Over the last 25 years, the world has seen a rise in the frequency of natural disasters. Today, there are more people at risk from natural hazards than ever before, with those in developing countries particularly at risk.  This series explores measures that have been taken, and could be taken, in order to improve responses to the threat or occurrence of natural disasters in the MENA and Indo-Pacific regions. Read more ...

Pakistan is extremely vulnerable to climate change and natural disasters. The period 2009-2015 was particularly devastating for Pakistan, as the country experienced a number of both man-made (terrorism-related) and natural disasters (e.g., floods, an earthquake, drought, and heat waves). Until the devastating earthquake of October 2005, the perception of risk from hazards in Pakistan had been focused solely upon the annually recurring floods. Since then, however, there has been a growing realization that Pakistan is exposed to all types of disasters and that they are occurring with increasing frequency and intensity.

The term “humanitarian assistance” refers to multi-agency activities by a variety of non-governmental, inter-governmental, and international organizations aimed at providing goods and services required during a natural disaster relief operation. Assistance in these situations is composed of the provision of food, clothes, medicines, temporary shelters, and hospital equipment.[1] The aim of organizations engaged in disaster relief efforts is to mitigate the impact of a disaster in order to reduce morbidity and mortality and improve well-being, human dignity, and quality of life.[2] Therefore, such organizations can play a pivotal role during disaster emergencies.

However, it has also been observed—and most stakeholders believe—that humanitarian assistance during emergencies has not been very successful in supporting the affected population and achieving the desired outcome. This essay first discusses the main reasons for these disappointing results, and then, by way of illustration, considers responses to some of Pakistan’s recent disasters.  

Explaining Sub-Optimal Outcomes in Disaster Relief Operations

There are at least four main reasons that help to explain why humanitarian assistance in disaster emergencies is often not as effective as it could be.

1. Ambiguous Mandates: A Symptom of Short-termism

Many of the various organizations engaged in providing humanitarian assistance are themselves not very clear about their respective mandates, roles, and responsibilities. This lack of clarity contributes to a great deal of duplicative work, lack of coordination, and ultimately wastage of efforts and resources. The primary cause of this problem seems to be the common preoccupation of stakeholders involved in the process with achieving short-term gains when their strategic priorities should be focused toward sustainable development. Indeed, it is important to redefine the roles of all concerned, identifying the linkages between emergency/relief services and those that could yield longer-term benefits for affected communities.[3]

2. Unbalanced and Unrealistic Donor Funding

Another cause of the sub-optimal effectiveness of humanitarian responses to natural disasters is the prevailing approach by donors to funding humanitarian operations, which is unbalanced and unrealistic. While it is natural for donors to expect that the funds they disburse to humanitarian organizations will be used efficiently and effectively, the measures they have instituted in order to ensure accountability are often impractical and onerous. In linking performance with the next tranche of funds to be released for the same purpose, they normally require the submission of exhaustive progress reports containing minute details about expenditures. However, for most humanitarian organizations maintaining a complete record of all activities in an emergency situation and environment is extremely difficult. Furthermore, such requirements tempt recipients to employ questionable practices, and even submit fabricated reports so as to demonstrate their progress and thereby obtain additional funds. Furthermore, making the renewal of funding contingent on reports that demonstrate short-term gains leads implementers to work on those issues that promise positive, marketable outcomes and to avoid working on difficult and deep-rooted problems.[4] Often, information from the field that sheds light on ongoing struggles or reveals lack of success is not shared with funding agencies.

It is essential that donors make every effort to understand the needs of beneficiaries and the capacities of implementing partners to deliver appropriate services (short- or long-term). Additionally, donors would be well advised to adopt a balanced and realistic approach to assessing their implementing partners’ strengths and limitations in tackling the many, varied, and complex operational challenges they face in disaster emergencies.[5]

3. Flaws in Aid disbursements and Management Procedures

Disaster emergencies have an inherently dynamic character. In order to meet the complex and changing needs of affected populations in real-time, humanitarian actors require flexible, predictable, and timely release of funds by donors. However, this frequently does not happen.[6] Moreover, most of the funds released to the implementing partners in order to meet the needs of affected communities are instead usually allocated to satisfy ongoing administrative expenses.

It is essential that donors understand the distinction between short-term assistance—geared towards providing immediate relief and saving lives—and long-term assistance—aimed at eradicating the root causes of poverty, morbidity, and mortality. Drawing this distinction will enhance donors’ ability to determine when and how much aid should be disbursed, and thus help ensure that the institutional support they provide is both appropriate and equitable.[7]

4. Skills Deficiencies among Implementing Staff

Instances where humanitarian operations are (partially) staffed by individuals who lack suitable knowledge, experience, and skills can result not just in sub-optimal delivery of assistance but can also fuel workplace stress, frustration, and anger.[8] In such situations, instead of relieving the misery of the affected population, they negatively reflect the donor and implementing partners by disrupting program functions and service delivery.[9] Multi-task humanitarian responses capable of saving lives in difficult environments require highly capable professionals possessing management experience, as well as diplomatic skills. This professional cadre must also have the ability to appropriately assess the situation and to develop culturally sensitive plans that are equitable, affordable, and feasible; and that satisfy donor mandates and priorities.

