Since 2001, many Americans have viewed Pakistan through the lens of national security. The Taliban’s foothold in the country, along with Osama bin Laden’s rumored hideout in its western mountains, has many pointing toward the nation as the center of the fight against terrorism. Within the country, the government is in a constant struggle to control several lawless areas, some of which essentially serve as Taliban headquarters today. Meanwhile, a 2009 U.S. Army report declared the Pakistani state as a candidate for “rapid and sudden collapse,” mostly due to instability and corruption.
This summer’s floods exposed and significantly increased the plight of the Pakistani people. The flooding began in late July after record rainfall in some areas as water from the Indus River surged and spread throughout southern Pakistan. More than 1,700 people have died in the flooding, and millions more are left homeless. On September 17, the United Nations announced that it would request more than $2 billion to aid the more than 20 million people affected by the disaster.
As the damage from Pakistan’s summer floods became increasingly apparent, a group of Northwestern students decided that they had to do something to help. McCormick junior Sahil Mehta, president of the South Asian Student Alliance, began reaching out to other students over the summer to form an organizing group, which now consists of five core members. He and the other students came together to form Northwestern University Stands With Pakistan.
“Awareness isn’t enough,” says Mehta, who is Indian-American. “Awareness doesn’t do anything. Awareness doesn’t feed those people, awareness doesn’t put a blanket around them when they are cold.” Mehta urges his peers to convert awareness into action, and hopes NU Stands With Pakistan can help facilitate the fundraising.
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The group’s target is $8,536, one dollar for each Northwestern undergraduate. NU Stands With Pakistan plans to have collection jars at Norris University Center and the Arch as a basic form of fundraising, but the group expects many of the donations to come from already-existing student organizations. At regularly scheduled events, these student groups will raise money to benefit Pakistan. Dance Marathon, for example, will be donating at least half of its proceeds from Trivia Night to the cause.
The group is also encouraging students to fast on Friday, October 8, and donate the money they would have spent on a meal to Pakistan. As with any foreign natural disaster, there is always concern that fundraising efforts will only lead to donations ending up in the wrong hands. NU Stands With Pakistan chose the organization Oxfam as its beneficiary.
According to Oxfam’s website, the organization has helped more than one million Pakistanis so far, providing them with aid, clean water, food and other supplies. It has also helped provide for the government’s search and rescue efforts. Mehta says that Oxfam had the least administrative costs, while also being a legitimate organization on the ground in Pakistan.
“Even though they have done amazing things, it is not enough,” he says. “At the end of the day, money is the main thing they need.”
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The Pakistan floods are often compared with the Haiti earthquake, which struck the Caribbean nation earlier this year. Though the death toll was much higher in Haiti (estimates tend to range from 200,000 to 250,000), many have alleged that media coverage of the two disasters has been disproportionate, with Haiti receiving far more exposure.
“One thing I want to stress is that it’s not about comparing it and saying what’s worse,” Mehta says. “A tragedy is a tragedy.”
But it is clear that there has been a discrepancy in media coverage between the two disasters. According to the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy group located in Washington, D.C., in the ten days after each respective disaster struck, there were more than 2,000 more print and broadcast stories relating to Haiti than Pakistan. However, this statistic can be misleading, as the damage from a flood does not hit as quickly as an earthquake.
Fundraising efforts have reflected the same sentiment: while U.S. charities raised $644 million in the first 19 days after the Haiti earthquake, they had only raised $1 million for Pakistan by August 17 (roughly the same amount of time since flooding began), according to the Brookings Institution.
Megha Agrawal (SESP ‘10) was one of NU Stands with Haiti’s four main coordinators. She helped the group raise $18,500, not including the $10,000 matching grant from the Lewis-Sebring Family Foundation of Evanston. She believes that NU Stands With Pakistan could have a tougher time raising money, primarily because the Haiti earthquake occurred during school, while the floods occurred during summer recess.
