Pakistan: Western responses to humanitarian crises


The recent floods in Pakistan have highlighted a severe disconnect in the global response to humanitarian crisis

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Image by UN Women/Mohammad Rakibul Hasan

By Harry Strange

In what Andy Kershaw labelled Bob Geldof's “irritating, shallow, sanctimonious and self-satisfied” Live Aid performance of 1985, the singer-songwriter sang to the hardships of Ethiopians enduring famine. While it is hard to side fully with Kershaw’s lamentation of Geldof 's work as it heralded the beginning of “Celebrity Charity” the issues surrounding the cataclysmic floods in Pakistan raises these criticisms concerning western perceptions of (and reactions to) humanitarian crises once more.

While we as a generation are in many ways desensitised to terms such as “serious humanitarian disaster”, the constant peddling of stats and figures about the emotional ramifications of Pakistan’s hardship should be deafening. 1.6 million homes destroyed or badly damaged. 900 health facilities damaged. 3.6 million acres of crops affected and 750,000 livestock lost. Losses of $30 billion. 12,000 injured, 1,300 people killed - 400 of which were children. These floods constitute an unprecedented modern climate and humanitarian disaster, the world’s deadliest floods since the 2017 South Asian Floods - of which Pakistan was once more affected.

And yet, this merely represents the ruinous baseline for even further calamity, one that threatens even western ignorance. Pakistan suffered months of pre-flood 50 degree heatwaves, surpassing heat and humidity thresholds ‘that are hotter than the human body can handle’. These consecutive weather conditions have also established equally perilous economic ramifications; pre-flood inflation sat at 26 percent, in recent weeks many areas have risen to as high as 500 percent. Prices of food constitute ‘a days worth of wages’ to afford tomatoes and bread, alongside the prevailing threat of malaria from stagnant water.

With all this said, why do the likes of MP Claudia Webbe maintain that Pakistan is ‘paying the price for OUR own greed’? This is because both cause and consequence of Pakistan’s plight are intrinsically international. Michael Kugelman’s analysis underpins the economic results; dramatic drops in exports will only add to global food insecurity fuelled by reduced wheat from Ukraine, 6.5 percent of the world’s cotton supply has been hindered (being Pakistan’s largest export since 2018) while additionally exacerbating the global food market crunch triggered by the COVID pandemic supply chain shock and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Moreover, for a nation with the highest number of glaciers outside the arctic polar region, Pakistan has, quite understandably, remained well within its quota for carbon emissions, pledging to cut its GHG emissions in 2030 by 50 percent below the BAU. However, it remains fifth most affected by the climate crisis, whereas G8 nations were together responsible for 85 percent of the world’s excess carbon emissions, while the global North presides over 92 percent. Pakistan, on the other hand, produces less than 1 percent.

With this in mind, criticism rolls in as a precession. The likes of Jason Hickel and Bhutto echo repeated calls for ‘not...aid or charity’ from ‘the West’ and ‘elites and corporations’ but rather ‘reparations’ to compound the principle irreparable image has been caused to countless Pakistani lives by external forces.

Bhutto coined the term “humanitarian opportunists”, offering little more than bombast over ‘meaningful support’. Amidst Apple’s “pledge” of $160 million against a third fiscal quar-ter reported profit of $19.44 billion, the superficiality of the backlash against paper straws is only further compounded, only further widening a growing chasm of an East and West divide in social and fiscal support.

Bhutto’s now viral call that Pakistani “lives are dispensable for the world at large, what else can you feel when $880 million was raised for Notre Dame but a drowning country must beg for aid” epitomises this growing animosity, unfortunately married to the contrast in treatment and coverage of Ukrainian and Pakistani refugees. While intra-national organisations such as Islamic Relief have provided cash grants to 1,120 families, distributed 800 food packs and shelter to over 4000 families, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres pleads with the global north to “stop sleepwalking towards the destruction of our planet by climate change. Today, it’s Pakistan. Tomorrow, it could be your country”.

The sadness at which he is required to appeal to our self-preserving nature only reiterates the fact that the 2022 Pakistan floods act as a microcosm of the often ignored fact that humanitarian crises are quintessentially an international issue; transnational responsibility and awareness is vitally required to be coalesced with equal global support. To claim the words of Geldof, when considering the ravenous jaws of the floods, each drop of the millions of litres of water is stained with the ‘bitter sting of tears’.