THE catastrophe is unprecedented. The devastation is complete. As the BBC headline, quoting Pakistan’s climate change minister, announced to a nonchalant world, ‘one-third of Pakistan is under water’.
Homes, entire villages, schools and acres of life-giving crops have been inundated. And amid the disasters are ones of our own making, helicopters throwing down a few kilograms of food to starving people but further thrashing the already destroyed crops by their landing and ascent.
There is a need for everything — from tents and food to medicines and blankets — the displaced persons. On its part, the government has been busy doing what all Pakistani governments know how to do — begging international donors for assistance.
Meanwhile, the revival of the IMF programme has been approved by the Fund. “We should now be getting 7th and 8th tranche of $1.17 billion,” tweeted Finance Minister Miftah Ismail the other day. The prime minister called it “an excellent team effort”. Where these billions will go or where previous billions have gone is an open question.
News of the misery at home has also reached the drawing rooms of overseas Pakistanis. A large number, particularly those living in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia, have, like all other Pakistanis, donated to the flood effort. Many in the UK and US have done the same. They know that the dollars they send are immediately available to disaster management organisations who are on the ground and need cash to purchase the tents and other supplies to set up camps for the millions of displaced people in the country. It is difficult enough to be away from home; it is even harder to watch the buildings and cities and villages being washed by the floodwaters.
There is also another group among these senders of dollars. As in the case of past disasters, this group sees an opportunity to burnish their own credentials as the most humanitarian of overseas Pakistanis. In the past few days, these individuals have set up their own fundraising for the floods. Do not give money to big charities, they are telling their wealthy American or British friends, give instead to my campaign.
In addition to diverting donations, they must also use the catastrophe as an opportunity for self-aggrandizement. ‘I will be going to assist in the flood effort’, one such virtue-signalling individual had declared during their campaign to} -[0 raise funds. The detail that this individual and many others have no training in disaster management and that the money for their flights, etc. would be better spent if simply donated to the flood effort and to charities on the ground is not something that they would want to hear.
Some groups are seeing the disaster as a means to burnish their own credentials.
The case of white saviours, rich white people who go to poor countries as a way to signal their virtue, is well known. But as the populations of Pakistanis in the US and UK grows there are also ‘brown saviours’. These are people who flaunt their dollars and their foreign passports while never admitting to their privilege.
When a catastrophe afflicts Pakistan, their goal is to make a show of their compassion and open heart. They warn their friends against giving to ‘just anyone’ and insist that they will find the truly needy. Many believe them. Nobody seems to pause at the moral decrepitude of needing to physically gawk at the overwhelming suffering of others before aid is provided.
This practice is not charity but is better described as disaster voyeurism; once partaken, it can be the subject of a separate performance before white people back home. ‘Yeah, I went to Pakistan to help with the flood effort’ — this overseas Pakistani will claim to sundry white people, enjoying the halo such a statement creates around their head.
Like white saviours, brown saviours, whether they are overseas Pakistanis or some home-grown variety of a similar sort, need to be called out. Giving charity is not a performance meant to burnish your credentials as a humanitarian, showcasing your love of country for the consumption of others.
Giving charity is a duty, it is not a favor. Just as it is the duty of each of us as individuals to give what we can, it is also our duty to refuse to allow the suffering of our fellow human beings to be commodified. It is up to Pakistanis not only to help rebuild this devastated nation but to also provide dignity to the suffering of those that have been affected by such a disaster.
One overseas Pakistani I know has been busy calling people in Swat and Islamabad, asking them to arrange for a helicopter because he wants to go to the northern areas and see what is happening before he starts to raise funds. Imagine the futility of such an effort and such a request and sense of enlightenment. Helicopters are needed to save lives, not to take leering overseas Pakistanis on tours of devastation so that they can release their tranche of dollars too. Such behaviour is shameful, such gawking and voyeurism is sinful.
As part of covering the flood effort, the Dawn website has report with links to the largest charities that have an on-ground presence and that can use the funds to help those affected. Those who wish to donate or encourage others to donate should circulate that link instead of the particulars of those who are making ‘helping with floods’ some sort of personal vanity project. Giving to these large NGOs or to the government itself also protects donors from scams that are sadly using the disaster to cheat and steal.
No Pakistani with a heart can look at what is happening and not feel utterly shaken and distraught; the money we give to our country is not a favour; it is our duty to the homeland that created us and that is now in the grip of catastrophe.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, August 31st, 2022