Earthquake aid can help rebuild lives, image of U.S.

November 08, 2005|By TRUDY RUBIN

PHILADELPHIA -- When the tsunami swallowed huge swaths of South Asia in December, the United Nations appealed for $1 billion in emergency aid. The appeal reached 80 percent of its goal in 10 days. Governments and ordinary citizens all around the world dug deep to help.

But by the time a massive earthquake devastated a remote Himalayan region of Pakistan on Oct. 8 and killed at least 73,000 people, the world was reeling from donor fatigue. The Niger famine, the genocide in Darfur and devastating hurricanes in the Southern United States - all that giving had emptied people's wallets.

So the U.N. appeal for $550 million in emergency aid for Pakistan has netted only $131 million in pledges and commitments, even though the quake affected 3 million people and destroyed thousands of villages.

But in the words of Jan Egeland, U.N. humanitarian relief coordinator, "It's no good to pledge money for reconstruction if people die before you reconstruct." Snow is expected to start falling in the Himalayas in the next three to five weeks, and shelter must be found for the quake victims before then.

"We can see a second crisis coming," says William Dowell of CARE International, who spoke by phone just after returning from Pakistan's remote Alli Valley. "Winter is on the way, with the danger that people will freeze to death."

What makes the crisis in Pakistan especially difficult is its location, so hard to reach that it hasn't attracted the saturation TV coverage of the tsunami or the recent hurricanes. This lack of visibility has undercut the level of aid donations.

The United States has pledged $156 million so far. Much of that money is being used outside the U.N. framework, including $56 million from the Pentagon for helicopters and transport planes.

In the Himalayan terrain, helicopters are essential for aid drops and rescue. Outside of the Pakistani army, the United States is best positioned to send in choppers. Twenty-four U.S. military helicopters, along with seven others on loan to Pakistan for narcotics interception, have delivered 1,700 tons of relief supplies and rescued about 7,500 people. Nine more U.S. military choppers probably will arrive from Afghanistan soon.

There could not be a better use for U.S. military and aid funds. In fact, the amount spent should be sharply increased before the onset of winter. The reason is not just humanitarian - which is reason enough - but strategic. The area where the earthquake struck - mainly in Pakistan's northwest territories and Pakistani-controlled Kashmir - is a religiously conservative region with an ingrained suspicion of the West. Inhabitants were sympathetic to the Taliban. The region has a history of hosting Islamic extremist groups, some with links to al-Qaida.

Yet Western media report that U.S. aid is also making a positive impression. This is the first time these remote villagers have met Western aid workers and U.S. soldiers in person, and they have watched them work to save Pakistanis' lives.

"The United States has had a better profile in Pakistan in the last few weeks than in the last 15 years," says Najam Sethi, editor of the Pakistani newspaper The Friday Times. "The 24 U.S. helicopters are very visible." He told me by phone from Lahore that Pakistani TV is covering the U.S. aid effort and "the scenes come into every home. This is having an enormous impact in diluting anti-Western sentiment."

Much more U.S. and other international aid is badly needed. An additional $200 million and a few helicopters could do far more to improve Muslim attitudes toward America and undercut al-Qaida's appeal than all of the White House's public relations campaigns in the Muslim world. It would be a pittance next to the $200 billion spent on Iraq (and the $200 billion cost of rebuilding the hurricane-ravaged U.S. Gulf Coast). And more individual contributions for Pakistan would help counter Islamist charges of Western hostility.

This is a case where doing good not only will save lives but also earn us good will.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is trubin@phillynews.com.

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