An interview by Maggie Ronkin with Fayyaz Baqir, Director of the Akhter Hameed Khan Resource Center, Islamabad, Pakistan
MR: What regions of Pakistan and sectors of the population are affected most by the tragic flooding?
FB: Vast swathes of land in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (previously the Northwest Frontier Province), Southern Punjab (the Siraiki region of the Punjab), Sindh, and Balochistan have been devastated by the recent floods. These floods are considered to be the worst in the entire world during the past hundred years. It is not an exaggeration that fifteen million families have been rendered homeless, and hundreds of thousands of homes have been wiped off the face of the earth. Hundreds of villages are no more. Standing crops over thousands of acres, cattle, infrastructure, and productive assets of millions of families have been lost due to flooding. A woman from a very well off and respected family of a rural district contacted by phone said “Everything is gone. We are beggars”. Scores of women from small farm and landless families burst into tears when asked about their plight. “There is no food, no water, no medicine, no help” most of them narrated. If they do not receive assistance soon, they may reach the point where they think that there is “no hope”. Such a situation will add another dimension to the crisis because desperate minds are fertile ground for militants. This is a great humanitarian crisis to which the world’s conscience needs to respond. The scale of this tragedy is so enormous that the country’s entire population is reeling in shock.
MR: What does the devastation in Pakistan look like to you on the ground?
FB: Thousands of human settlements are under ten or fifteen-foot deep water. Dead cattle can be found everywhere. Innumerable people are stranded in areas surrounded by water. Hundreds of thousands of men, women, children, and elderly people who managed to move out of their houses leaving behind their assets accumulated over a life time have squatted along the roads. Tents are in extremely short supply, so the homeless sit under the burning sun without any shade to cover their heads. They often seem overwhelmed and unable to decide what to do. There are shortages of food, safe drinking water, and medicine. Whenever food arrives, scrambling for it leads to scuffles, and inevitably, the poor, weak, and households headed by women are hurt the most. There is no organized, visible, and dependable government assistance available.
MR: What can be done to counter “donor fatigue” and the perception that indigenous aid organizations are untrustworthy?
FB: Please be assured that the media are underestimating the resilience, resourcefulness, and capacity of the people to cope with the disaster due to the presence of hundreds of formal and informal institutions and mechanisms that help people on a day-to-day basis. Credible, effective, and trustworthy actors certainly abound. They include philanthropists, NGOs, custodians of shrines, voluntary associations, government agencies, and, yes, the army. Some politicians also have played very active and constructive roles in reaching out to people. All tiers of the government cannot be trusted and government cannot reach out everywhere given the enormous scale of this tragedy.
Two factors are key here. One is that DCOs, those in charge of districts, enjoy much less power, respect, and authority than did their predecessors, the Deputy Commissioners (DCs). Therefore, they are much less effective. Another is that elected local government officials were released from their jobs a few months ago. New local elections were not held because the ruling parties in each province wanted elections when they could achieve “favourable” results. Establishing links among doers, donors, and communities in need is the most important step. It is not transparency of government and relief assistance alone but sharing of information in general that is most critical. We need information gathering, analysis, packaging, and dissemination through electronic, print, and verbal means in a big way. Mainstream and alternative media have to play active roles to build links and trust. Once trust and links are established, the donor fatigue will go away.
MR: In what areas is need greatest this week (e.g., shelter, food, medicine, etc.)? In what areas will need be greatest a month and three months from now?
FB: As images circulated across the globe show, affected people and communities have lost everything. The greatest need this week is for tents, food, water, and medicine. One to three months from now the need will be greatest for productive assets like seed, cattle, ploughing instruments, water pumps to drain out trapped water, building materials, and credit.
A package to meet the basic food requirements of a family of 5-7 people includes 20 kg flour, 5 kg sugar, 5 kg oil, 1 kg tea, 5 kg pulses and lentils, 3 kg dry milk, and a few match boxes. It meets a family’s food needs for one week and costs Rs. 3200 (US $38). This is the cost of 5 lunches on the go in the USA. Millions of families need help. However, even making a donation to help a single family is like lighting a candle.
MR: What can US-based educators do to best represent and encourage interest in the tremendous challenges now faced by ordinary Pakistanis?
FB: Please link up with credible charities, NGOs, and autonomous government departments. Disseminate information on effective local actors to donors, volunteers, and technical experts who can help the affected communities, and raise and disburse funds. One way to identify effective local organizations is through the Pakistan Centre for Philanthropy (PCP). The PCP accredits NGOs in a thorough and rigorous process, and a list of accredited NGOs is displayed on their website. Another way to identify credible organizations is through the UNOCHA (The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. It has a district and function-wise list of credible NGOs in the field.) The World Bank-supported multi-million dollar Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund (PPAF) is another source for finding credible partners. Their partners are well scrutinized and selected after a careful appraisal process. Last and not least is the National Centre for Human Development (NCHD), which is headed by a former civil society activist and media professional who is highly respected for her competence, integrity, and commitment to the downtrodden.
To Donate, please visit the Rural Support Program here.