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Pakistan flood victims need dignity as much as aid

In race to deliver aid to millions of Pakistan's displaced, the need for compassion becomes more crucial than ever.

Last modified: 20 Aug 2010 20:16
Photo by AFP

The man stood so close to  me that I could feel the heat of his face.

Each word he spits out rapid fire, his thoughts disjointed by rage. Every word follows the first so quickly, I have trouble understanding him.

That he was angry, though, was clear.

"We are not animals, this is not feeding time at the zoo. We are humans, yet the police beat us, they throw food at us. We are not animals," he said.

I have walked into the middle of a potential riot. The villagers have blocked off the road refusing to let anyone through. After nearly 10 days of living on the side of a road fending for themselves, it's become too much. Anger has set in.

The reason?

One consequence of the massive displacement of people is the logistics required to house, feed and care for them.

Aid agencies, the army, the government - their priority is to provide the basics.

This is done on a industrial scale. Massive aircraft ship in supplies, trucks get that aid out to distribution centres and well-meaning volunteers get it out to the people who need it most.

But, as with most industries, your product delivered most efficiently becomes the priority. In this case, the amount of flood victims you help becomes your commodity.

I need to make this clear. I am in no way criticising those who help. In fact, I applaud them.

However, I have seen enough and heard enough to know when you have to help millions at once you have to become impersonal. It becomes about logistics.

Can I get an aircraft in?

Do those people need this many tents?

If I drop medicine here, it means I cannot drop medicine there. Can they can wait a week for medicine? 

These are the hard choices made by those in the aid business everyday. Tough choices I couldn't make. 

Victims 'dehumanised'

On the ground though, the victims themselves feel dehumanised. It's not anyone's fault. It's a tragic consequence of helping many at once.

One man, Shauqat Ali, summed it up. He has a family of nine.

"I go to get registered and they dismiss me. I don't want to live here. I don't want my children out on the streets. In my village I have little but I look after my family. They throw food at me like I am a beggar. I have never begged for anything in my life, why do they treat me like this?"

He says this not with anger, but with sadness.

In southern Pakistan where I am, many of the displaced were tenant farmers. They till the land and make enough - just - to survive.

But what they had were communities. After a hard day's work, they sit and talk.

Shauqat would look out from his yard outside his simple brick house whilst the sun disappeared into the fields.

"It was a sight to be seen. One day God will let my eyes see it again."

He won't see that sunset for a while.  He lives in a tiny room, surrounded by his many children waiting for handouts. He feels belittled. Belittled by the very people trying to help him.

Aid is crucial. Getting it to people is crucial. So is dignity.

But how do you treat people with respect when faced with millions who need the basics just too survive? These are nameless, faceless people who fill your TV screens, your newspapers, everyday.

They are not nameless or faceless. They live, laugh, love, get angry and can be as pleasant and as horrible as anyone of us. 

I know how you give aid to millions of people at once, but how do you give dignity to millions at once?