focused on how Islamist organizations are stepping in to fill the void in the relief efforts. Their performance is all the more disappointing when compared with the inspiring media campaigns waged to raise awareness - and funds - for victims of other, recent natural disasters.

Take, for example, media coverage of the Haiti earthquake, which set a gold standard in how the media can really drive fundraising efforts. The call-a-thons, TV commercials, and extensive use of social media to drive outreach allowed relief organizations to raise some $1.3 billion in donations. Given the magnitude of the Pakistani floods, it is shocking that similar efforts are not being undertaken on behalf of victims there.

The lackadaisical response is also in part due to the lack of organization among members of the Pakistani diaspora.  Instead of reaching out to the general public, the diaspora has kept its fundraising efforts narrowly focused on the Pakistan-American community. This is a mistake. Now is the time for Pakistani-Americans to step up, get organized, and channel the generosity of their fellow Americans in support of their compatriots back home. And it wouldn't hurt to have a Pakistani Wyclef Jean: someone visible to champion the cause and raise awareness. Media indifference to the situation in Pakistan - and the Pakistani diaspora's failure to get its act together in this grave time - cannot persist.

Of course, the ultimate responsibility for helping Pakistanis rests with the Pakistani government. But the US does have a golden chance to kill two birds with one stone. Americans can help out the victims of one of largest natural disasters in recent history and in the process change Pakistanis' perception of the United States in the long term - something that the US has been struggling to do for many years.