Pakistan’s floods and ‘disaster narcissism’

How the deluge in Asia was turned into an opportunity for Western preening and political oneupmanship.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics World

Towards the end of July, monsoon rains began falling on the mountainous region of north-west Pakistan. Having barely relented since, they have contributed to the worst flooding in Pakistan’s 63-year history. The provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan were initially the worst hit. The flood water then quickly washed southwards, through the Punjab province, before sweeping out to the Arabian Sea in the south. Traversing approximately 800 miles, and affecting an area roughly the size of England, the damage has been considerable – and tragic.

So far it is estimated that between 1,400 and 1,600 people have been killed, two million made homeless, and up to 20million affected by loss of land and livelihood. Dams are broken, roads are ruined, and agriculture, a mainstay of the Pakistan economy, is ravaged. And with the United Nations stating that six million people are at risk from water-borne diseases such as cholera, diarrhoea and dysentery, it is a situation that could get worse still.

As the scale of the disaster finally becomes clear, one would think that the suffering of those in Pakistan would be the sole object of concern. But this has not been the case – far from it in fact. As the extent of the devastation has gradually come to light over the past three weeks, so the focus of debate in the West has turned inwards. What ought to be all about the people of Pakistan has become, once more, all about us. Why aren’t we showing enough concern?

Admittedly, the response to the floods has been deficient. Food from the World Food Programme has reached just one million people so far. And of the half a million without any shelter at all, only 98,000 have received tents. Deeply distrustful of their unpopular, semi-dynastic government, Pakistanis themselves have so far given prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani’s Emergency Fund just £900,000. Clearly, then, there are practical and financial shortcomings to the response.

But in the West, these practical problems have not been at the fore in the reporting of the disaster. Far more important, it seems, than the impassability of areas with destroyed road networks, has been our lack of giving, our lack of compassion. If the public outpouring of sympathy – and cash – dominated the coverage of the Asian Tsunami in 2005, its absence has come to characterise the coverage of the Pakistan floods. If we were encouraged to be proud of our donations to the Haiti earthquake appeal, proving as the Sun put it that we are ‘a nation of big hearts’, then we are warned of the shame that accompanies our ‘tight-fisted response to the Pakistan floods’, as the Guardian put it. If the political exploitation of the response to the Haiti disaster transformed people’s instinct to help into a show of national virtue, then the same dynamic has transformed the fairly muted response to Pakistan into a show of national apathy. Self-loathing may have replaced self-loving, but it is no less vainglorious for all that.

This is disaster narcissism: other people’s suffering is being used to tell us something about us, about our capacity to care, our capacity to give. Disasters can reflect our best selves, or our worst selves. Such narcissism allows crass comparisons to be made between entirely separate disasters as if the ratio of aid to quantities of suffering is incredibly meaningful. In countless news reports we learn that the British public has given £15million to Pakistan compared with the £101million it gave to Haiti. We find out that a week after the Haiti earthquake, a coalition of Canadian charities raised $3.5million. So far they have raised just $200,000 for Pakistan’s flood victims.

The increasingly intense focus on the disparity in the amount of aid given to Pakistan compared to Haiti has generated explanations. UN humanitarian affairs spokesperson Elisabeth Byrs says it is down to how the West views Pakistan, a country which, as David Cameron said recently, looks ‘both ways’ on an issue like terrorism. ‘We note often an image deficit with regards to Pakistan among Western public opinion’, she explained. Likewise, Melanie Brooks of Care International called on the UN to explain to donors that money was not going into ‘the hands of the Taliban… The victims are the mothers, the farmers, children.’

While the UN and aid agencies seem intent on downplaying anti-Western, pro-al-Qaeda feeling in Pakistan, others seem keen to exaggerate it. Thus the tragic flooding of Pakistan becomes an opportunity to advance the ‘war on terror’. One UK-based columnist declared that ‘Generosity at a time of great need is a powerful route to influence’. Invoking Britain’s colonial responsibility, she continued: ‘If we care about the future, we shouldn’t stint on Pakistan now. Britain, which was instrumental in creating the country 63 years ago, could lead the way in flying in supplies and airlifting the stranded. It could set an example by sending in significant amounts of medical aid, road-making teams and water purification systems.’

An editorial in the Washington Post agreed: ‘Now the West has a chance again to show solidarity with Pakistani citizens – or it can risk losing ground to the extremist groups that some say are already stepping up to offer assistance. Aid might help build trust and reinforce Pakistan’s position as an ally in the international war on terror.’ So while many commentators agree that helping people in desperate need is the right thing to do, it often feels like an afterthought tagged on to the main argument: ‘In the struggle against international terrorism, commitment to this critical region of the world is key’, concluded the Washington Post.

If such cynical realpolitik is obnoxious, so is the posturing of politicians. It seems another country’s tragedy has created a compassion competition, a chance to display one’s moral superiority to the world. As British development secretary Andrew Mitchell proudly announced, ‘Britain and the US have been at the forefront of the emergency aid effort’. ‘Other wealthy countries must step up and lend their support’, he added. Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg went further: ‘The response from the international community as a whole, I have to say, bluntly, has just been lamentable. It’s been absolutely pitiful.’

And it may well have been. But perhaps if a bit more attention was directed towards the actual problems faced by those millions suffering in Pakistan, then real practical help might not only be more forthcoming, but it might also be better directed. Feeling guilty about the size of one’s aid package or playing upon fears of Pakistan’s terroristic underbelly help no one. As it is though, navel-gazing, terror-fantasising commentary, coupled with posturing politics, threaten to turn a lethal deluge into little more than a mirror of the West.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics World


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