The massive disaster that struck Pakistan has not washed away the realities of life in the north-western region.
Instead, the suffering, manipulation and stereotyping of this region are being exposed. While some may not recognise the scale of this crisis, others are wasting no time in politicising and militarising the aid response. A few days ago, while I was travelling from Peshawar to flood-ravaged Nowshera, I was shocked by one sight in particular.
Among the destruction and vast swathes of water, there was a small group of people who had set up their temporary homes in a graveyard at the edge of the water. Their clothes were drying on tombstones and some bits of plastic sheeting, providing minimal shade, were dotted among the patches of shallower water.
About 100m away there were a number of houses — which I presumed to be theirs — fully submerged with only the tops of the roofs showing above the water. The sight of this group living among the gravestones seemed like a fitting metaphor for the reality facing the flood-affected population of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. There is a high level of pre-existing vulnerability among this population, which has been compounded by the floods.
Some of the graves in Pakistan are filled with people who died during last year’s conflict in the Swat valley, others are for the women and children whose lives were unnecessarily lost due to poor maternal and child health services, not to mention those who have lost their lives due to the chronic underdevelopment and neglect of this region, a region which was all but forgotten by the rest of the world until it was labelled a Wild West-type setting, harbouring “extremists”.
The floods have unearthed the highly politicised nature of this region and the way the rest of the world engages with it. Recent statements in the United States and British media calling on their respective governments to fund the flood-relief activities to serve their national security interests are as disrespectful of the realities facing the flood survivors as they are dangerous.
“Humanitarian” aid provided on the basis of an agenda which is waging a so-called war on terror puts patients at risk. Humanitarian assistance during conflict is based on principles of independence, neutrality and impartiality, carried out by organisations such as Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF).
Warring parties cannot claim this term, or these principles. By doing so, they undermine the trust that the crisis-affected population has in truly independent action. The result is that health structures can become a target.
This may not be an issue in the immediate aftermath of the floods, but MSF has been working in Pakistan since 1988 and will be working there long after the flood waters have receded. This is why MSF refuses the funds of any donor government for its medical humanitarian work in Pakistan and elsewhere.
Yes, more aid should come fast and be delivered effectively, but it must come on the basis of the population’s needs and not the West’s national security considerations. Similarly, MSF does not use the military to deliver assistance.
MSF cannot, and will not, be associated with either side of any conflict, as this would put it and its patients at risk. While the political dynamics unfold, the realities remain. People need access to safe water and the current gaps need to be f illed immediately.
MSF is rapidly scaling up its activities. It has distributed kits of essential items to 8 000 families, conducted 10 000 medical consultations and distributed 480 000 litres of clean water a day. But more needs to be done.
However, international humanitarian assistance is not the only legitimate form of aid and it has definitely not been the most responsive. Though MSF reacted to the flood emergency immediately, it was the communities themselves that organised structures to address the most acute needs just hours after the floods struck.
Alongside these communities, the challenges in responding to the crisis and scaling up activities are being tackled by 1 200 people working for MSF in Pakistan today — among them two South Africans. As South Africans, in particular as organised civil society, we have an opportunity to bring our collective struggle credentials to the table to fight global inequality.
Humanitarianism is an act of resistance against the marginalisation and neglect that causes human suffering and this resistance cannot allow colonial borders to define its scope and scale. We need to engage in Sudan, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and even Pakistan, Haiti and Iraq.
If South Africans were able to pioneer a struggle for freedom and equality, let us also build global solidarity with the marginalised, while keeping the struggle for equality alive within our own borders.
Let us stand in solidarity with the people of Pakistan and show those wanting to capitalise on people’s vulnerability for the sake of their political and military interests that an injury to one is indeed an injury to all — regardless of race, religion, creed or nationality and no matter where in the world.
Jonathan Whittall is humanitarian policy adviser for MSF South Africa. He is in Peshawar, Pakistan, as the MSF deputy country representative