It’s been seven weeks since monsoon rains submerged one fifth of Pakistan’s landmass, displacing more than 20 million people and leaving 1,700 dead. As the deadline for government-matched funding looms on Oct. 2 (following a recently announced three week extension), Canadians have been slow to respond to this humanitarian crisis. (An Angus Reid poll shows that Canada gave Haiti nearly 10 times more than it has donated to Pakistan.) Military officials south of the border have expressed concern about “donor fatigue,” while some say the lack of lending has opened space for controversial Islamic charities—some banned by the government—to step in.
World Vision president and CEO Dave Toycen just returned from Pakistan where the NGO has been setting up medical clinics and distributing relief items, from clean drinking water and food to tents. He gives Maclean’s his view from the ground and talks about the challenges facing NGOs during the worst crisis in the country’s history.
Q: You just flew in from Pakistan. Where did you visit and what did you see?
A: I did a five-day tour of the capital Islamabad, where World Vision’s national office is, and the Sindh province in the south of Pakistan. The number of people who have been displaced and the breadth of the flooding from the river are really overwhelming. There are literally thousands of people in camps dispersed around the countryside.
Q: Was there a particular moment when you were overwhelmed by what you saw?
A: One of the toughest moments was meeting with a family who was receiving some non-food items—beds, towels, food supplies, cooking utensils. As I was talking to the mother, she said, “There’s nothing you can give me that will replace the loss of my 4-year-old child during the flood.” That was a reminder of the loss of life. You realize that it’s not just about the loss of property but that people have lost loved ones.
Q: There’s also a looming food crisis since the floods hit the breadbasket of the country, and farmers lost some 8.9 million acres of farmland.
A: Yes, one of the features of this disaster is that many of the people who have been affected are tenant farmers and some who own their own land. These tenant farmers work for landowners so their concern now is whether there’s a job for them when they get back to their land.
Q: The Pakistani government has been lambasted for not responding quickly enough to the crisis, particularly when President Zardari was on a European tour as the flooding began. What did you find over there?
A: It depends on which province you’re working in because the governments will vary. Pakistan is heavily provincially focused. In Sindh, the government has been engaged in responding to the disaster, though they would be quick to acknowledge that they don’t have adequate capacity to deal with a disaster of this scale. It’s clear that more needs to be done in preparation for a disaster like this in the future but it’s also extremely difficult for any mechanism to be able to cope with a flood like this, partly because monsoon rains come in such a concentrated fashion.
Q: What are the greatest challenges facing aid agencies like World Vision?
A: It’s natural during one of these disasters to begin from a town or city and work out from there. But this means there are still people in outlying areas who have received little or no substantial aid. As NGOs, we’re also facing staff shortages. It would be difficult to get volunteers at this point because there’s a security issue in Pakistan, and we rely mostly on local people. [World Vision has 105 local staff, and an additional 14 expatriates.] The other issue is that even though the rain has stopped in the north, because of the nature of the rivers, there’s a funnel-effect so you have flooding in the south as a great volume of water moves down the country.
Q: There’s been talk of the Taliban threatening foreign aid agencies. Were there any hindrances to getting your work done on the ground?
A: We’ve been focusing on the humanitarian aspect. We’re doing everything we can to work as quickly as we can. There are some conflict issues but we’re talking about children and mothers who are suffering as a result of the conflict so I think it’s important for us as Canadians to reach out when our aid can be so helpful to people who have lost—in many cases—everything.
Q: How does this situation compare to other disaster-hit regions you’ve visited?
A: Pakistan doesn’t have the high number of deaths we saw in Haiti but the number of people who have been affected by the flooding—who have lost homes, livelihoods, land—is far greater. We’re close to 23 million people affected by the floods. So in terms of the simple raw need for human survival, it’s arguable that the situation is even worse than Haiti.
Q: And yet Canadians and the international community have not been as forthcoming with donations. Why is that?
A: It’s been much more difficult. Pakistan is a long way from here—not a neighbouring country like Haiti—and in some ways, it’s a culture that’s less familiar to people. Also, flooding takes time to have impact so it wasn’t a powerful singular act like the quake in Haiti. There’s also the conflict issue: some Canadians feel if they give money it would be stolen or won’t be used in the right way. But World Vision and other agencies have strict parameters to ensure the aid goes to people who need it.
Q: What is the outlook for Pakistan after this flooding?
A: Once the water has receded, the question is how do we get people back to their farming areas, back to their means of livelihood. Further north, some families are eager to return to their lands now that the water is starting to recede. Plus, this disaster hit in a number of areas just prior to harvest so if they don’t get planting by the end of October, they will miss their next crop as well.