NU Stands With Pakistan is doing its best to replicate the success of NU Stands With Haiti, largely through usage of the same strategies, such as decentralizing fundraising efforts. “Instead of trying to make a whole bunch of new events for people to partake in, we recognized there were a lot of student groups on campus with their own initiatives that had their own specialties,” Agrawal says.
But NU Stands With Pakistan recognizes the difficulties, members believe things may pick up as students settle into classes. “You can talk for hours about why Haiti got more attention, than Pakistan,” Mehta says. “I’d rather spend those hours raising money.”
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Weinberg junior Ali Sikander, who is Pakistani, was in the country for a month over the summer during the flooding. Though the province he lives in, Punjab, was mostly insulated from the floodwaters, he still heard firsthand about the suffering occurring elsewhere in the country. The farm his family owns (in a different region) was ruined by the flood, and the farmer who tends to the land was forced to use a bed frame to float. The farmer then had to choose whether to take his cow, which he milks to make money, or his four children. He chose the cow, and the children remain missing.
Much of the country’s farmland sits on the banks of the Indus River, meaning that much of it was destroyed in the flooding. “In my country, that’s how we make our food, that’s how we make our cotton to finance our textile industry,” Sikander says.
For Pakistanis affected by the flood, finding clean water to drink has been a challenge. Sikander says that water, along with tents necessary for shelter and winter clothes for warmth, are the three items that victims need the most.
Weinberg senior Sana Rahim is also one of the primary organizers for NU Stands With Pakistan, and became even more enamored with the country when she visited in 2007. “Pakistan is an incredible nation, in terms of its culture, its history, its food, its music,” she says. “It’s a beautiful country, and there’s so much to learn about it.” Both of Rahim’s parents are from Pakistan, and the rest of her family still lives in the ailing country.
Rahim, also the co-director of the Global Engagement Summit at Northwestern, acknowledges that most news coming out of Pakistan is negative. “I feel like there is a fear of Pakistan,” she says. “And it’s unfortunate, because I feel like the majority of people affected by this disaster are just like us. They’re not terrorists. They’re people who were living normally, and now have nothing.”
Mehta speculates that the fear of terrorism has abetted American hesitance to donate to Pakistan. “Obviously, Haiti is closer to the United States,” Mehta says. “The Pakistani floods happened at a very interesting time, a time of a lot of anti-Islam sentiment in the United States.”
The so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” (actually a planned Islamic community center a few blocks from the former site of the World Trade Center) generated heated debate over the summer, and reopened wounds from 9/11 for many Americans. Meanwhile, U.S. troops remain bogged down in Afghanistan, fighting an enemy with apparent connections in neighboring Pakistan.
“Pakistan is one of the countries that could determine the fate of international politics in the next 100 years,” Mehta says. “They’re in a struggle there of democracy versus terrorists.”
Mehta stresses that the flood diverted scant Pakistani army resources from fighting the Taliban, and it has also provided a potential boon for recruiting.
“[Pakistani civilians] are not so worried about the grander scale of right and wrong. They’re worried about what is going to put food in my mouth today, what’s going to put a roof over my head today,” he says. “If the government’s not there, who is going to fill that void? And it’s these people that the Taliban and al-Qaida take advantage of when they recruit.”
Still, Mehta believes that fundraising efforts at Northwestern won’t be hindered by any anti-Islamic sentiment. “Northwestern students are pretty open-minded, Northwestern students usually don’t fall into that percentage of people who are closed-minded to other religions,” he says. “We’re very optimistic.”
Mehta says that there is an “indefinite” need for aid in Pakistan, but that NU Stands With Pakistan would wrap up its efforts likely before Thanksgiving (the primary fundraising period is from Sept. 24 to Oct. 8).
“By making a donation to NU Stands With Pakistan, you’re pledging an attitude of tolerance, open-mindedness, and a commitment to the global nature of the world we live in today,” he says. “A small fiscal donation goes a long way.”