Wednesday, August 11, 2010

What It Will Take to Save Pakistan's Flood Relief Effort

The response to the devastating floods across the country has been noticeably muted, both at home and internationally. There are multiple reasons behind this: Pakistan’s vilified image, a lack of contingency planning on the government’s part, inadequate infrastructure, lack of information regarding channels for donation, citizens’ lack of confidence in state-sponsored relief efforts, amongst others.

As this incredibly detailed database from the Guardian shows, international aid – while insufficient at present – is flowing in directly to local NGOs, international organizations operating in Pakistan and regional government agencies/bodies. The main agents in disbursing aid and engaging in relief efforts are (i) NGOs, (ii) locally-based INGOs, (iii) religious charity groups, (iv) government agencies (federal, provincial and regional), and (v) the Army.

Now it is increasingly evident that the relief efforts, if not altered or organized, will prove to be insufficient, discursive and inefficient. And the primary reason is organizational, not political. To illustrate this, I’ve attached a chart showing the organization of relief efforts at present.

At the moment, the disbursing agents receive donations but act as a single, disconnected entity, with the exception of the Army (which is because its capability is vastly superior to the rest).

This presents two (2) overarching problems:
(a) Individual NGOs pursue their own agendas using the funds they have been provided, which is commendable and may provide those affected with considerable comfort in the short-term. But this arrangement is likely to make long-term infrastructure development difficult and increase the likelihood of misdirection of already scarce resources. Any development projects carried out at the moment – or indeed, immediately after the water has been cleared, ad hoc and unsustainable, for the most part. Projects that will be considered successful would be limited in scope. For example, an effort by a local NGO to build new houses in one city would be successful but would hardly prove sufficient in providing widespread relief, which might have been achieved in collaboration with other organizations working in the same locality. More on that a little later.

(b) There’s little accountability for stand-alone NGOs working at a micro-level for flood relief.

What I’m trying to say, in a nutshell, is: without a collective agenda, the efforts of all these organizations and the support of the international community will not be enough. Second, what scarce resources are available will not be used efficiently. Finally, the onus, once immediate relief has been provided, will be on the civilian government and the Army, backed by an economy that has only just begun to show signs of recovery. So the future really doesn’t look too bright for the rehabilitative efforts or for the country, for that matter, since expenses will only mount.

The Solution:

In the absence of a credible state sponsor or emergency relief organization, NGOs have to fast shed their individual agendas to act in unison if flood relief is to be provided efficiently. Here’s a chart for the ideal situation:

The NGOs, under an overarching common platform, are allowed – based on internal capacity – to form task forces or associations with other NGOs in the area. This allows for a more concerted effort in redevelopment in selected regions. The rest of the disbursing actors – apart from religious charities, which are unlikely to engage in infrastructure development – will act, in such a structure, in collaboration with this platform.

There are plenty of advantages in adopting this structure:

1. Resources, when pooled and directed towards a collective agenda, are likely to generate institutionalized and better results. Various projects, performed under one umbrella will also be linked and developed in relation to one another. Low-income housing provision by one NGO, for example, when linked to a project on healthcare will better serve the social and infrastructure needs of residents.

2. NGO collectives will allow credible channels through which Pakistanis can donate, knowing where their money is going and for which cause.

3. Accountability. International donors are more capable of following the progress of larger projects, carried out by a collective. They act as oversight bodies for the recipient NGO and for the larger platform. The umbrella platform will also act as a secondary oversight body for task forces/associations as they pursue redevelopment/relief activities.

4. In theory and in practice, if NGOs are run properly, the platform will give civil society a larger say in the relief efforts, supplementing government and military relief efforts, making the entire process a more nationally-owned effort.

5. Local NGOs, operating in affected areas, are more likely to create policies and carry out reform efforts suitable to local needs as compared to the military, international NGOs operating through Islamabad or, for that matter, the government.


For all these possibilities, it’s very unlikely that such a platform will ever be created or even considered by the NGO leadership or the government. For one, it requires effective governance at multiple levels within the NGO platform and a selflessness that is ironically hard to find in the NGO community. Second, the government – even if it shows the will to act as mediator – is unlikely to be viewed as an honest broker. Third, larger NGOs are likely to be unwilling to partner with smaller, less resourceful NGOs on the ground. Finally, creating a sustainable platform for NGOs is a massive undertaking. Within the platform, bureaucracy will probably creep in to delay projects, generate internal politics and waste resources.

But here’s the sticking point: if such a structure succeeds, the gains are enormous, for civil society as a political actor, public policy, NGOs as an intermediary between the state and its citizens and, most importantly, for the millions affected by the tragedy.


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