Millions of displaced Pakistanis missed out on aid because rich countries gave too little too late

Millions of people forced to flee the fighting in Pakistan’s Swat Valley struggled to receive vital aid because the international community provided too little help, too late, according to a report released today by international aid agency Oxfam.

In May 2009, Pakistan suffered the world’s biggest and fastest displacement of people for over a decade as three million people fled their homes to escape the army’s offensive against armed militant groups.

The new report, “ Missing Pieces? Assessing the impact of humanitarian reform in Pakistan ,” examines the crucial early phase of the aid response. It says that despite the seriousness and scale of the situation, most rich countries did not give enough aid. More than one month into the crisis the UN’s emergency appeal had received less than a quarter of required funds.

Additionally, the money that did come through was very slow to reach the emergency areas. Instead of giving the money directly to aid agencies working on the ground, most donors channelled money via the UN system, which struggled to allocate funds to frontline aid agencies quickly and efficiently.

The UN’s system for aid coordination, known as the cluster system, was first used in Pakistan after the 2005 earthquake. Problems with this system during the current emergency resulted in hundreds of thousands of families receiving assistance such as shelter, health services, and food that was delayed, inadequate, or inappropriate, with many struggling to receive any aid at all.

Neva Khan, Oxfam spokeswoman in Pakistan, said: “The flood of people escaping the fighting in Pakistan was a huge emergency – one of the biggest the world has seen for a decade. But the rich world’s response did not match the seriousness of the situation."

“Many rich countries did not give enough money. The money they did give got caught up in red tape. The international community has a responsibility to give aid in the right way, at the right time and in the right place. In Pakistan, they fell short of achieving this.”

Oxfam had to exclude over 200,000 people from receiving emergency water, sanitation and non-food items such as soap in the first three months of the crisis owing to delays in receiving funds. Other aid agencies suffered similar problems, the report notes.

The report also found that many aid agencies themselves did not respond in the right way. Accustomed to helping people in remote areas, they gave help in kind such as food, shelter and clothes. But most people had fled to towns with well-stocked shops and good facilities. What they needed was cash for food, transport, medical treatment and other needs.

The Pakistani government issued smartcard loaded with 25,000 rupees (approx $300) that could be withdrawn from bank machines across the region. Although there were some problems in implementing this scheme that required attention, it was generally a success.

Khan said: “The government’s smart-cards scheme was remarkably innovative and showed a real appreciation of what displaced people needed. It shows how aid agencies should respond by giving things people need or want, rather than giving the kind of help we would like to provide.”

Oxfam’s report includes a list of things that Donors and the UN can do to improve humanitarian work, both in Pakistan and around the world.

Notes to editors

In addition to Oxfam International’s and its partners’ operational experiences, the analysis presented in this report draws on more than 70 meetings held in Islamabad, Peshawar, Mardan and Swabi between July and September 2009.

These include more than 40 key informant interviews with government authorities, UN agencies, donor representatives and national and international NGOs; attendance at more than 20 cluster and general coordination meetings (including inter-cluster coordination, Humanitarian Country Team, and Policy & Strategy Group meetings), and more than a dozen focus group discussions with the internally displaced families themselves.

Information about some key individual donors:

  • US – US$300m, highest overall figure: committed to humanitarian work and responded quickly
  • UK – GB£22m, used UN cluster system that struggled to disburse funds quickly
  • EU/ECHO – 72m euros, significant contribution eventually but implementation has been slow
  • Australia – A$23m, but significant delays in disbursement
  • Netherlands – only 2m euros since May 2009 (when the current phase of the emergency began)
  • Canada – C$28m, fairly significant amount, but too late to have impact on initial humanitarian needs

Contact information