Pakistan: Aid Work Hard Hit by Insecurity

8-06-09, 10:42 am

Original source: IRIN News

MANSEHRA, 5 August 2009 (IRIN) – Ayesha Bibi, 30, has no idea how she can help her daughter, who suffers paralysis in her legs. 'An organization was helping us. They had doctors who were teaching my child to walk and giving us medicines,' she told IRIN.

She would bring the three-year-old from her village, some 25km away from the town of Mansehra in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), to visit doctors from an NGO in Peshawar, provincial capital of NWFP.

Bibi does not know the name of the organization, which has now closed its office in Mansehra. Pakistan has a literacy rate of 37 percent for females, according to official figures.

'Their staff was kind and they were helping us,' she said. Now she does not know where to go for assistance.

The fact that international humanitarian organizations, NGOs and even government-run bodies have been forced to scale down or suspend activities across Pakistan because of the increasing security threat has affected many people, although the effect has not been quantified.

Since February 2008, when the offices of the UK-based PLAN International were attacked in Mansehra, leaving four staff members dead, dozens of NGOs across NWFP have stopped operating.

'The sense of threat is very real,' Musarrat Hillai, vice-chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), told IRIN.

'The dangers have grown because nothing was done in the past to penalize those making the threats,' IA Rehman, the secretary-general of HRCP, said. 

The attacks on NGOs and NGO activists have continued. In April, a female employee of the government-backed National Rural Support Program (NRSP) was killed in the NWFP town of Hattian by Taliban militants who accused the NGO of 'spreading obscenity.'

'Generally speaking this means they talk about family planning or women's rights,' another female employee of the organization, who requested anonymity, told IRIN.

There are no indications of an improvement in the situation. Recently, the National Commission for Justice and Peace, an NGO backed by the Roman Catholic Church, said it had received threats for helping refugees from Swat.

Escalating insecurity

The problem seems to be growing. On 31 July, Farhan Haq, associate spokesman for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, acknowledged that the UN had had to scale back its operations in agricultural projects and women's welfare in Balochistan.

Asked about threats from the Balochistan Liberation United Front, the nationalist group which earlier this year kidnapped the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) head of operations, John Solecki, Haq said the UN took all threats against its staff very seriously and was looking into this particular case. 

A local news agency has quoted a purported spokesman for the group, Shahak Baloch, as saying UN officials would be targeted as promises made for Solecki's release had not been kept. A voluntary repatriation centre for Afghan refugees in the area was closed down, according to UNHCR. 

The withdrawal of the UN does not bode well for the province's impoverished people. The same holds true for other areas of Pakistan. 'People have suffered, especially women, since NGOs began pulling out. It has meant less awareness, less enlightenment and there has also been a loss of jobs,' Mahbano Shahid, an activist formerly employed with an NGO in Mansehra, told IRIN. 

According to a report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) issued on 31 July, 'the overall security situation in Pakistan remains unstable and volatile.'

Improvised explosive devices followed by attacks on military, police and civilians are the main security concerns in NWFP, the report said. 

The NWFP government has promised 'maximum effort' to improve security. 'We are doing all we can,' NWFP Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain told IRIN. 

However, it seems inevitable that it will take time before international organizations and local NGOs can operate safely in many parts of the country - and it is ordinary people, like Ayesha Bibi - who pay the heaviest price.