Rob Crilly: Disaster for Pakistan and the man at helm of its response

AS THE rains fell day after day it became soon became clear that these were no ordinary monsoons. The death toll started at 100, but officials in those first days were clear that it would soon pass 500 with no sign of stopping.

Only one man in Pakistan seemed not to notice or to care. President Asif Ali Zardari flew to Europe, staying in his family's French chateau before attending a party political meeting in the UK with his son, as an Italy-sized portion of his country disappeared under water.

The trip set the tone for his government's handling of the crisis. An out-of-touch elite has spent time and effort diverting aid to allies while trying to have floodwaters channelled around their land. The result has been a chorus of criticism as Pakistan newspapers and an array of talk show hosts have questioned the transparency of aid operations and wondered aloud who was in charge.

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At the same time, the army - never far from the levers of power - has been at the forefront of aid efforts, stepping in where Zardari's government was absent.

Perhaps sensing the danger in a country where a coup is only ever just around the corner, Zardari - or at least his advisers - launched a media blitz this week.

The famously reticent president has entertained a handful of foreign journalists, appeared for photos at the headquarters of the National Disaster Management Authority and appealed for more funds.

On Tuesday, officials announced the government would give $230 (148) to every family affected by floods, with a statement from Zardari's spokesman calling the payment "initial assistance." Every day the newspapers have carried stories about committees, commissions and panels Zardari has chaired. All that's missing is a Putin-esque photo-op at the controls of a plane above the floods.

Yet still the strategy has not prevented the odd gaffe.

Yesterday it emerged the president of Pakistan, who owns a string of property in the Europe and the US, had personally donated less to flood relief efforts than the US actress Angelina Jolie - whose only connection is once starring in a film shot in Pakistan.

"There's a lot of mismanagement and a lack of organisation," Saad Sarfraz Sheikh, an aid volunteer in Lahore.

"People don't trust the government funds set up to help because of the 2005 earthquake (in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir] and what happened to the victims of that. It has a lot to do with the quake because people are still homeless.

"People say, 'These quake survivors don't even have houses yet so why should we be giving more money?'"