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Raising awareness of Pakistan's flood victims

For a disaster that has displaced millions, financial support has lagged behind that offered to victims of Haiti's quake. An Anaheim man and others started their own group, Americans for Flood Relief.

August 30, 2010|By My-Thuan Tran, Los Angeles Times

When monsoon rains began inundating regions of Pakistan, Anaheim resident Essam Ulhaq felt a wave of sadness. His parents' homeland was devastated. News images of displaced people became so painful to view that he stopped looking at them.

Ulhaq, 25, was shocked that some of his friends knew little of the disaster — never mind donating to relief efforts. He would tell them that millions were now homeless, that they needed all the help they could get. To raise awareness, he and some friends decided to start their own group, Americans for Flood Relief.

Such is the complicated story of aid to Pakistan, Ulhaq and others say. For a natural disaster that has displaced an estimated 20 million people and submerged one-fifth of the country, financial support has lagged far behind that offered to victims of the Haiti earthquake and other recent disasters.

The flooding has yet to capture the attention of celebrities and the international community, despite warnings from U.N. and State Department officials who say thousands are stranded without food, drinking water and shelter.

The U.S. government has committed $200 million for flood assistance, more than any international donor thus far, but private contributions have lagged behind those for other disasters, officials say. About $11 million has been raised by U.S. aid groups to date; in the first two weeks after the Haiti earthquake, such groups raised an estimated $560 million, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Reasons for the disparity vary: the global economic downturn, the nature of floods as slow-moving disasters, and the lower number of fatalities relative to major earthquakes.

But the biggest reason, according to one expert, is America's complicated relationship with Pakistan.

Adil Najam, a professor of global public policy at Boston University, said he believed "the myth of the bad Pakistan" has colored how Americans talk about the flood. "In Haiti, it was about a child in need," Najam said. "For this flood, it's Pakistanis, it's Muslims."

But Najam acknowledged that the political crisis in Pakistan, and a mistrust of its government inside and outside of the nation, has affected fundraising as well.

"A lot of the blame has to go to Pakistan itself," Najam said. "The government's credibility is so low that no one wants to give through them."

Najam, who writes a blog about Pakistan issues, said that after the 2005 earthquake that left 73,000 dead in the country's Kashmir region, a lot of money flowed from those of Pakistani descent to government agencies. However, that aid has not been matched by flood contributions.

Ulhaq, of Americans for Flood Relief, said he's seen many comments on Web forums about fear of corruption in Pakistan. The group advises giving to groups with proven track records. On Sunday, it held a rally at UCLA to raise awareness. A few dozen people heard speakers talk about the harsh conditions affecting flood victims.

Another factor in aid disparity is the fact that earthquakes generate much higher death tolls in a short time. Images of widespread devastation are more likely to generate offers of gifts and aid, some say.

"The flood is very gradual versus a big shock, like an earthquake," said Farshad Rastegar, chief executive of Los Angeles-based Relief International, which is raising funds for health clinics and food distribution in Pakistan's flooded areas.

The death toll in Pakistan has exceeded 2,000 — a fraction of the fatalities in the Haiti earthquake.

Rastegar said Relief International receives about 20 online donations a day, far behind the hundreds for the Haiti disaster. Donor fatigue is another reason aid is lagging, he said. "I think people are maxed out. Perhaps people feel they have given all they could in 2010."

To pick up the slack, Muslim organizations across the U.S. are trying to appeal to those who may have more personal ties to Pakistan. Islamic Relief USA, which has a branch in Buena Park, has dispatched volunteers to local mosques during nightly prayers, said Mostafa Mahboob, a spokesperson for the group.

The efforts have been effective within the Muslim community, he said, especially because Ramadan is a time of giving. Still, Mahboob said there has been much less support than for the 2005 Kashmir earthquake.

"When you look back to Kashmir, it wasn't just the Muslim communities responding. It was a much larger scale, and the whole world responded at a greater and faster rate," he said. "Even though it's the same country and the same population, the response is different."

my-thuan.tran@latimes.com

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