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“Image Deficit” Hijacks Pakistan’s Humanitarian Crisis

by Huma Yusuf

A few days after this summer’s flooding in Pakistan had gained momentum the phone calls began. The waters from the inundated valleys of the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province were now rushing towards the fertile plains of the Punjab. Foreign correspondents of several international news outlets based in Islamabad wanted to know how the flooding would impact counterterrorism efforts in the region. Would extremist organizations use the floods as an opportunity to infiltrate Pakistan’s rural areas? Would their religious rhetoric help give meaning to the calamity, thereby spurring recruitment among the rural poor?

I fumbled through answers to these questions, all the while transfixed by the disaster movie images on my television screen, and the soaring statistics about the number of people affected. In many exchanges with journalists, both domestic and foreign, I debated the risk posed by extremist groups who might try to exploit feelings of frustration and helplessness that would abound in flood-affected communities. But those discussions were half-hearted and distracted—I was more preoccupied by the humanitarian toll of the flooding than its impact on counterterrorism strategy.

What those early phone calls made clear, however, was that the narrative about Pakistan’s floods was being hijacked. Instead of being framed as the worst humanitarian disaster on record, which is how U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described it, the flooding was being seen as another complication in the U.S.-led fight against Taliban insurgents and affiliated militant groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The consequences of this hijacking quickly became apparent. Despite the overwhelming scale of the disaster – 20 million people affected; five million homes damaged; 5,000 miles of roads washed away; 7,000 schools; and 400 health facilities destroyed – the international community proved reluctant to donate funds for flood-affected Pakistanis.

This reluctance is best illustrated by way of comparison with donations made to Haiti in the wake of the devastating earthquake barely six months earlier in January 2010. According to a report published by the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank, two weeks after the first U.N. flash aid appeal in both disasters had been launched, pledges for Haiti covered 82 percent of the required amount while pledges for Pakistan only covered 57 percent. The contrast becomes starker when considered in terms of contributions per affected person: $157.16 USD per person in Haiti, and only $15.24 USD per person in Pakistan, a ten-fold difference. Despite the fact that Ban Ki-moon reiterated, “Waves of flood must be met with waves of support from the world,” Pakistan had to make do with a mere dribble.

The reasons for such an underwhelming response are multifaceted. Rising flood waters that wreak havoc over weeks do not inspire the same sense of urgency as earthquakes or tsunamis that raze cities and kill thousands in seconds. The mercifully low death toll during the floods also made it difficult for the international community to comprehend the true scale of the disaster. It did not help matters that diaspora Pakistanis were slow to mobilize in their countries of residence, particularly the U.S.

But the global hesitancy to donate to Pakistan can be traced back to the phone calls I received in July. The widely held perception of Pakistan as a corrupt, failing nation that harbors terrorists and nurtures extremist groups prevented many from mustering enough sympathy to make a donation. As Elizabeth Byrs, the spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs conceded in mid-August, “We note often an image deficit with regards to Pakistan among Western public opinion.”

Notably, this “image deficit” was at its greatest in the run-up to the floods. A CNN poll in June indicated that 78 per cent of Americans hold “mostly unfavorable views of Pakistan.” Moreover, days before the U.N. announced its first flash appeal, British Prime Minister David Cameron, while on a visit to India, described Pakistan as a nation that exports and promotes terrorism. His comments, and the media furor they sparked, clouded perceptions of Pakistan even as waters breached the banks of the Indus and Swat rivers in the country’s northwest.

These perceptions were fueled by early news reports that members of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the humanitarian wing of Lashkar-e-Taiba (the militant group held responsible for the Mumbai attacks of 2008), were providing flood relief in several Pakistani villages. Since media coverage of the flooding was scant on the whole, such reports gave disproportionate importance to the terror aspect of the natural disaster at the expense of humanitarian reportage.

According to Brookings Institution researchers Rebecca Winthrop and Justin van Fleet, media coverage of the floods in the U.S. was significantly less than that of the Haitian earthquake. Within 10 days of the earthquake, over 3,000 stories had appeared in the print and broadcast media; 10 days after Pakistan’s flooding peaked, there were about 1,000 stories in circulation.

Another study conducted at Northwestern University backs up these findings, and shows how concerns about terrorism dominated flood reportage. For example, in the two weeks following the Haitian earthquake, The New York Times published 88 articles on the topic, while it published only 15 about Pakistan’s floods in the same time frame. Of these, only one story made it to the front page—a piece analyzing “hard-line Islam” in a flood-hit Pakistan.

The Pakistani media – a vibrant, independent industry comprising dozens of print publications and television channels – did not fare much better. Days after the rains began, domestic outlets were more focused on negative coverage of Pakistani politicians’ response to the flooding.

President Asif Ali Zardari was widely critiqued for continuing with a scheduled trip to Europe while the floods raged. Riding the wave of populist ire, local television channels spent hours each day covering what they dubbed Zardari’s “joy ride,” a trip that included a helicopter ride to his family’s sixteenth-century chateau in Normandy, France. On the day that Zardari faced protests by long-time supporters in Birmingham, England, and even had a shoe thrown at him, there was barely any mention of the flooding on Pakistani airwaves. Three months later, one is hard-pressed to find coverage on the aftermath of the flooding in the local press.

Overall, the skewed media coverage has eclipsed an important statistic: 70 percent of the 20 million Pakistanis affected by the floods are women and children. These demographic groups are not the targets of extremist organizations looking to increase their ranks, nor are they corrupt politicians abdicating their responsibilities while the nation drowns. They are simply victims of a devastating natural disaster.

Half a million women caught by the flooding will give birth before February next year, and according to the World Health Organization, 32,000 will experience complications. Doctors Without Borders reports that the number of C-sections performed has already doubled owing to the poor conditions in which flood-affected women are living—without privacy, access to a toilet, or a change of clothes. Many women who have successfully delivered since being displaced are too weak to breastfeed, leaving their infants at risk of waterborne diseases and chronic malnutrition.

The fact that the international community has expressed fears about the increased post-flood security risk, but is less aware of the plight of the most vulnerable flood victims reflects a failure of the global media industry as well as the Pakistan government’s public diplomacy efforts.

It is not too late to rewrite the flood narrative, however. $9.7 billion USD is needed to repair the infrastructure damage caused by the floods, and seven million people remain without shelter. It is high time that journalists, and members of the international community at large, place a new round of phone calls.

About the Author:
Huma Yusuf
is a Karachi-based reporter and columnist for the Pakistani daily, Dawn. She is currently the Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington D.C. She has previously garnered the All Pakistan Newspaper Society award for Best Column (2008) and the European Commission’s Prix Lorenzo Natali for Human Rights Journalism (2006).

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