Saturday, September 4, 2010

Keeping the Spotlight on Pakistan

To quote St George Clooney at the 2010 Emmys in Los Angeles earlier this week –

It's important to remember how much good can get done, because we live in such strange times where bad behavior sucks up all the attention and press.

And the people who really need the spotlight: the Haitians, the Sudanese, people in the Gulf Coast.. Pakistan, they can't get any.

So here's hoping that some very bright person right here in the room or at home watching can help find a way to keep the spotlight burning on these heartbreaking situations that continue to be heartbreaking long after the cameras go away.

George is spot on there. And that’s the good thing about celebrities like him. With the news industry a slave to the relentless pace of a 24 hour or less news cycle, it’s hard to keep the spotlight on a disaster situation in a developing nation, and celebrities can actually help.

Hopefully most people (who aren’t living under a rock) would have heard about the flooding disaster in Pakistan by now, and also be aware that it is on a monumental scale.

Here's just a few of the hurdles Pakistan is facing...

-       One of the big issues is the health of survivors. Diseases which can be spread by water include diarrhoea, respiratory infections and skin disease. In a developed country, none of those things by itself would be life threatening – but in a country like Pakistan, even simple illness can turn serious quickly.

-       According to the United Nations about 72,000 children are affected by severe malnutrition.

-       It’s estimated around one-fifth of Pakistan is under water.

-       According to UNICEF Australia so far 900,000 homes have been damaged or destroyed. More than 7000 schools are partially or completely damaged and around 5000 schools being used as accommodation for 81,000 families.

-       The entire length of the country is affected – amounting to almost 20 million people.

This disaster would be an incredible challenge for a country like Australia or the United States to deal with, but Pakistan was already a country struggling. With a population of around 160 million, the average life expectancy for men is 62 and for women it’s 63. That’s almost 20 years less life than the average Australian. The gross national income per capita in Pakistani is around $2,400; in Australia it’s almost $34,000.

About 15 years ago, I was given the opportunity of a life time to visit Pakistan. I had a family member posted there with the Royal Australian Air Force, and I lived and travelled the country for four weeks. While it was an amazing experience, even as a teenager, I could see that Pakistan was a broken and struggling country. Corruption was rife; it was nothing to bribe a police officer in public to avoid arrest or a traffic fine, road rules were basically non-existent and cars drove on whichever side of the road they wandered to.

The people were, and remain, very poor. In the capital Islamabad we would be swarmed by children as young as four while stopped at traffic lights. They would tap on our car window and beg for money. My first reaction was to wind down the window and give them 5 Rupee (equivalent to six cents in Australian dollars) but it was too unsafe to do so. The majority of these children were working as part of begging rackets and would take the money back to a ring leader, and not see a fraction of that amount. A lot of children were deliberately disabled so as to appear more shocking while they begged.

Pakistan's Swat Valley
I also visited Pakistan before many significant and debilitating events in the country’s recent history, which have made it virtually impossible to travel for ordinary tourists; a military coup, the nuclear stand-off with India, September 11 and the beginning of the war in border country Afghanistan. One of my favourite areas, the Swat Valley, where we stayed in a amazing hill top hotel, surrounded by cultural markets and fields of cannabis, is now basically under the control of militants. It was a dysfunctional and poor country even when I was there, so the destruction from flooding of this magnitude is twice as devastating, if you can even comprehend it.

However, while the country seemed broken and dishonest, I also noticed the people in the cities and towns I visited were not that different to me. People were trying to make a living, support their families and just live life as best they could. These are the people now suffering in the aftermath of the worst flooding the country has ever seen.

So given the inherent tilt towards corruption in Pakistan– how do you know your money is getting through if you choose to donate? The answer is do your research and choose to donate to organisations which have contacts on the ground.

The hundreds of charities vying for your money to fund Pakistan flood relief can be overwhelming. If you don’t have time for research, no problem. I’ve tried to do it for you...

Medecins Sans Frontieres also known as Doctors Without Borders has teams currently on the ground in Pakistan. They were there prior to the disaster and so were able to assist when the flooding unfolded. The easiest way to make a contribution to them is online here. One of the best things about this organisation is their transparency with donating; their website clearly states where your money goes and even has tangible examples of what certain amounts can buy.

UNICEF Australia is a reputable organisation with local access into Pakistan. So far the organisation says it’s raised more than $4 million for flood victims and its water and sanitation program is helping around 1.9 million people. You can donate online to UNICEF here.

Children of Swat Valley
Oxfam Australia is another organisation which is transparent in the way it uses donations. It has a funding breakdown on its website donation page – and it's user friendly as well. You can donate here to Oxfam.

These are just a few options...I’m sure there are many more out there which can allow you to make a difference. I’d also encourage you to keep talking about Pakistan and the current disaster to your friends; at work, on Facebook and Twitter. If everyone keeps talking, then we can keep the issue in people’s minds and hopefully keep them reaching into their pockets.

If you have any ideas/suggestions for great charities to donate to for the Pakistan flooding crisis, please comment below!

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