Why the unfolding disaster in Pakistan should concern you

A fifth of the nation is underwater, it's open season for the Taliban and aid dollars are meager

Topics: Pakistan, Floods, Natural Disasters, Taliban

Why the unfolding disaster in Pakistan should concern youA flood survivor jostles for position as they try to reach for relief goods in flood hit Muzaffargarh district, Punjab province, Pakistan on Thursday Aug. 19, 2010. Weeks after massive downpours first battered northern Pakistan, submerging tens of thousands of square miles, killing near 1,500 people and leaving millions homeless, those floodwaters are still sweeping down river and through the south, adding one more layer of misery to people long accustomed to hardship. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)(Credit: AP)

The human tragedy unfolding in Pakistan right now demands our full attention.

Flooding there has already stranded 20 million people, more than 10 percent of the population. A fifth of the nation is underwater. More than 3.5 million children are in imminent danger of contracting cholera and acute diarrhea; millions more are in danger of starving if they don’t get help soon. More than 1,500 have already been killed by the floods.

This is a human disaster.

It’s also a frightening opening for the Taliban.

Yet so far only a trickle of aid has gotten through. As of today (Thursday), the U.S. has pledged $150 million, along with 12 helicopters to take food and material to the victims. (Other rich nations have offered even less — the U.K., $48.5 million; Japan, $10 million; and France, a measly $1 million. Today, Hillary Clinton is speaking at the U.N., seeking more.)

This is bizarre and shameful. We’re spending over $100 billion this year on military maneuvers to defeat the Taliban in Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan. Over 200 helicopters are deployed in that effort. And we’re spending $2 billion in military aid to Pakistan.

More must be done for flood victims, immediately.

Beyond helping to prevent mass disease and starvation we’ll also need to help Pakistan rebuild. Half of the nation’s people depend on agriculture for their livelihood, and a large portion of the nation’s crops and agricultural land have been destroyed. Roads, bridges, railways and irrigation systems have been wiped out.

Last year, Congress agreed to a $7.5 billion civilian aid package to Pakistan to build roads, bridges and schools. That should be quadrupled.

While they’re at it, Congress should remove all tariffs on textiles and clothing from Pakistan. Textiles and clothing are half Pakistan’s exports. More than half of all Pakistanis are employed growing cotton, weaving it into cloth, or cutting and sewing it into clothing. In the months and years ahead, Pakistan will have to rely ever more on these exports.

Yet we impose a 17 percent tariff on textiles and clothing from Pakistan. If we removed it, Pakistan’s exports would surge $5 billion annually. That would boost the wages of millions there.

That tariff also artificially raises the price of the clothing and textiles you and I buy. How many American jobs do we protect by this absurdity? Almost none. Instead, we’ve been importing more textiles and clothing from China and other East Asian nations. China subsidizes its exports with an artificially low currency.



If you’re not moved by the scale of the disaster and its aftermath, consider that our future security is inextricably bound up with the future for Pakistan. Of 175 million Pakistanis, some 100 million are under age 25. In the years ahead they’ll either opt for gainful employment or, in its absence, may choose Islamic extremism.

We are already in a war for their hearts and minds, as well as those of young people throughout the Muslim world.

Right now, Islamic insurgents are using the chaos as an opportunity, attacking police posts in Pakistan’s northwest while police have been occupied in rescue and relief work. Meanwhile, lacking help and losing hope, many Pakistanis are becoming increasingly hostile toward President Asif Ali Zardari.

And, of course, Pakistan has the bomb.

What can you do? Government efforts are important but so is private giving. Check the New York Times’s Lede blog for organizations providing disaster relief. The Oxfam website has lots of good information about who’s doing what, and how effectively. 

Robert Reich, one of the nation’s leading experts on work and the economy, is Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. Time Magazine has named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written 13 books, including his latest best-seller, “Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future;” “The Work of Nations,” which has been translated into 22 languages; and his newest, an e-book, “Beyond Outrage.” His syndicated columns, television appearances, and public radio commentaries reach millions of people each week. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, and Chairman of the citizen’s group Common Cause. His new movie "Inequality for All" is in Theaters. His widely-read blog can be found at www.robertreich.org.

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