Saturday’s earthquake brought with it the greatest devastation that has visited Pakistan and Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. Over 40,000 are reported to have perished. Several thousand more have been injured. It is approximated that 4 million have been rendered homeless. Entire villages and towns have been wiped out.
The United States has offered its obsequious ally in the War on Terror a derisory $100,000. The grand sum was ridiculed in the Pakistani press and beyond. General Musharraf and his retinue blushed with consternation. Was this all that Pakistan’s years of service to the world’s sole superpower was worth?
A day later, when Pakistani and Kashimiri groups in the United States had themselves raised several hundred thousands of dollars in financial aid, Washington announced that its contribution would be raised to $50 million (along with eight helicopters from its fleet stationed in neighbouring Afghanistan). In the afllikcted area there remains a terrible dearth of doctors, helicopters, blankets, rescue teams and money.
In a statement to the House of Commons, Secretary of State for International Development, Hilary Benn informed MPs of the desperate conditions in the affected region and adumbrated Britain’s own role in supporting survivors of the tragedy.
Britain has extensive links with this particular part of world. Links that stretch from the years of Empire to the present day where close to a million Britons originate from Pakistan–the majority of whom have families affected by the earthquake. And while this community has, within 48 hours, raised more than £5 million, the Blair government only prepared to part with half a million pounds.
Half a million pounds is what this government spent on furnishing its office buildings in Whitehall with pot plants. Over £150,000 was disbursed to secure 12 Florida fir trees from Belgium to grace the atrium at Portcullis House, the building that houses MPs’ offices. And each of those offices had cost close to £1million each to construct.
Despite the British government’s meanness, the Department for International Development’s (DFID) contribution was acclaimed on the government and opposition benches yesterday. One MP, Mohammad Sarwar, himself born in Pakistan, did however ask Hilary Benn, “Does my right hon. Friend agree that due to the magnitude of the tragedy we need to provide greater humanitarian aid and assistance to ensure that the people who survived the disaster do not die of hunger, disease and cold?”
Mr. Benn calmly responded:
“I agree completely. Currently, the issue is not moneyit is how quickly we can get practical help to those in need. Where can we obtain the blankets, the tents, the medical supplies, the food, the water, the shelter, the heavy digging equipment and the helicopters? That is the issue.”
Yet, only minutes earlier, when quizzed by another MP about what ordinary Britons could do help the people of Pakistan, Kashmir and Afghanistan following the earthquake, Hilary Benn proffered the following advice:
“On the great wish of the community in the UK to assist, the best thing that people can do is contribute money because that ensures that the things that are needed are bought. We do not want to end up with an excess of one sort of supply and a shortage of others. If people are looking to assist, the most helpful thing is to contribute money.”
The next day the half a million sum was revised upward to £1 million.
The UK has spent £6 billion in Iraq.
Omar Waraich lives in London. He can be contacted at: email@example.com
Omar Waraich, CounterPunch