This July, torrential monsoon rains caused widespread flooding in Pakistan. More than 20 million people have been affected (12 percent of the population), at least four million have been left homeless, and nearly 2,000 have died. The tragedy may have dominated headlines, but Pakistan is not the only country to have experienced floods. Benin was also hit by massive floods this year. These historic floods covered two-thirds of the country and affected close to 700,000 people (8 percent of the population) and killed 43. Benin’s government, acting with far fewer resources, outperformed the relief efforts of Pakistan's goverment. Although no one can blame the Pakistani government for bad luck and bad weather, it should have been held accountable for the colossal scale of the devastation. Instead, it has been rewarded.

Speaking at the Asia Society in August, Richard Holbrooke, U.S. special representative for Pakistan, explained “The water has affected everyone. It's an equal-opportunity disaster." Accordingly, he called for billions of dollars in U.S. and international assistance. But his assessment was wrong: there was nothing equal about the disaster.

After a string of severe floods in the 1970s, Pakistan set up the Federal Flood Commission FFC to build barrages and dykes to control future flooding. By 2010, the FFC reported that it had finished approximately $900 million in flood-management construction. But in reality, little work had been completed. In many cases, dyke construction was carried out privately by wealthy individuals rather than as part of a coherent central plan. Many communities in flood-prone zones even had to pay bribes to get any flood control or irrigation projects at all.

As this year’s disaster unfolded, there was also no systematic management of flood-mitigation efforts. Some local officials reinforced their dykes; others allowed them to fail. One local official acknowledged that "local government figures in the Sindh Province conspired with prominent landowners to bolster the riverbank running through their property and others deemed important, at the expense of other regions, which were left vulnerable to flood waters.” And according to The Express Tribune, a Pakistani affiliate of the International Herald Tribune, Khursheed Shah, the minister of labor and manpower, prevented breeches from being made in the canals close to his constituency, even though that would have substantially relieved the flooding in the entire Sindh province. Such measures had greatly helped control the floods in the 1970s, but Shah was not willing to jeopardize his cronies’ interests. Instead, the poor and ethnic minorities bore the brunt of the flooding.

In the months that followed, government relief was so ineffectual, corrupt, and biased, that many civil society groups organized their own efforts. Amanullah Kariapper, a software engineer who marshaled students to collect aid and set up a camp for the homeless in southern Punjab, said, "We don't donate to the government, because we know it's mainly a way for government officials to make money." Although local organizations have tried to limit the opportunities for government graft, the international community has not. The United Nations' Financial Tracking Service reports that, as of November 1, 2010, Pakistan has been given $1.7 billion in emergency assistance. That is about $83 per affected person and 20 times more per person than was given for comparable flooding in relatively poorer Benin.

Pakistan’s failure is due in part to its political institutions. As we argued in "Disaster Politics" in July democratic states are better at protecting their citizens from the effects of natural disasters than autocratic governments because leaders need the support of citizens to stay in office. Democratic leaders are highly sensitive to disaster-related causalities and, therefore, take measures to prevent and mitigate disasters and provide relief if they happen. In contrast, disaster-related deaths have little effect on the tenure of autocratic leaders, who, in turn, feel no need to provide relief.

Pakistan is less democratic than Benin, according to the latest Polity project, a report by the Center for Systemic Peace that measures democratic institutions across the globe. And although the watchdog group Freedom House ranks Benin as free, it ranks Pakistan as only partly free. Pakistan has more restrictions on political rights and performs worse in terms of civil liberties. It is also more corrupt. These governance differences matter. The aid response of Pakistan’s government has been described as shambolic. Its president, Asif Ali Zardari, showed careless disregard for the plight of his people. It was nearly two weeks after the flooding before he visited any affected areas. In contrast, the United Nations suggests that soon after Benin’s flood, its government, together with the United Nations and international nongovernmental organizations, conducted joint rapid-assessment missions in order to deliver aid effectively and promptly. Although Benin is a much poorer nation, and was given much less assistance, its democratic government greatly outperformed Pakistan. Since Pakistan’s leaders are not beholden to the people, their appalling performance during the flood is not surprising.

Autocratic governments’ disregard for public welfare is exacerbated by international relief assistance. As the scale of a natural disaster increases, the international community provides them with more aid. Unfortunately, this creates perverse incentives for the recipient nondemocratic governments, which depend on buying off the support of influential individuals to stay in power. Aid provides just such funds, and, as the citizens of Pakistan are aware, the government is all too ready to divert relief funds to this cause. Emergency assistance is perhaps particularly vulnerable, because it is given so rapidly and with less oversight, but it is not unique. According to some estimates, of the $6.6 billion in military aid the United States gave Pakistan between 2002 and 2008, only $500 million ever made it to the military. Indeed, the aid dynamic is similar to that of Pakistan’s war against insurgents: as long as the United States is willing to pay Pakistan ever more to eradicate extremists, Pakistan will not decisively defeat them; the graft that counterterrorism aid brings outweighs the political cost of some continuing violence.

The United States needs to radically change the way it distributes aid to change nondemocracies’ calculations. In Pakistan, for example, the United States should stop providing ongoing aid, much of which is subsequently stolen. Instead, it could set up an international escrow account that would be accessible to Pakistan's government only if problems remain fixed. In normal circumstances, nondemocratic governments destroy an important source of income if they effectively protect people from disasters or end insurgencies. But under an escrow plan, funds could be withheld should insurgencies resume or natural disasters cause excess damage. For instance, the escrow could be set up to release funds upon the completion of an effective flood-prevention scheme. If the Pakistani government is unwilling to allow independent inspectors to verify that such projects have been completed and built to code, its access could be taken away. Many technical aspects need to be addressed to implement and monitor such an arrangement. But tackling these issues is better than continuing to fund ineffectual governments whose interests are unaligned with those of international donors and their people.

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