Monday, August 16, 2010

The limits of humanitarianism?

By Peter Henne

I started and stopped this post several times: writing, deleting, re-writing. What can one say about the horrific flooding in Pakistan? The flood has claimed 1500 lives and left 20 million homeless; the impact is likely to grow exponentially as disease sets in.
Telling people that they should care feels a bit preachy; it might work for the UN Secretary General, but not for someone who kept "forgetting" to donate after the Haiti earthquake. There isn't even much to talk about in terms of political debates; a Google News search on "Obama flood Pakistan" and "Republican flood Pakistan" turned up little. No calls for quick action, no criticism of transferring valuable resources out of Afghanistan, thus precluding a critique of the politicization of humanitarian crises.

One option is to discuss how this matters beyond humanitarian concerns.
US standing in Indonesia increased greatly after the military provided assistance to tsunami victims, and there are some signs Pakistani opinion of the United States has improved with US aid to flood victims. Humanitarian initiatives could thus help to undermine the popular appeal of militant groups. The flood also highlights the growing threat from climate change. But this is hardly original, and the Center for American Progress (CAP) covered this well with their excellent analysis last week.

Deploring the lackluster US response is another angle, but the United States is hardly ignoring the crisis. According to CAP, US aid has reached $76 million, and the military dedicated 19 helicopters to assist in rescue operations. US assistance has caught the attention of foreign media; the Hindustan Times reported on John Kerry's planned visit to the region, and Xinhua highlighted US helicopters' role in flood relief. Much more needs to be done to help the Pakistani people, and the UN may be justified in calling on the United States to provide more assistance. But it is a good start.

This does, however, beg the question of why there has been little attention paid in the United States to US efforts. Public apathy might be an explanation, but then why bother devoting resources to a mission voters don't care about? All sides could agree the United States must help, but are wary of focusing on it in an election year. Or maybe this is just the way it works: virtue reveals itself in subtle policies and hidden gestures, half-steps that never amount to a solution and are lost in the tumult of the news cycle and politicos' inboxes. And maybe that is the best we can expect.

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