November 18, 2005Foreign AffairsPublic Policy

Why don’t they evacuate the victims instead?

The case for a pragmatic approach to relief and rehabilitation

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

The harsh Himalayan winter looms. Aid workers are racing against time to procure, transport and deliver such necessities like winterised tents, winter-proof blankets, food and medicines to the victims of the earthquake. But even in the best of times, access to the highlands of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and its North West Frontier Province is difficult. After the quake, helicopters are the most effective means of getting aid in and getting casualties out.

The problem is that winterised tents, winter-proof blankets, and most of all helicopters are in short supply. So are funds. So the current approach of trying to use scarce funds to procure the relatively more expensive winterised tents and use the limited helicopter fleet to deliver them does not immediately appear to be the optimum approach to deliver aid. Why not focus financial and logistics resources to evacuate the victims to the warmer plains instead? Getting people to leave their homes is never easy. In Pakistan, it appears to be impossible.

Hameed, who lost his home in last month’s devastating temblor, says he would rather his family die from the cold than descend from the 10,000-feet high peak and risk being exposed to strangers at relief camps in the disaster zone.

But this is not question of life. This is the question of our women’s honour.”

(Another) claimed there was an ulterior motive behind the warnings. “They are doing so on behalf of landlords who think no one will be left to take care of their fields,”[DT]Clearly there are cultural and social reasons why victims say they prefer death to evacuation. But when faced with a similar refusals, American local authorities used various methods of persuasion to get citizens to evacuate.

Mayor Alan Tharling of Port Lavaca, Texas, says that the 1,000 or so die-hards who refuse to evacuate (ahead of Hurricane Rita) are being given permanent markers and asked to write their Social Security number, next of kin and a phone number on their arm or across their abdomen — so that returning officials can identify their bodies. [MSNBC]

While it is important to respect the wishes and the sensitivities of the victims, the state also has a responsibility to use its funds to save as many lives as possible. Abandoning die-hards to their fate appears to be callous, especially because it is a act of commission. But not making optimum use of resources has a wider impact, leading to a lot more lives being lost. This appears less intuitive, for such acts of omission are seen as part of the overall failure of the government to provide an adequate response. If the purpose of the relief effort is to save as many lives as possible, then there is a case for the government attempting to convince, coerce and even force affected citizens to evacuate to safer areas. This applies for any government, but only democracies can do so with sufficient moral authority.

And here again, Pakistan’s military dictatorship, works against the interests of its own people. Lacking popular support, it cannot even consider a policy of mass evacuation without risking public wrath and political upheaval. Attempts to do so have already been condemned by political opposition and the civil society alike. It is unlikely that Gen Musharraf will have the courage to attempt an evacuation-centric strategy until perhaps it is too late. But for the sake of the millions of victims of last month’s earthquake, it is incumbent upon Pakistanis and the rest of the world to leave no stone unturned in attempting to save as many lives as possible. Musharraf already relies on international support for a large part of his political legitimacy. The same, perhaps, can encourage him to explore a more pragmatic, albeit unpopular, approach. Before it gets really cold.

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