Pakistan Floods Trigger Global Response

Shaista Khan, from the charity Islamic Relief USA, discusses the devastating floods in Pakistan and how she believes the international community can help.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Today we're going to spend some time talking about conditions in Pakistan, where as many as 20 million people have been affected by severe flooding. United Nations officials have called a special general assembly session for today, saying it may be the greatest humanitarian crisis in recent history with more people affected than the earthquake in Haiti and the Southeast Asian tsunami combined. So why are offers of assistance trickling in - and far below the level needed to help the millions in need? We'll talk about that in a few minutes.

Also today we'll talk about the firestorm Dr. Laura created when she used the N-word over and over again. We'll talk about her decision to quit her show, she says because of that firestorm. We'll speak with a media critic, a talk radio insider, and a culture critic about it.

And a visit with Los Lobos. They started out doing weddings in East L.A. Thirty years later they are still making music and making people think. But first, Pakistan. The death toll from massive flooding there stands at about 1,600 people. And that may pale in comparison to the hundreds of thousands who died in recent natural disasters.

But, as we said, as many as 20 million people may have been affected there, according to the World Health Organization. And a high percentage, as many as six million by one account, have yet to see any help. And the aid from wealthy countries like the U.S., Britain and Saudi Arabia - relief agencies say the aid is just starting to trickle in and is still far below the level of need.

We wanted to know more about conditions there and what the aid is needed for and why the aid situation is as it is described. So first we reached out to Marcus Prior of the United Nations World Food Programme. We reached him by Skype in Islamabad.

Mr. MARCUS PRIOR (United Nations World Food Programme): We initially started our distributions within 24 hours of the situation being clear up in the north of the country. It took a while for the full impact of the initial flooding to become clear. But we've now distributed food, a one-month supply to over a million people, but the number doesn't mean a great deal to us because we know there are so many others - up to six million and possibly more who continue to need our food assistance.

It's a massive, massive scale of need from the north of the country right down to the south - the size of England from north to south. And we're doing everything we can, from different logistics hubs in the north, in the central province of Punjab down to Sindh in the south, to make sure that we move the food that we have as quickly as possible to those that need it.

MARTIN: Again, that was Marcus Prior, regional public affairs director for the United Nations World Food Programme. We were able to reach him by Skype in Islamabad. And now Mark Ward joins us here in our Washington, D.C. studio. Mr. Ward directs the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance for the United States Agency for International Development, known as USAID. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. MARK WARD (USAID): Michel, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Now, as we were speaking, you have brought you have a very deep background in Asia. So I was wondering why the devastation is as extensive as it seems to be. I mean this is an area with a history of monsoons. So why is the devastation so bad?

Mr. WARD: We've never seen the three major rivers in Pakistan flood before at exactly the same time. At least we haven't seen it in 90 years. And that has just overwhelmed the country. You're right. They get monsoons every year. But this with three rivers flooding at once and the extraordinary rains, which by the way haven't stopped, that's just been more than the systems there can handle.

MARTIN: And I want to note that the U.S. pledge for aid has risen from $90 million to $150 million. There are news reports that Saudi Arabia has raised $20 million to support the flood victims. Kuwait's offered five million. But donors note that, for example, there are almost $300 million in aid for after - pledged after the Kashmir quake in the first 10 days. There was - one billion dollars was pledged within the first 10 days for Haiti. Versus - you know, four or five hundred million dollars seems like a lot, it seems like a big figure. But compare it to the number of people who are affected by it.

So the question I have for you is why does it seem that aid is not being generated as quickly as the need would seem to warrant?

Mr. WARD: Michel, if you will, let me first tell you about what's going on today, which I hope will generate interest in increasing contributions to the effort. Everything in Pakistan right now depends on the weather. If we have a good day, if the rains let up, we're able to do a lot. And we had a pretty good day today. We were able our military, which has 15 helicopters flying rescue missions in the country, was able to deliver almost 70,000 pounds of mostly food today.

They were also able to rescue over 300 people that were from stranded communities. And on some days where the weather is better, they're able to double and triple those numbers. But the weather does dictate how effective we can be in the air.

We never completely slow down. We never completely stop. Even on the bad days we're using four-wheel drive trucks. And we're even using mules to try to get food and necessary commodities into areas that have been cut off by the water. As far as, you know, the level of giving - my colleague from WFP explained the magnitude of the problem. It's huge, but access is a problem. Normally by this point in a disaster we would have been able to do a proper assessment of the whole country, get in there, see what the needs are and then with the U.N. in the lead and the government of Pakistan be able to make an appeal to the international community: We need this much help.

