4 Reasons Why Americans Aren't Giving for Pakistan Flood Relief

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After the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, which displaced 1 million people and came as the U.S. economy continued to crumble, the American Red Cross joined with U.S. cell phone carriers to give Americans the ability to donate a few dollars by sending a simple text message. The campaign raised $32 million within days, generating as much as $200,000 per hour, a relatively small piece of the $2.5 billion that relief groups would raise for Haiti by late March. Some aid groups warned that they were so awash in cash they were incapable of distributing it all.

In August 2010, a similar text message campaign was launched in response to the flooding in Pakistan, which has so far displaced 5 million people and put 13 million, particularly children, at risk of water-borne diseases such as cholera because they lack access to clean drinking water. The United Nations has declared the flooding, which is expected to worsen, already worse than the Haiti earthquake, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and the 2005 Kashmir earthquake combined. But the Red Cross's recent text message effort yielded only $10,000, about 0.03 percent of what it earned for Haiti.

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The disappointing campaign has been another in a series of alarming reports from aid groups and even the United Nations that they do not have enough money. The UN says it only has half of the $460 million it requires for its relief mission, with Care International, one of the aid groups leading the effort in Pakistan, reporting 15 percent of its already modest $10 million goal. The amount of foreign donations given per flood victim is very low compared to other such disasters. The figures for the Haiti earthquake, tsunami, and Kashmir earthquake were $1087.33, $1249.80, and $388.33 respectively. For the Pakistan floods, the world has given only $16.36 per victim. These shortfalls have led many to ask a macabre question. Why did the world, particularly U.S. individual donors, give so much for Haiti but show so little concern for Pakistan?

The two most common answers are the poor economy and donor fatigue. While they are certainly playing a role, these two factors provide an incomplete picture. The economy was just as bad in January as it is now, with U6 joblessness unchanged and unemployment actually decreasing from 9.7 to 9.5 percent. The much-cited "donor fatigue" claim argues that people are currently short on expendable cash or even human sympathy after the Haiti earthquake of seven months ago. However, if donor fatigue were really such a powerful force, then the world would not have responded with an overwhelmingly generous $5 billion in aid to the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, which occurred just over nine months after the 2004 tsunami. Clearly there is something more at play. Here are four factors more plausibly contributing to the low individual U.S. giving rate in response to the Pakistan floods.

(1) Pakistan lacks Haiti's network of Western charities.
Pakistan, particularly the flooded areas, has a global reputation for being dangerous. It is also, of course, Muslim. As a result, it lacks Haiti's pre-existing network of Christian humanitarian organizations and missionaries that have been growing in the country for decades. Those Christian missionaries in Haiti, predominantly Americans doing a combination of religious and humanitarian work, were so important because they could use American churches as a vast grassroots network to communicate Haiti's plight to Americans and especially to raise money. But Pakistan has no such large-scale, long-term presence, which had made it far more difficult to tap into the vast fundraising resource of Christian America.

(2) Pakistan doesn't look like a friend to many Americans.
Although it has nothing to do with the floods, Pakistan has had a spate of recent bad press in America. The Wikileaks document dump in July brought national attention to the long-held concerns of U.S. intelligence officials that factions in Pakistan's military intelligence service (ISI) may be sponsoring some of the Taliban militants responsible for killing 1,241 Americans. The flood victims, many of whom are children, have nothing to do with the duplicitous practices of the ISI, and extremism in Pakistan could be curbed dramatically by a robust U.S. humanitarian response. However, many Americans are likely wondering why they should voluntarily shed their increasingly scant disposable income to help a country that is far from a robust ally. Even before the Wikileaks story, a Gallup poll of Americans found overwhelmingly negative attitudes toward Pakistan.

(3) Islam is not popular in America right now.
Pakistan is one of the world's largest Muslim states. That puts it at a disadvantage in the U.S., where the recent controversy over the Cordoba Islamic cultural center planned for lower Manhattan has generated alarmingly widespread Islamophobia. Groups have begun protesting mosques and Islamic family centers across the country. Recent polling reports that only 55 percent of Americans call Muslims "loyal Americans," 32 percent say Muslims should be blocked from running for president, and 28 say they should be forbidden from joining the Supreme Court. An all-time high of 18 percent believe President Obama is Muslim, which is widely seen as an expression of rising hostility towards Muslims. The polling shows Islam to be especially unpopular among U.S. conservatives, many of whom are part of the same Christian humanitarian network that was so active in responding to Haiti.

(4) The floods make for bad TV.
As many in the U.S. have pointed out, the flooding in Pakistan has received light and undramatic TV news coverage relative to Haiti and other humanitarian disasters. The New York Times' Neil MacFarquhar described the floods as not being as sufficiently "dramatic, emotional, [or] telegenic" as the earthquakes and tsunamis that so opened American wallets. Others have described the floods as a "slow motion" disaster that cannot be effectively conveyed in a single photograph or piece of video. Just as importantly, reporters do not have the same freedom of mobility Pakistan as they had in Haiti, both because Haiti is so close to the U.S. east coast and because of the danger of traveling in some regions of Pakistan.

The U.S. State Department and the United Nations understand that swift and full response to the flooding isn't just a matter of direst importance for millions of innocent Pakistanis, it's also a moment when global security problems can be improved or worsened significantly based on our response. But for individual donors to mobilize, we will have to acknowledge and address the the factors that are now inhibiting individual giving. People will have to be convinced that Pakistanis are not the enemy, that Islam is not hostile, and that the humanitarian damage from this flood is real and urgent.

Image: Internally displaced persons in the Sindh province of southern Pakistan, among the lucky few to receive aid supplies, wait in line for food. However, even they must now face the ever-present threat of a disease outbreak in the aid camps. By Asif Hassan/AFP/Getty.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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