The U.S. administration's eagerness to draw mileage from assistance for Pakistan's flood relief and rehabilitation work is causing disquiet.
The United States government's pressure on humanitarian organisations to brand relief material routed through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Pakistan with the Agency's handshake logo and the words “from the American people” has caused considerable disquiet within the international NGO community stationed here in strength.
So much so that the Pakistan Humanitarian Forum (PHF) — a consortium of the biggest international NGOs based in Pakistan — submitted a document this month to the administration of President Barack Obama suggesting alternatives to explicit branding of humanitarian aid funded by the U.S. government in Pakistan.
This document was submitted by InterAction — an association of U.S.-based NGOs doing humanitarian and development work overseas — on behalf of PHF. Confirming the submission of the document, InterAction president Samuel Worthington told The Hindu that “the U.S. government will respond to our paper and we are in dialogue to find a workable solution”. A quarter of InterAction's 200 member organisations work in Pakistan.
America's image still negative
Bruised time and again by an image problem in Pakistan, the U.S. administration has been eager to draw mileage from American assistance to Pakistan's flood relief and rehabilitation work. More so because just as the floods began ravaging the country came the Pew Global Attitudes Report which showed that America's overall image remains negative in Pakistan.
Pakistanis gave the U.S. its lowest rankings among the 22 nations included in the spring 2010 Pew Global Attitudes Survey. And, President Barack Obama got his lowest rating here among the 22 countries with only eight per cent of Pakistanis surveyed expressing confidence in him doing the right thing in world affairs.
The details given publicity
So, as the floods began ravaging the country, the U.S. stepped in quickly and visibly to earn itself an image makeover. Much attention was paid to public diplomacy and every instalment of assistance to the flood-affected areas — to the very smallest detail like ‘so many packets of halal meals being ferried in from U.S. stocks in Afghanistan on this many separate supply flights' — was announced to the media. Fact sheets were issued on a daily basis to the media on the “U.S. Response to Pakistan's Flooding Disaster”.
In this background, pressure has been mounting on aid workers to drive home the message. In fact, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been quoted as suggesting last month that some NGOs were afraid to be associated with the American government in Pakistan.
Attacks on NGOs
While conceding the U.S. government's argument that failure to clearly advertise the American hand behind the help being rendered was a “missed opportunity”, Mr. Worthington wrote in The Washington Post last week that “overtly branding our efforts as sponsored by the U.S. Government only makes our jobs harder and more dangerous … In Pakistan, where aid workers' lives are more often at stake, an enforced branding campaign could undermine our ability to deliver assistance as fast as possible without being a lightning rod for protests or attacks.”
As to whether there have been any specific instances of non-governmental organisations (NGO) coming under attack because of using U.S. branded material in flood relief, Mr. Worthington's answer was in the negative. However, he pointed out that some food distribution programmes had been temporarily suspended until the security situation stabilised. “But, this is a reality of any complex humanitarian emergency.” He was, however, reluctant to give details on the areas where food distribution programmes had been suspended temporarily, citing security considerations.
Their concerns are not misplaced. In March, the office of U.S.-based World Vision was attacked in Manshera in Khyber-Pukhtoonkhwa (formerly North-West Frontier Province), killing seven employees.
In December, the Britain-headquartered Plan International office came under attack in Manshera itself. The World Food Programme office in Islamabad was attacked in October 2009, killing five employees.
In view of the precarious security situation, the international staff in U.N. agencies functioning in Khyber-Pukhtoonkhwa and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) bordering Afghanistan was scaled down to the bare minimum after Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declared Phase IV (Emergency Operations) in these areas last November.
Till the floods began, the international humanitarian presence had been scaled down in most organisations and much of the work was being done through local partners.
The floods increased the presence of international staff in most of these organisations with some of them actually appealing to the government to relax visa rules for humanitarian workers. The government conceded — allowing even visa-on-arrival in some cases — but their increased presence along the length of the country inundated by the floods has enhanced the scope of vulnerable pockets. And, with the U.S. being blamed for much of the ills facing Pakistan today, the widely held apprehension is that association with the Star-Spangled Banner could mean trouble.
Responding to the criticism, Mark Ward of USAID blogged that branding is not just required by law but premised on the belief that people have a right to know where their assistance is coming from. Maintaining that USAID is sensitive to the risks of branding in environments where association with foreigners can turn a humanitarian worker into a target, he said waivers would be granted to the branding requirement where security risks warrant it as was done in FATA and Khyber-Pukhtoonkhwa.