Why helping Pakistan matters

September 1, 2010

The response of the international community--and in particular, the U.S.--to the flood disaster in Pakistan has been tragically inadequate, writes Nagesh Rao.

IT HAS now been almost a month since the monsoons in Pakistan began ravaging the country, and two weeks since UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon referred to the floods in Pakistan as the "worst disaster" he has ever witnessed.

According to a BBC report, "The UN says more than 17 million people have been affected by the monsoon floods, and about 1.2 million homes have been destroyed." The Washington Post reports, "More than 8 million people are in need of emergency assistance."

Furthermore, some 800,000 people (the equivalent of the entire population of San Francisco) are stranded: entirely cut off from what is now being termed "mainland" Pakistan. Surrounded, in other words, by flood waters and reachable only by air. The flood impact maps being developed, updated and disseminated by the UN indicate the scale of the devastation.

Small wonder that on August 16, according to the Los Angeles Times, Ban Ki-moon "surveyed flood-damaged regions of the country...and afterward said the destruction he saw eclipsed the scale of ruin he witnessed in natural disasters with far higher death tolls: the Asian tsunami of 2004, the 2008 earthquake in China and the earthquake in Haiti in January."

Unfortunately, the response by the international community thus far has been tragically inadequate. Moreover, there is a disturbing discrepancy between the manner in which the American public was mobilized and energized (by the government, the media and by civic institutions) to respond to the recent earthquake in Haiti, and the virtual absence of such public efforts in delivering assistance to Pakistanis.

Thus, "the Red Cross's recent text message effort [for Pakistan flood relief] yielded only $10,000, about 0.03 percent of what it earned for Haiti," according to the Atlantic.

Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to spend more than $12 billion on the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan every month, and the cost of the Afghan surge alone is $33 billion, roughly 220 times greater than the amount the U.S. has pledged for flood relief in Pakistan.

Furthermore, the cost of servicing Pakistan's foreign debt of $54 billion (which has been accrued by its corrupt civil and military rulers in the pursuit of their narrow interests) is about $3 billion a year. A fraction of this money could provide all the resources necessary to rescue stranded Pakistanis and rehabilitate the dispossessed.

IN THESE tragic circumstances, what must those of us who live in the heart of the U.S. empire do? How can we express our solidarity with ordinary Pakistanis?

I believe that the left in the U.S. must urgently and enthusiastically make flood relief efforts a nationwide priority in the coming months. This is not a plea for charity, but a call for solidarity with the victims of a natural (and social) catastrophe. It is not about morality, but about political action in an ideological climate that is increasingly being shaped by debates about Islam and Islamophobia.

Crises like those caused by the flooding in Pakistan or by Hurricane Katrina or by the BP-Gulf Coast disaster, have the potential to reveal the structural contradictions of the society we live in.

If Katrina threw into relief the structural injustices of racism, poverty, fiscal mismanagement, sloppy engineering and so on, then it follows that the flooding in Pakistan can reveal to us the horrible effects of similar injustices, but reinforced by the crushing weight of superpower imperialism.

Likewise, if the earthquake in Haiti allowed us to bring to light the hidden history of U.S. imperialism in its "backyard," then the situation in Pakistan allows us to shine a spotlight on the humanity, dignity and suffering of some of the most unfortunate victims of imperialism and capitalist "development."

We are living through a time when, to borrow a phrase, we find "society puking up the undigested barbarism" in the form of jingoism, anti-immigrant xenophobia, anti-Muslim racism, and Islamophobia. Many of us are rightly repulsed by this climate; many of us are justifiably outraged and agitated by it; and some of us are understandably demoralized by these developments.

In such a climate, it is no wonder that Pakistani flood victims are easily forgotten: it has less to do with so-called "donor fatigue," and more to do with the cultural inertia or malaise of a nation at war. Sadly, we must admit that this inertia is palpable not only in the lackadaisical response of mainstream and establishment-driven relief work, but in that of the left (and of South Asian American activist groups) as well.

We can cut through this inertia if we act now.

Let us appeal to our friends, coworkers, students, professors, teachers, nurses, first-responders and firefighters, community groups and churches, trade unions and NGOs to express solidarity with their counterparts in Pakistan through fundraising. There are several grassroots relief efforts in Pakistan that could use our help, such as the Labor Relief Campaign, an initiative involving groups like Women Workers Help Line, Labour Education Foundation, Pakistan Kissan Rabita Committee, CATDM Pakistan, Progressive Youth Front, Labour Party Pakistan, National Trade Union Federation and Pakistan For Palestine.

When, on September 11 this year, opponents and supporters of the Cordoba House project in Manhattan square off in rival demonstrations, large bins on our side, labeled "Pakistan Labor Flood Relief," will, I believe, go a long way towards breaking the logjam of Islamophobia that has bogged down the antiwar movement.

Similarly, student activists on campuses across the country might kick-start their fall semesters with campaigns for flood relief and against Islamophobia, and thus tap into the hitherto-passive antiwar sentiments that have been repeatedly spotlighted by public opinion polls.

Fundraising efforts in our unions can help raise consciousness about the struggles of Pakistani workers and unions, such as the recent victory by 20,000 power-loom workers following a 17-day strike in Jhang district.

Fundraisers can help us reach out to South Asian, particularly Pakistani, communities, and by drawing the parallels between, say, the victims of Hurricane Katrina and those of the Pakistan floods, we might even be able to inspire solidarity between communities that otherwise seldom interact.

Such initiatives can help publicize the efforts of the Pakistani left as well, whose inspiring struggles are all but invisible even in the broad left's publications.

If there's ever been a time for an energetic push to jump-start the stalled engines of the U.S. antiwar movement, it is now.

If there ever were an opportunity to combat U.S. jingoism and belligerence towards the people of the so-called "Af-Pak" region, it is now.

If there ever were easily identifiable and sympathetic images of the humanity of Muslims, of Pakistanis, of South Asians, of people from "that part of the world," of the unseen victims of this wretched "war on terror," they are flashing across our TV and laptop screens even as we speak, in the form of countless media reports, photographs and videos about the floods.

The question is: will we seize this moment, or will we allow "humanitarian imperialism" to once again present itself as the only answer to natural disasters abroad?

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