By Nita Bhalla
NEW DELHI (AlertNet) - Pakistan's image of a haven for Islamist militants is making it a "bad brand" to sell to global donors, despite an urgent need for money to help millions of people who are struggling to survive after devastating floods, aid agencies said on Thursday.
The disaster, sparked by monsoon rains last month, has killed 430 people and disrupted the lives of nine million people
in the southern province of Sindh, many of whom are camping out in the open with little food, water or shelter.
Yet appeals to foreign governments which might potentially give money to help these people have largely fallen on deaf ears as a result of accusations Pakistan is sheltering insurgents, aid workers say.
"Within the international community, there are negative perceptions of Pakistan and we believe they are impacting humanitarian fundraising efforts," said Joe Cropp, communications delegate for the Red Cross movement (IFRC) in Islamabad.
"While we are a neutral and impartial organization, we are not politically naive. We do engage with diplomats, we do engage with governments and we've learnt this from them. As one diplomat said to us last year, 'Pakistan is a bad brand'."
Earlier this month, both the IFRC and the United Nations launched appeals to raise $12 million and $357 million respectively for flood victims, but the organizations say less than 3 percent of amount they need has been received.
While a combination of factors -- donor fatigue, the global financial slump, competition from other crises such as the East African famine -- have all played a part, geopolitics and security remains one of Western donors' major concerns.
"We are aware of the situation between Pakistan and the United States and we are watching it closely and with concern," said a Western diplomat in Islamabad. "There are numerous factors which decide whether we respond to an appeal or not. We are still assessing the situation and needs of the people who are affected by the disaster."
FORGET POLITICS, THINK PEOPLE
Growing tension between the U.S. and Pakistan over Washington's accusations that some in Islamabad are sheltering and supporting Islamist militants linked to al Qaeda have made many western donors wary, say aid workers.
Last week, a top U.S. official accused Pakistan's Inter Service Intelligence agency of supporting the militant Haqqani network's September 13 attack on the U.S. embassy in Kabul, while Pakistan said on Thursday it wants Washington to stop blaming it for regional instability.
Pakistan, which has received billions of dollars of U.S. aid, has been reluctant to pursue the Haqqani group, straining relations with its biggest ally and donor. Ties have been under pressure since the May raid in Pakistan by U.S. Special Forces that killed Osama bin Laden.
"The ongoing situation between Pakistan and the U.S. has cast a shadow over the understanding of the world vis-a-vis Pakistan," said Mubashir Akram, Oxfam's communications manager in Islamabad.
"I would like to appeal to the world to separate humanitarian issues from political and geo-strategic issues. Pakistan is a country of 180 million people. Not every one of them is a militant."
The U.N. says the floods have wiped out massive swathes of agricultural land, killed thousands of livestock and destroyed food stocks in the region, leaving more than 70 percent of people acutely short of food.
If donations do not arrive soon, warn U.N. officials, an even bigger disaster of malnutrition, disease and more deaths looms over the villages of Sindh.
(AlertNet is a global humanitarian news service run by Thomson Reuters Foundation. Visit http://www.trust.org/alertnet)
(Editing by Daniel Magnowski)