Baffling indifference to Pakistani 'exodus' trauma


OPINION:An unprecedented human drama is unfolding in Pakistan and yet few in the wider world are paying attention. Why?

THE STORY is there is no story. The question is “why?” As I remember the destruction and death in north western Pakistan after the earthquake in October 2005, an event that attracted huge international attention and propelled frontline international aid agencies like Concern Worldwide to begin their rapid response emergency work, little did I know then that some four years later over two million people would be on the move in this part of the country, internally displaced by a sustained and ferociously intense military conflict between the Pakistani army and Taliban insurgents.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Antonio Guterres has said of the current situation that he doesn’t recall “any internal displacement crisis in which so many people have moved in such a short amount of time”. Since early May, these two million people have felt compelled to leave their homes, farms, communities and villages.

Few of the Swat Valley’s residents were prepared for the intensity of the military operation, which involved the use of heavy artillery and aerial bombardment from helicopter gunships and fighter jets. They were fearful enough for their very lives in the midst of a conflict not of their making that they had to uproot and take what little they can carry. They need food and water. They have children and elderly and the unwell amongst them to be cared for. They have feelings, emotions and relationships just like you and me.

In Western jargon, we used to call the involuntary movement of two million people a human tragedy of “biblical proportions”. This exodus is bigger and faster than the movement of people following the Rwandan genocide in 1994 when pictures were constantly on our TV screens showing the plight of the displaced and the efforts of the international community to deliver aid.

So why are we not hearing much about the Pakistan humanitarian crisis on the radio or television, in the newspapers or even on the web?

As overseas director for Concern, I find this lack of interest frustrating and hugely disappointing. We have tried to raise the Irish public’s awareness of this tragic movement of people in Pakistan by drawing attention to this story and we have had little or no success, and not from want of trying.

Our London office is experiencing similar reactions and indeed a multi-agency fundraising appeal in the UK has been “iced” due to lack of interest. The United Nations launched an overall appeal for Pakistan last month for $543 million but has a 75 per cent shortfall.

Why is this?

It seems highly unlikely that the public in Ireland or international donors worldwide, who donated to, and empathised so strongly with, the people of Pakistan in the wake of the 2005 earthquake, have now suddenly lost their spirit of solidarity and support for their fellow human beings.

Is it the political background to the military offensive that is colouring reaction to it? Perhaps it is simpler, people are unaware of what is going on because they do not see pictures on the news or hear about this on the radio. During the response to the earthquake in 2005, RTÉ’s Charlie Bird and other TV correspondents reported daily live from the scene. They told the human story of survival.

A particular aspect of the current mass movement of people is the role of so-called host communities as much as the internally displaced people (IDPs) themselves, with over 90 per cent of them staying with these host communities, reflecting the Pashtun tradition of treating guests with honour.

In Mardan district, one area where we work, the number of IDPs now outnumbers the number of residents.

Adding to the situation are daytime temperatures reaching 45° Celsius. After six weeks, the IDPs are still there – in the homes of strangers and public buildings and they are likely to be so for months to come.

The fact is the international humanitarian response is a drop in the ocean compared to the effort the locals have mounted. If the international community does not step up to the mark soon by making funds available, we may find that both the hosts and their guests are going without. Then we would have a disaster of epic proportions.

This is the story that needs to be told.

Even amongst another small Concern team, in Islamabad, we have one staff member who is “managing” an IDP site in a half-built health clinic with his friends and relatives. He is Pashtun. They are funding it, co-ordinating and managing the site with the IDPs and he is using the skills he learned from Concern to do it.

Other Concern Pakistani staff travel to the IDP sites where we are working. They give to the host communities from their own pockets as part of the national effort to care for one’s countrymen and, for the Pashtuns, this is to meet their greater social obligations. Contributing your time and energy through working for Concern is not enough for them – especially as we all know that our response is so limited.

Against this background, I am facing the difficult decision of having to close our emergency response programme in Pakistan in mid-July as funds will have run dry, just as the health risks will escalate and add to the current plight of millions with the onset of monsoon rains.

Concern is among nine major international aid agencies which face closure of projects as money fails to arrive, in what is proving to be the worst case of funding in a decade.

Let’s put this in perspective: Concern has put €300,000 of our publicly-raised emergency response fund into coping with this emergency while we have received €100,000 from Irish Aid, the aid distribution arm of the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Concern has provided thousands of families, who were forced to abandon their homes and belongings, with essential items such as cooking equipment, kitchen utensils, toiletries, mosquito nets and floor mats. In 2005, in the first month following the Pakistan earthquake we received €1,104,616 from the public in donations and €2 million from Irish Aid. Our total income for Pakistan over the last few weeks has been minuscule by comparison.

Does the media matter in heightening public awareness, interest and support when countless lives are at stake? The answer is clear.

Besides the little money going into the UN appeal, even less money is being dispersed to frontline agencies. In a humanitarian crisis, speed of delivery is vital. Previously, donor governments would give part of their aid money directly to frontline agencies.

The UN system can improve co-ordination and reduce duplication of effort but the allocation of money to frontline agencies takes far too long. The anomaly here is that 80 per cent of any aid in an emergency is delivered by frontline agencies like Concern, not the UN itself.

On Thursday, the EU announced it is to give €100 million to Pakistan but EU

external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner added: “In exchange, we want Pakistan to take the fight against terrorism very seriously and that they do a lot on their home front.


Being in the position of having to pull out of such an international emergency situation is a tough call. It is an action with consequences I believe the Irish people, even amidst our own worrying economic situation – and, indeed, the Irish media – would find troubling and morally questionable.

It’s a call I hope I’m not forced to make.

Paul O’Brien is Concern Worldwide’s overseas director;