Haiti, Pakistan test limits of international aid

Last Updated: Thu, Dec 23, 2010 07:13 hrs

Washington: A 35-second earthquake in January irrevocably changed Haiti's future, killing more than 222,000 people and shattering the foundation of the impoverished Caribbean nation.

In July, the deceptively sluggish flood waters that engulfed a fifth of Pakistan killed 2,000 people and altered the lives of more than 20 million - exceeding the combined total of people affected by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2005 Kashmir earthquake and Haiti's earthquake.

Nearly 260,000 people died in earthquakes, floods, typhoons, heatwaves, fires and landslides in 2010 - the worst toll since 1976 - compared with 15,000 last year, according to reinsurance company Swiss Re.

Haiti and Pakistan stood out because of the massive death toll and millions of homeless, and the extent to which both countries tested the limits of international aid. In both countries, the collapsed infrastructure will take decades to rebuild, and the disasters likely set back development gains for generations.

2010's world gone wild: Quakes, floods, blizzards

While disasters are increasing in severity and intensity, the 'reality is that the international humanitarian system is not prepared to cope with more than one large-scale disaster a year', said Elizabeth Ferris of the Brookings Institution, a Washington public-policy think tank.

Disasters mostly hurt the poor.

While an earthquake in a developed nation might have high economic costs, the casualties are usually lower and the country recovers faster, with aid delivery facilitated by better roads, communication networks and accessible, functioning hospitals.

For example, New Zealand's 7.0-magnitude earthquake in August, of similar intensity to Haiti's, destroyed 100,000 homes, but no one died.

Haitian capital Port-au-Prince remains a tattered city of rubble and tents, 11 months after the earthquake, with more than 1.5 million homeless forced to live in unsanitary, overcrowded settlements, which the UN says could linger for months or years while transitional shelters are built.

The damaged infrastructures in Pakistan and Haiti will be the main barriers to long-term economic growth, poverty reduction and stability, aid agencies say. The backbone of Pakistan's economy, agriculture, has been severely weakened.

The floods may have affected more people, but a smaller percentage of the overall population - 12 percent in Pakistan - than the 30 percent of Haiti's population who were affected by the earthquake. Both countries are poor - Haiti's gross domestic product (GDP) is $733 per capita, Pakistan's is $1,017.

Both suffered debilitating economic losses - $7.8 billion in Haiti, which represents 119 percent of its GDP, and $9.7 billion in Pakistan, or 5.8 percent of GDP.

While emergency appeals were launched after both disasters, almost twice as much money was raised for Haiti, Ferris said. Pledges to Pakistan moved at a significantly more sluggish rate.

Charity Navigator, a New Jersey-based group that evaluates non-profits, outlined reasons for the apathetic charitable reaction to the floods.

After Haiti, donors were quickly asked to direct their attention to the February earthquake in Chile and the April oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Along with its flash appeal for $460 million for Pakistan, the UN was last summer running an additional 17 humanitarian appeals, the Lancet said. None received more than three-quarters of requested funding. Donor fatigue was inevitable.

Beyond that, an earthquake causes unimaginable devastation in seconds and produces startling images: shattered buildings, frantic rescue crews, survivors being pulled from the rubble. Slow moving water is less dramatic, and it's often difficult to comprehend the havoc it can wreak.

'In contrast to the coverage of the earthquake in Haiti, the media coverage of the Pakistan floods has been minimal. As they say, out of sight, out of mind,' Charity Navigator said on its blog.

'Even with concerns over corruption and ineptitude, some may view the government in Pakistan as being more able to care for its citizens than the government in Haiti.'

More than 30 percent of Haiti's civil servants died in the earthquake, and the headquarters of 28 of 29 government ministries collapsed in the capital.

Its proximity to the US and the support of the Haitian diaspora of 2 million people in the US and Canada, as well as the decades of groundwork laid by foreign NGOs, appeared to have tilted the scales in Haiti's favour.

'It's very difficult to compare Pakistan and Haiti. You have one country - the poorest in our region and very close to the United States. You have Pakistan some distance away, and that has influenced ... the level of media attention,' US State Department spokesman PJ Crowley said in August.

'An earthquake is a different kind of disaster than a flood. We'll be dealing with the effects of the earthquake in Haiti for a decade or more. We'll be ... helping Pakistan deal with the impact of the flood for years, but probably a disaster of less duration and a different kind of impact.'