The prevalence of monumental natural disasters in recent years has become quite alarming. Most recently, Pakistan has endured weeks of heavy flooding, resulting in over 1,600 deaths and affecting at least 17 million people, according to the United Nations. The death toll could rise significantly due to disease and a lack of food. Additionally, Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani, estimated damages to be in the neighborhood of $43 billion.
The Haiti earthquake, which struck on Jan. 12, cost hundreds of thousands of lives and left over one million people homeless. Damages have been estimated in the realm of a few billion dollars, which is still very significant. Nearly eight months later, despite an overwhelming response from the international community, Haiti still lies largely in ruins.
The two disasters are clearly staggering in proportion, but the response of the news media and the international community to each event has been different. For over a month following the disaster in Haiti, the news media bombarded us with shocking images of the aftermath. The United States mobilized substantial resources to bring aid to the quake victims. There was even a prime-time, televised fundraiser, complete with big-name celebrities, asking Americans and people all over the world to donate money for the massive relief effort.
While the disaster in Pakistan has not caused the nearly incomprehensible loss of life as seen in Haiti, it has received less mainstream media coverage. It has, however, displaced far more people, and has caused significantly more economic damage (although it must be noted that Haiti had very little infrastructure to begin with). Additionally, the geographic area covered by the disaster in Pakistan is huge, with floodwaters affecting one-third of the country. Kristalina Georgieva, the European Union’s Commissioner of International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response, recently completed a two-day visit to the devastated area where she assessed the damage firsthand. Her own evaluation drew comparisons between the Haiti quake and the Pakistan flood, and also noted the difference in response by the international community.
International aid has proved slower in making its way to Pakistan. Thus far, the U.S. has pledged $200 million in relief money to Pakistan, a quarter of which has been diverted from a previous development package already destined for the country before the flood. Haiti, by comparison, received some $712 million in aid from the U.S., with over $400 million more coming from donations of American citizens, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development. And while the overwhelming human tragedy was the emphasis in Haiti, there is already talk of the aid’s ability to “win the hearts and minds” of Pakistanis (keep in mind that the Swat Valley is known to harbor the Taliban). The emphasis has seemed to be placed on the strategic value of the aid, rather than just thinking of it as the right thing to do in the face of widespread human suffering.
The similarities and differences between the disasters and their subsequent responses bring more than a few questions to mind. Why are the responses by the international community and the news media (particularly in the U.S.) so different? Does the role of northern Pakistan — in harboring enemies of the U.S. in the Afghanistan War — affect how much we are willing to help? Should disaster relief dollars be viewed for their strategic value, when reality suggests that a starving child in Haiti is no different than a starving child in Pakistan? Does the news media view a higher immediate death toll as deserving of more intense, more protracted coverage? While these questions are interesting (and certainly only raise more questions), they are trivial when considering the struggle both Haiti and Pakistan will face in the coming years.