Saturday, August 21, 2010

Pakistan's 'image deficit' is unfair and undeserved By Robert Remington, Calgary Herald August 21, 2010

Pakistan's "image deficit" -- its reputation for corruption and its notoriety as a terrorist hideout -- is said to be one reason for the tepid international aid response to that nation's devastating floods.
Who wants to donate money to a nation whose government has a documented record of using at least some of more than $7 billion in U.S. aid to paying off the Taliban rather than fighting it?
That thinking is flawed for two reasons. Wellplaced humanitarian aid does not go to the credibility-plagued Pakistani government. It goes to credible agencies with capable boots on the ground who can get it to desperate people.
And despite the bad public relations it gets, Pakistan is not a nation of ragged cutthroats. That's like saying all of Alberta is a dirty tourist destination because of the oilsands. My own experience in the country in 2005 was one of gentle, warm, hospitable people who want security, health and a better life for their children, just like us. I never once felt threatened, even when I found myself in the middle of a demonstration in Karachi.
It is in our own enlightened self-interest to come to the aid of a country teetering on the brink of extremism. The western aid vacuum is already being filled by banned Islamic charities like Jama'at-ud-Da'wah (JUD), which is linked to terrorist groups. If we're not there, desperate Pakistanis will turn to whomever they can for help.
But forget about political arguments for a moment and listen to Khadija Shaban, who I reached in Karachi early Friday morning her time.
"I fear that a lot of children are going to die very soon. There is dirty water everywhere," she told me, a heavy sigh audible in her voice. "It is really heart-wrenching. People will tie a family member to a rock to sink in the water because there is no place to bury them."
Shaban is the head of FOCUS Pakistan, an on-the-ground emergency response partner of the credible Aga Khan Development Network, a progressive Islamic organization with a long history in Pakistan.
"All the bridges have been broken, so providing relief is becoming a huge issue," she said. "We can get to the people in the towns, but the people in the valleys are very difficult to reach."
According to Paul Carrick, the founder of the Canmore-based Christian aid group Cause Canada, Pakistan doesn't deserve its reputation.
"There is this huge obstacle of overcoming myths. There are strong prejudices against Pakistan."
His own experience there on a relief mission in 2001 was, like mine, nothing but positive. People forget it is a Commonwealth nation. English is spoken by everyone with an education.
"I was extremely impressed with the level of professionalism with the police, the civil service, customs and the military," Carrick said. "They were fabulous. I was blown away. And my experience with the Pakistani people was similarly positive."
Only a small part of the population, he found, was "Taliban friendly."
According to a Pew Research study last year, 69 per cent of Pakistanis worry that extremists could take control of the country. The ambivalence that once existed in Pakistan toward al-Qaeda and the Taliban have given way to a strong condemnation of both groups, Pew found. In 2008, just 33 per cent held a negative view of the Taliban. Today, 70 per cent rate it unfavourably. Similarly, the percentage of Pakistanis with an unfavourable opinion of al-Qaeda has jumped from 34 per cent to 61 per cent.
Canada has committed $33 million to Pakistan. By comparison, it offered $135-million in aid after last year's Haitian earthquake and $425-million after the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean.
Comparisons to Haiti, however, are misplaced. Haiti is in our backyard, has a common language with Canada and was already a major focus of Canadian development efforts. And as humanitarian relief agencies will attest, earthquakes, which are sudden and dramatic, generate more response than floods, which -- tsunamis aside -- unfold slowly.
Explain that to the average Pakistani desperate to survive.
In Gilgit, where I played a quick game of chess with a charming old man even though neither of us spoke the other's language, food and medical supplies are running short. Almost 182 bridges have breached in the Gilgit Valley, including four on the famed Karakoram Highway. The gravel highway -- one of the most spectacular (and harrowing) mountain roads in the world -- has been closed for three weeks due to floods and landslides.
Near the end of the Karakoram, in the gorgeous Hunza Valley of northern Pakistan, landslides have formed a 16 kilometre-long lake that may burst its banks. Already, 13,000 people in the area have been displaced.
It was in a town in the Hunza Valley, Karimabad, where I met a graduating high school girl who was applying to Yale and Harvard. She's no terrorist, and certainly had no "image deficit." She is Pakistan's future, and it is people like her who need our help.

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