Relief aid: does awareness-raising do more harm than good?

The destruction of the floods in Pakistan has directly affected the lives of 20 million people, made homeless six million and killed 1,600. Following the disaster, are humanitarian charities doing more bad than good?

Submitted by on Monday, 23 August 2010
Recent floods in Pakistan have devastated large parts of the country


The destruction of the floods in Pakistan has directly affected the lives of 20 million people, made homeless six million and killed 1,600. Following the disaster, humanitarian charities mobilised to deliver vital relief aid. But are they doing more damage than good?

Although the effects of the floods are not as immediate as the 2005 earthquake, the legacy will be long-lasting. Notwithstanding the increased risk of infection by water-borne disease, unreliable food and drink supplies and much reduced sanitary conditions, the floods have pushed back Pakistan’s already troubled development.

The humanitarian crisis is still unfolding. The banks of the bursting Indus River form the geographic backbone of Pakistan, spanning the entire length of the country bringing both prosperity and destruction. Currently, almost a fifth of the country is under water. The floods are threatening to move deeper into the south, with thousands of internal refugees feeling the encroaching waters.

The disaster has brought with it the international NGO community. For better or for worse, the charity sector has activated its systems and commenced its two-pronged approach of (1) raising funds through awareness-raising and (2) distributing these funds in the affected regions.

The second of these has come under some criticism. As mentioned on my previous piece, the potential for monies to suffer re-direction from its intended humanitarian aim to the hands of armed militants is high. Indeed, the Pakistani police have reported increased insurgent activity since the floods. The authorities, already under strain to cope with a national disaster, were drawn into a number of fire-fights in flood-affected regions. Although the Pakistani Taliban has urged citizens to reject international aid (on the basis that it will be stolen by the political elite) there is a danger that the insurgent may replacing fighting against aid with fighting over aid.

However, a threat as this may be, it is the NGO community’s awareness raising that arouses my current concern. A report in Just-Style, a textiles sector news-site, shows that orders for ready-made garments have slowed since the crisis began. Indeed, the Pakistan Readymade Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (PRGMEA) reports that orders for apparel has declined 7-10% since the waters breached their banks. The floods have had a significant on the productive capacity of the industry. The flood-waters damaged a number of cotton farms, destroying over three million bales of cotton. As a consequence, the price of production has increased by 20%. Coupled with the battered supply chain, businesses fear the safety of their investments and are pulling out. PRGMEA estimates that a third of ready-made garment contracts will be cancelled. As companies re-direct their investments to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka as they stock inventories for the Christmas rush.

The ready-made garment industry constitutes some 20% of Pakistan’s export earnings. Not only is this sector a significant earner of foreign capital, but it also provides jobs for locals. It is in these sorts of private sector areas in which the long-term development of an economy is assured. Yet, international disinvestment from this vital sector may prove a more significant shock than the effects of the flooding.

The textiles industry is surely not the only sector which is feeling the effects. All those with a commercial involvement within Pakistan are considering diversifying their portfolios away from this unstable south Asia state. The floods’ depletion of an already limited internal transport infrastructure will also serve to further retard domestic business growth. But this vital, long-term aspect of Pakistan’s development is entirely overlooked by the current charity appeals.

The nature of awareness-raising media campaigns is twofold: one, simply to inform individuals of a severe crisis and two to extract donations from viewers. With the growing sophistication of marketing tools, these campaigns are becoming ever more effective. Television advertisements are co-ordinated by a number of NGOs, pooling resources to create honed messages. These nakedly focus on the severity of the crisis: images of widespread destruction are accompanied by a barrage of grim statistics. Eventually, the camera will pan to a sometimes real family or child, and the narrator will explain the individual impact of the event.

These campaigns are extremely effective. The international community has pledged over $800 million towards the relief efforts – double Islamabad’s originally requested amount. Yet, the psychological and specifically emotional strategies of the NGOs will not only influence the consciences of donors, but it will also highlight the devastation to a company with a supply chain in Pakistan. Given the bleakness of the narrative, executives will begin to question the reliability of their Pakistani orders. Can they deliver on time? Will their be quality issues? Can I take the risk?

Presumably, those advertorial supplements you find in the Economist urging you to invest in a given emerging economy do have a positive effect. Businesses will peruse the investment profile of the country and consider its offerings. Conversely, the overwhelming negative messages emanating from NGOs in Pakistan will also serve to frighten away much needed capital from a struggling economy.

These media campaigns serve as a significant means to raise capital for disaster-hit regions. But, the tone of total annihilation may also serve to discourage businesses to invest in a region that needs it more than anywhere else.