The weather isn't allowing us to do that in Pakistan. So the initial U.N. appeal, which came out, I believe it was last week, for 460 million, we know that's not enough. That was just a first attempt a first assessment of the immediate needs. And I'm happy to say that international pledges now against that appeal have come to 50 percent.

And at the event that you mentioned, where Secretary Clinton will appear today in New York, we're confident that pledges against commitments of countries against the U.N. appeal will go up even more.

MARTIN: So you don't think there's donor fatigue at work? I mean the suggestion is made that the international community has just tapped out. And others - but others suggest that perhaps it's the nature of the country in need of assistance, that there's just a skepticism about the government there, a skepticism about how the aid might be used. Do you think either of those theories is correct?

Mr. WARD: I think the nature of this disaster, which is an accumulating disaster - when this disaster started, I didn't even know about it, and I get emails all night about earthquakes and disasters around the world in my position at the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance. This one was very slow to build, very slow to get our attention. But I think it's starting now.

You quoted, before you introduced me, the commitments that we've now seen from Saudi Arabia. We now have a commitment from Japan to bring helicopters. We -and we're beginning to hear more, and I'm sure we will hear more today in New York from this special meeting. Do we need more? Absolutely, we need more from the international community. We also need more from the private from private Americans.

MARTIN: All right. Well, thank you for joining us. We hope you'll come back and see us again. Mark Ward is serving as director of the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance at the United States Agency for International Development, or USAID, and he kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studio. Director Ward, thank you for joining us.

Mr. WARD: Thank you.

MARTIN: To that end, we were interested in how the Pakistani diaspora is responding to this latest disaster, so we've called Shaista Khan. She's a spokesperson for Islamic Relief. That's an international relief and development charity and she joins us from member station KPCC in Pasadena. Thank you for joining us.

Ms. SHAISTA KHAN (Spokesperson, Islamic Relief): Thank you, Michel. And thank you, KPCC, for allowing Islamic Relief to be available on this program. Thank you.

MARTIN: Can I just ask, though, your reaction when you heard about the scope of the disaster. You just heard Director Ward say that this has been a terrible disaster, but a slow moving one, so that information about the scope of it has been slow to reach outside the country. Do you think is that true in your world? What are you hearing from friends, relatives, associates?

Ms. KHAN: Absolutely, Michel. The Pakistani community in the United States is absolutely devastated and shocked to see a large portion of their country being affected by the floods. And in response to that, as Dr. Ward said, there was a slow response initially, but the community is now actively working to do something a response to help bring relief to the victims. Basically, we have various methodologies.

And another Pakistani community is, you know, as you know, Ramadan it's the month of Ramadan right now. And they're converting their planned Iftars into fundraisers. The youth are using the Facebook and YouTube to raise funds and raise awareness. And a lot of the Zakat money, which is given in Ramadan, is being used towards this cause for this terrible and sad devastating situation.

MARTIN: And as you know, President Asif Zardari was criticized for going on a state visit to Europe during the floods and visiting his chateau in France during the disaster. And there are those who might suggest that that kind of conduct has chilled some of the interest in the international community because it makes them wonder, well, how will their dollars be received? Do you think that that is true?

Ms. KHAN: As we know, Islamic Relief is a humanitarian organization and we try to keep out of the politics of all the countries that we work in. We're currently working in 37 countries, including Pakistan and the United States. Right now, we have been focusing more on the donation and raising money and so far we've raised over $2 million for this particular fund. And that's where our prime focus is to raise awareness and money because that's what the need is right now, whether it's Katrina or whether it was for Haiti, which we also have been raising money for and worked in those. We keep out of the politics of all of these.

MARTIN: And, finally, I do want to ask there are groups that have that are that American and other governments are skeptical of, like Jamaat-ud-Dawa, which is a charity that the U.N. has banned for its alleged tie to the Mumbai terrorist attack. How would individuals be assured that their dollars, if they wish to donate, are going to entities in which they can have trust and that they can assure will not be abused or misused for purposes that they don't support?

Ms. KHAN: Excellent question, Michel. Islamic Relief has been established since 1992. A California-based charity was registered there. We currently are under the combined federal campaign, which means in the United States that federal employees can donate to Islamic Relief and be assured that their dollar is reaching the right, you know, in the right hands.

Secondly, if you Google us on the U.S. charity navigator, for seven years in a row, we have been given four stars. And we have currently been in the top two percent of the United States registered charities. So we can assure the people of the United States that their dollar is absolutely safe through these accredited...

MARTIN: Shaista Khan, thank you so much for speaking with us. She's a spokesperson for Islamic Relief. That's an international relief and development charity, as you heard. And we thank you so much and our best wishes for Ramadan.

Ms. KHAN: Thank you so much, Michel, thank you.

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