Effectiveness of Humanitarian Assistance Programs in Pakistan

Pakistan is a classic example where many national and international organizations have been working since the devastating earthquake in Muzaffarabad in 2005 and in the context of the subsequent earthquakes, catastrophic flood, drought, and other public health emergencies. Following each of these tragic events, Pakistan’s government and non-governmental organizations (N.G.O.s) received significant financial support from donor agencies aimed at improving the living conditions of the most vulnerable populations. Nevertheless, in all of these crises, support has focused primarily on activities related to the response phase, with relatively little attention and sparse resources devoted to the other phases of the disaster cycle—preparedness, recovery, and rehabilitation. This has occurred, even as Pakistan, a signatory of the Hyogo Framework of Action (H.F.A.) and other international treaties, has expressed its commitment to invest more in preparedness, keeping in mind long-term sustainable goals and objectives for managing “slow burn” crises before they turn into acute emergencies.

A brief examination of several “slow burn” crises in Pakistan sheds light on the shortcomings of the prevailing approach to disaster response. The case of the drought in Tharparkar District, which is a part of Sindh province, is illustrative. Tharparkar had been experiencing drought for ten years, which however did not to garner due attention from provincial departments, the district administration, NGOs, or development partners. As a result, the situation gradually worsened, culminating in the loss of precious human lives and livestock. The wide reporting of these tragic losses triggered a response by humanitarian organizations and government agencies. However, these efforts focused on providing short-term remedies in the form of provision of food and medical assistance. They included no sustainable measures for addressing the root causes of the situation responsible for increased mortality and morbidity among infants, children, and mothers.

Here, it is important to note that Tharparkar District, the world’s only fertile desert, depends on annual summer rainfall to be productive. Water scarcity, which is one of the main underlying causes of low production, spurred a massive migration of people in search of food and water. Yet, most of the water projects implemented in the district—due to political interference—were initiated in areas where there was no shortage of water. Prior to the onset of the drought, a number of fatal diseases were observed in peacocks and sheep, the standard livestock for Thari people. Animal feed shortages in the market drove up prices. This compounded the financial burden borne by a population that was already destitute and suffering from poor health and nutrition. These circumstances ultimately contributed to an increase in maternal and child mortality and morbidity.   

Responses to the recurring floods in Pakistan offer yet another example of an excessively narrow, reactive, and short-term approach to responding to natural disasters. Since the devastating floods of 2010, Pakistan has been beset, almost annually, by a major flood, resulting in massive destruction of infrastructure along with substantial loss of life and economic damage. This recurrence of flooding has exerted extra pressure on the country’s fragile economy. Analyses of the response phase by different humanitarian organizations has revealed that much of the focus has been on short-term response activities such as the provision of food and shelter, with very little focus on activities with sustainable impact (e.g., providing mineral water instead of water purification units).

In another instance, following the 2014 flood in the mountainous area of Chitral, the response was “successful” in achieving short-term gains though without taking steps to mitigate long-term disaster risks. The flood destroyed most of the housing stock of residents of the area. In response, residents were provided with financial compensation in amounts that enabled them to rebuild their severely damaged or destroyed homes. However, the recipients of this compensation then went about reconstructing their houses on the original sites along the banks of the naalas (i.e., streams) that had overflowed and thus in the direct path the flood had taken—either unaware of the risk they were incurring or not provided an alternative.


Much of the attention of most, if not all organizations engaged in addressing natural disasters is focused on the response phase rather than on sustainable measures, preparedness to mitigate the impact of disasters, or improvements in the resilience of communities. To be sure, sustainable measures are expensive. However, they can nonetheless be undertaken by the pooling of resources. Effective and efficient humanitarian assistance requires improved cooperation, coordination, collaboration, and communication among all stakeholders. It also requires a holistic, long-term approach that focuses on identifying and prioritizing interventions based on a shared vision and commitment to improving the quality of life in addition to mitigating the immediate impact of disasters. 

[1] See the U.N. Draft Convention on expediting the delivery of emergency assistance, Art. 1, para. 1(c), UN Doc. A/39/267/Add. 2, 1984. See also “Strengthening the coordination of humanitarian emergency assistance of the U.N.,” U.N.G.A. Resolution 46/182, December 19,  1991.

[2] Common terminologies include humanitarian assistance, emergency aid, relief aid, development aid, development cooperation, and development assistance among others. For the purpose of this paper humanitarian aid describes the universal (caring and commitment to saving lives and improving the human condition in emergency, relief, rehabilitation, development).

[3] Janice K. Kopinak, “Humanitarian Aid: Are Effectiveness and Sustainability Impossible Dreams?” March 10, 2013. https://sites.tufts.edu/jha/archives/1935.

[4] Rick McInnis-Ray, “Justice Delayed for the Wartime Victims in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” Canadian Broadcasting Company, Toronto, Ontario, Canada Jul. 7, 2011; and Peter Walker and Daniel Maxwell, ‘Shaping the Humanitarian World’ (Routledge: New York, NY, 2008): 97-117.

[5] Arjun Katoch, “The Responders’ Cauldron: The Uniqueness of International Disaster Response,” Journal of International Affairs 59, 2 (2006): 153-172.

[6] Michael Clemens, Steven Radelet, and Rikhil Ghavnani, “Counting Chickens When They Hatch: The Short-term Effect of Aid on Growth,” Centre for Global Development, Working Paper No. (July 2004).

[7] Jennifer Rubenstein, “Distribution and Emergency,” The Journal of Political Philosophy 15, 3 (2007): 296-320.

[8] Culture = mores, traditions, customs, way of life, ethnicity. Values = principles, standards, morals, ethics. Beliefs = conviction, idea, certainty.

[9] Rob Crilly, Saving Darfur: Everyone’s Favourite African War (London: Reportage Press, 2010); and Frances Richardson, “Meeting the Demand for Skilled and Experienced Humanitarian Workers,” Development in Practice 16, 3/4 (2006): 334-341.


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