Civilian Humanitarian Action Needed in Pakistan

Elizabeth Ferris
Elizabeth Ferris
Elizabeth Ferris Former Brookings Expert, Research Professor, Institute for the Study of International Migration - Georgetown University

May 15, 2009

Almost a million Pakistanis have been displaced in the past 13 days by the government’s counter-insurgency campaigns – in addition to the 500,000 or so who were displaced last fall by fighting in the north-west part of the country. Moreover, these numbers are expected to increase as humanitarian agencies report that many villagers in the affected areas are waiting for a lull in the fighting in order to flee. This displacement is taking place in parts of the country – the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and the North West Frontier Province – which are poor, historically underserved by the central government, and where, not surprisingly, the Taliban has been active.

These 1.5 million people are internally displaced persons (or IDPs), not refugees. Although some Pakistanis have fled into Afghanistan, the vast majority remain within Pakistani borders where it is the responsibility of the Pakistani government, in accordance with international standards such as the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, to ensure that they are protected and assisted.

If a full-scale catastrophe is to be avoided, the immediate needs of the displaced must be met: shelter, food, water, medical care, security. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, presently visiting Pakistan, is calling for massive international aid. Earlier this week the agency began airlifting supplies and has worked with the government to establish new camps for the displaced. Other UN agencies and international non-governmental organizations are also gearing up and supplies will soon begin flowing into the affected areas on a large scale. While camps for the displaced are being established, most of the displaced Pakistanis don’t want to live in tents. In fact, the camps are primarily inhabited by women and children as their male family members have often gone off to Islamabad or other cities in search of employment. Most of the displaced – perhaps 90% of them — are living with friends and relatives in cities. And it is much more difficult to assist and protect displaced people who are living scattered among urban populations.

In such a humanitarian crisis, there will be a temptation to provide funds to the Pakistani military to assist the displaced and thus to see humanitarian action in terms of counterinsurgency operations. This temptation should be resisted. While the presence of large numbers of unassisted displaced persons is indeed a security issue, there are good reasons why humanitarian assistance should not be channeled through the military. First, the Pakistani military needs to concentrate on what it alone can do: defeat the Taliban. The Pakistani military doesn’t have much successful experience with counterinsurgency operations and wading into the area of humanitarian and development assistance could divert it from its essential mission. Providing humanitarian assistance well, and in ways that don’t exacerbate tensions, involves much more than distributing food from the back of a truck or digging latrines. It is an area where civilian agencies have the expertise to respond immediately and professionally.

Secondly, while the Pakistani military has a good reputation for providing logistical support when floods and earthquakes occur, it doesn’t have a track record in other types of humanitarian work. And it is important to remember that it is only recently that a military general turned over national political power to a democratically-elected president. Turning to the military to manage a complicated humanitarian response gives the wrong signal to the military that it can and should respond to all problems. It also gives the wrong message to the broader population about actions where civilians can and should be in the lead.

Thirdly, this is an opportunity for the international community to strengthen Pakistan’s civilian infrastructure and thereby support democratic administrations. Channeling support through Pakistani non-governmental organizations and to international agencies with strong ties to local communities would have the added benefit of strengthening civil society. As we saw last year, civil society played an important role in the transition from military rule to democratic elections. Strengthening both national and provincial capacities and civil society would be a step for democracy.

Finally, in responding to the needs of the displaced, careful attention must be paid to the longer term response. Once the military campaign is over, the displaced will want to return to their communities. Their ability to return quickly will depend on the scale of destruction back home and on reconstruction of damaged property. It will also depend on whether security and livelihoods have been restored. If national actors work together with international agencies to create the conditions for rapid return of the displaced, there will be payoffs all around.

There is an opportunity in all of this – an opportunity to strengthen civilian government, to support strong civil society organizations, to rebuild and support returning IDPs in a way that builds their confidence in their national government. But, like all opportunities, there is a flip side as well: if the displaced are not able to return, if they are stuck in camps they don’t like or (and more likely) remain homeless and disaffected on the margins of large cities, they are likely to become more alienated from government and more susceptible to recruitment by militant forces. The displacement crisis in Pakistan is an opportunity which could well be bungled.