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DEVELOPMENT-PAKISTAN: Flood Aid Exposes Distrust of Gov’t

Zofeen Ebrahim

KARACHI, Pakistan, Aug 20 2010 (IPS) - Inundated by appeals through text messages, email and Twitter, as well as in print and broadcast media, that call for donations of dried rations, hygiene kits, buckets, tubs and cooking pots, and straw mats, Ambreen Siddiqui feels lost in trying to help her fellow Pakistanis amid the country’s worst floods in decades.

People at Labor Square in Gulshan-e-Maymar. Credit: M Fahim Siddiqi/IPS

People at Labor Square in Gulshan-e-Maymar. Credit: M Fahim Siddiqi/IPS

“I don’t know where and how to begin helping these people who have lost just about everything – their home, land, livestock and some even their families,” says Siddiqui, a 35-year-old mother of two.

While the calls for assistance say how to and who to give donations to, she is unsure whom she can trust. But she is sure that her donation will not be going into the relief fund set up by Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani.

This is a common refrain heard here every day, reflecting the deep mistrust of and anger against the government. For many, this sentiment has been exacerbated by President Asif Ali Zardari’s sojourn to France and Britain earlier in August, when the destruction caused by record floods was at its peak.

“I haven’t heard in the media even once how much donations the ruling elite have given to this fund, how can the government expect me to put my money in it?” 75-year-old Salma Ahmad says angrily.

“This government is not honest, that’s what we hear on the media daily. There are no refutations from them, which means it’s all true. The message we get is they don’t care. Only last night I heard our foreign minister talking to the Pakistani expatriate community in the U.S. telling them to donate generously,” says Azra Ahsan, a Karachi-based obstetrician. “He said if they didn’t trust the government, they can give to groups they do, but donate they must. It was laughable for a government to admit this.”

“The response of the civilian government was slow in the first week; it took its time to put its act together,” Hassan Askari Rizvi, an analyst in the northern city of Lahore, explains. In contrast, the army has received kudos for its operations. “They have the organisational capacity, training to deal with difficult situations and technical skills for rescue and relief operations, building bridges and restoring communication,” explained Rizvi. “This helps to build its image as against the increased governance problems of the civilian government.”

The massive deluge has killed some 1,600 people and left almost 20 million people affected. A fifth of the country has been submerged.

Some have started their own collection drives for goods and cash. Salim Tabani, 49, a factory owner in Karachi, took four truckloads of rations that he and his friends donated to Khairpur and Kashmore districts in Sindh province .”Now I know better what is needed and will go again next week with more goods,” he said.

In Karachi, abuzz with a bevy of fund collectors, a group of young women collects clothes for flood victims. Textile design students are collecting old, faded T-shirts, which are made into blankets, mattresses and hammocks. An art gallery held a “silent auction” of paintings collected from 88 artists and raised 1.26 million Pakistani rupees (140,000 U.S. dollars). Meantime, another group of women collects plastic water and soda bottles and fills them with clean water.

In Peshawar in north-west Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, 32-year-old Najiullah Khattak has collected over 2.2 million rupees (250,000 dollars) since he started a group on the social networking site Facebook on Aug. 2. “To be honest, I and a few friends decided to collect some funds and give it to an organisation, thinking that’s where our responsibility would end,” Khattak told IPS by telephone from Peshawar. “All I did was tell people on Facebook what we were doing, and people just came in with their donations.”

At the international level, the United Nations has seen a marked improvement in donations. It launched an appeal for 460 million dollars, and has received 227.8 million so far.

But the disaster’s scale is so massive that no government, corrupt or otherwise, can address it alone, observes Khattak. Indeed, the charity arms of organisations linked with extremism have also been busy giving out hot meals, and receiving contributions.

Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman Malik, worried by the inroads these groups could make, has said that “banned organisations” cannot visit flood- hit areas. “There is a possibility that the negative forces would exploit the situation,” Zardari said at a press conference with visiting U.S. Sen. John Kerry this week.

Among the charities helping flood victims is the Falah-e-Insaniyat Foundation, the charitable wing of Jammat-du-Dawa blamed for carrying out the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India. Its chairman, Hafiz Abdul Rauf told IPS that its 43 camps in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh and southern Punjab “serve two hot meals a day to some 45,000 people in all three provinces.”

Faisal Edhi of Edhi Foundation, South Asia’s biggest and most trusted charitable organisation, says: “I see no reason why these groups cannot work alongside in this hour of need.”

There should be no problems “as long as humanitarian assistance is provided in a way which is neutral, impartial, and independent, it conforms to humanitarian principles,” adds Maurizio Giuliano of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

At the same time, many of the relief initiatives lack organisation. “Everyone is doing their own thing. Nobody trusts anyone, not the government or the NGOs. I’m just worried the passion with which people have gone on this charitable drive, may just fizzle out,” Siddiqui points out. “This month is also the holy month of Ramadan when people are generally feeling more generous, but we must think of long-term strategy for supporting these people.”

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