Writing intermittently on life, politics, and society

Contingent humanity

Last month I was wondering why there seems to be little concern for the disaster in Pakistan.

I can certainly understand idea that people respond better to large numbers of dead bodies, and compared to a disaster like the Haitian earthquake, the number of deaths caused by the Pakistan floods are relatively small. I also think there is something to the idea that the aid system responds to slowly unfolding disasters inadequately because of lower salience, and a lack of a sense of crisis to spur action.

That being said, I struggle to accept these, and other factors such as the poor economy, as plausible explanations for the alarming disparities:

The amount of funding donated per person affected by the 2004 tsunami was $1249.80, and for the 2010 Haiti earthquake, $1087.33. Even for the Pakistan[/Kashmir] earthquake of 2005, funding per affected person was $388.33. Thus far, for those affected by the 2010 floods, it is $16.36 per person.

Max Fisher takes stock of the world, and in particular US response to the floods and proffers an answer:

(1) Pakistan lacks Haiti’s network of Western charities. Pakistan, particularly the flooded areas, has a global reputation for being dangerous. It is also, of course, Muslim. As a result, it lacks Haiti’s pre-existing network of Christian humanitarian organizations and missionaries that have been growing in the country for decades. Those Christian missionaries in Haiti, predominantly Americans doing a combination of religious and humanitarian work, were so important because they could use American churches as a vast grassroots network to communicate Haiti’s plight to Americans and especially to raise money. But Pakistan has no such large-scale, long-term presence, which had made it far more difficult to tap into the vast fundraising resource of Christian America.

(2) Pakistan doesn’t look like a friend to many Americans. Although it has nothing to do with the floods, Pakistan has had a spate of recent bad press in America. The Wikileaks document dump in July brought national attention to the long-held concerns of U.S. intelligence officials that factions in Pakistan’s military intelligence service (ISI) may be sponsoring some of the Taliban militants responsible for killing 1,241 Americans. The flood victims, many of whom are children, have nothing to do with the duplicitous practices of the ISI, and extremism in Pakistan could be curbed dramatically by a robust U.S. humanitarian response. However, many Americans are likely wondering why they should voluntarily shed their increasingly scant disposable income to help a country that is far from a robust ally. Even before the Wikileaks story, a Gallup poll of Americans found overwhelmingly negative attitudes toward Pakistan.

(3) Islam is not popular in America right now. Pakistan is one of the world’s largest Muslim states. That puts it at a disadvantage in the U.S., where the recent controversy over the Cordoba Islamic cultural center planned for lower Manhattan has generated alarmingly widespread Islamophobia. Groups have begun protesting mosques and Islamic family centers across the country. Recent polling reports that only 55 percent of Americans call Muslims “loyal Americans,” 32 percent say Muslims should be blocked from running for president, and 28 say they should be forbidden from joining the Supreme Court. An all-time high of 18 percent believe President Obama is Muslim, which is widely seen as an expression of rising hostility towards Muslims. The polling shows Islam to be especially unpopular among U.S. conservatives, many of whom are part of the same Christian humanitarian network that was so active in responding to Haiti.

(4) The floods make for bad TV. As many in the U.S. have pointed out, the flooding in Pakistan has received light and undramatic TV news coverage relative to Haiti and other humanitarian disasters. The New York Times’ Neil MacFarquhar described the floods as not being as sufficiently “dramatic, emotional, [or] telegenic” as the earthquakes and tsunamis that so opened American wallets. Others have described the floods as a “slow motion” disaster that cannot be effectively conveyed in a single photograph or piece of video. Just as importantly, reporters do not have the same freedom of mobility Pakistan as they had in Haiti, both because Haiti is so close to the U.S. east coast and because of the danger of traveling in some regions of Pakistan.

Unfortunately, I definitely can attest to points two and three. I know of one person working for a charity who believes that the people of Pakistan support the killing of Americans and as a result refuses to work on any flood appeals.


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