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Four months after the horrors of Pakistan’s devastating super-floods started making global headlines, the UN-hosted donors’ conference – titled ‘International Conference on Climate Resilient Pakistan’ – is taking place today (9 January 2023) in Geneva (1 pm-10 pm PST). The two main objectives of this conference are to i) layout Pakistan’s post-flood climate-resilient rehabilitation and reconstruction strategy, and ii) seek long-term international support and partnerships to share the government’s financial burden.

Battling multiple crises (climate change being one of them), this pledging conference is important for Pakistan in several ways. One, it can help unlock global funding channels to help finance some of the $16.3 billion in post-flood reconstruction costs over the next three years. Two, the economy could really use some one-way influx of dollars to contain the drain on forex reserves. Three, a successful conference can showcase that Pakistan is not diplomatically isolated. And lastly, it can galvanize the government to incorporate climate resilience while undertaking or approving infrastructure development projects.

Pakistan has been able to capitalize on donor conferences before. In more recent history, after the deadly 2005 earthquakes, an international donors’ conference in Islamabad on ‘Rehabilitation and Reconstruction of Affected Areas’ received some $3.5 billion in promised assistance from the world community (taking total post-quake pledges to $6 billion). After Pakistan’s democratic transition in 2008, a donors’ conference hosted by World Bank and Japan (Apr. 2009, Tokyo) raised $5.28 billion to help the then-PPP government’s capacity for economic development and counter-terrorism over the next two years.

‘Success’ at today’s donors’ conference will depend on the scale of ‘pledges’ received during the daylong event. (Government is reportedly targeting half of $16.3 billion in reconstruction costs from foreign assistance). After that comes the hard task of ensuring that donors follow through on financial commitments. Analysis of recent such events suggests that donor conferences are a go-to tool often used by the UN and the EU (supported by US) to help rally the global community to meet fiscal demands of responding to humanitarian crises overseas. A few patterns emerge based on recent such conferences.

First, the war in Ukraine has had the global donors’ attention fixed (and it may remain so in 2023). At the May 2022 international donors’ conference in Poland, $6.5 billion were pledged to help meet Ukraine’s humanitarian and security needs. Up till that point, the war-torn country had received over $12 billion in military support and financial assistance. At another donors’ conference in Paris last month, Ukraine was promised $1.1 billion in financial aid and in-kind assistance to help its citizens weather the winters after Russia started destroying that country’s power infrastructure through aerial bombardments. Meanwhile, talks are underway among major donors on funding Ukrainian reconstruction after colossal destruction.

Second, rather than sudden climate-related natural disasters, it is the years-long humanitarian crises (e.g. in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Sudan, among other countries) that seemingly attract greater global attention vis-à-vis holding global donors’ conferences. For instance, in May 2022, an EU-organized conference pledged $6.7 billion in aid for Syria and other countries directly affected by the war there. Earlier in 2018, an UN-and-EU-hosted donors’ conference in Brussels had also attracted $4.4 billion in pledges for Syria).

Third, UN or EU-led donor events have an impact. For post-NATO Afghanistan, an UN-led donors’ conference achieved $2.4 billion in pledges (Mar. 2022, Geneva). Before that, the ‘2020 Afghanistan Conference’ (Nov. 2020, Geneva) raised $3.3 billion in promised aid for 2021. Yemen also received $1.3 billion in pledges at an UN-backed conference (Mar. 2022, Geneva). EU-backed donor events for Venezuelan refugees and migrants in 2020 and 2021 received $2.79 billion and $2.35 billion, respectively. An UN-and-EU backed donors conference (Jun. 2020, Berlin) raised $1.8 billion to help Sudan’s political and economic reforms

And fourth, this conference for Pakistan is unique in the sense that it is rare for a global donors’ conference to place focus exclusively on the issue of ‘climate change’. An exception was seen last year in April when an UN-and-EU-hosted donors’ conference received $1.4 billion in pledges to overcome drought-related humanitarian challenges in the Horn of Africa countries of Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia. A lot of homework, including by development partners, has gone into Pakistan’s donors’ conference.

As Pakistan is being viewed as ground-zero for climate-related catastrophes, there is an incentive for the global community (especially the US and the EU, the two climate champions) to make this conference a success. While the UN-led annual COP shave thrown up limited climate funding year after year, this conference is an opportunity to address the perception that rich countries are not serious about shouldering the heavy climate burden that is weighing down the poor and low-income countries. In the prelude to this conference, complete silence from traditional Western donors is noticeable to climate professionals.

While a lot of folks are interested in how many dollars this conference can generate for Pakistan, it needs to be understood that global philanthropic capital is highly competitive and choosy these days. While there are always complaints that parts of previous pledges remain unrealized, the growing economic squeeze in the West is going to make it acute. For Pakistan, the limited outreach is manifest in that just a quarter of the UN’s Flash Appeal for Pakistan Floods of $816 million could be mobilized after several months.

The dozen or so donors’ conferences’ studied for this piece give an average pledge size of $3 billion per gathering. In that context, this conference can be termed productive if it can pull about a fifth of the $16.3 billion post-floods reconstruction bill (just over $3 billion). In the end, however, the size of the pledges does not matter – it is more important to detail, track and follow up on whatever commitments are made by donors. In that regard, a lot of work is cut out for this government (and the next one). Fingers crossed!

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