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Pakistan: UN Conference Falls Far Short Of Goal For Immediate Aid

A victim of the earthquake in Kashmir (AFP) UN aid officials say the international community lacks full comprehension of a catastrophe looming in Pakistan that threatens the lives of 3 million people. Yesterday's UN aid conference in Geneva drew less than $16 million in immediate emergency relief needed for victims of the 8 October earthquake before the Himalayan winter begins in a few weeks. Although more than $550 million was pledged, most of the money could take months to materialize. Is the conference shortfall a symptom of the wider problem of donor fatigue?

Prague, 27 October 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Rashid Khalikov, the UN's chief aid coordinator in Pakistan, says the international community does not fully understand the magnitude of a humanitarian disaster now looming in Pakistan as a result of the 8 October earthquake.

Khalikov made the remarks at his tent office in the wrecked city of Muzaffarad -- the capital of Pakistani Kashmir -- after yesterday's UN aid conference in Geneva drew less than $16 million in immediate aid.

The 7.6-magnitude quake already is thought to have killed some 80,000 people. But Jan Egeland, the head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, says many more will die during the winter if more funds aren't donated quickly.

Egeland says the money is needed so that food stockpiles, tents, and other materials for shelter can be delivered before winter storms make large parts of the affected region inaccessible.

"We need more resources to save 2 million to 3 million lives. And we need much more resources in the next few days. It is really a deadline," Egeland says.

Altogether, the 60 countries at the conference pledged some $550 million in aid. But most is for the reconstruction of villages in Pakistani Kashmir or in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province. And that money will not be dispersed for months. The 3 million people made homeless by the earthquake need shelter before the harsh winter begins in about four weeks.

Pakistan's Federal Minister Salman Shah told yesterday's conference in Geneva that the need to shelter the homeless is a matter of life or death for millions.

"This was the worst disaster in the history of Pakistan. Just imagine destruction across an area equivalent to 70 percent of the size of Switzerland, with terrain even more rugged than the Alps that surround us today. The homeless alone are almost equivalent to half the population of Switzerland," Shah says.

Critics have noted the contrast between the response to the earthquake and the rapid tsunami-relief effort led by the U.S. government in January.

Some U.S. officials suggest that "aid fatigue" has set in after a series of natural disasters around the world -- including Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma in the United States -- leaving policymakers tired and distracted.

But Brendan Cox, an emergency specialist for the British-based Oxfam charity, says he thinks the idea of "aid fatigue" is being used as an excuse by government officials around the world to excuse habitually poor performance in reaction to major humanitarian disasters.

"We don't think that 'compassion fatigue' or 'aid fatigue' actually exists amongst the donor publics of the world. I think what you are seeing is donor governments who are not fatigued by crises -- rather, this is indicative of the way that the world responds," Cox says. "They respond too late. They respond with not enough money. And they respond only to those crises which are high in the headlines. That's what needs to change. And we hope that the continued passion for these issues by members of the public right across the world will motivate and spur governments on -- to make sure that they do give the aid that is required before this winter sets in."

The United States, for its part, announced a pledge totaling $156 million. That includes $50 million for humanitarian relief, $50 million for reconstruction and $56 million to support relief operations of the U.S. Defense Department.

That aid is in addition to about $25 million already spent by the United States for the immediate delivery of commodities and relief operations.

Still, immediate relief is in short supply for Pakistan's quake survivors. Cox says the urgency of the situation ultimately will make some people in Pakistan feel like their plight has been ignored.

"Unless you do have an adequate response to this emergency, then obviously people in the region will feel that the world has ignored them. The crux of this is changing the humanitarian system. The humanitarian system is failing. There is no doubt about that. And the world has agreed -- at the UN summit only in September -- a way forward," Cox says. "They've agreed that there should be a central fund so that when there is an emergency like this, you don't have to send around the begging bowl at the last minute waiting for funds to come in -- often coming in months after they are due. And therefore, thousands of people die unnecessarily. But instead, you have this central fund of about $1 billion so that when there is an emergency you can respond quickly [and] efficiently."

The Pakistani government is holding a reconstruction conference in November.

In the meantime, with some UN agencies already out of funds for relief operations in Pakistan, Khalikov, says UN officials will now have to go directly to potential donor governments -- especially in Muslim countries of the Middle East -- to plead for cash.

Major Donor Conferences

Major Donor Conferences

A January 2005 conference in Japan pledged $5 billion to aid recovery from the December 26, 2004, Indian Ocean tsunami.

For a list of major international donor conferences over the last couple of years, click here.