Pakistan: take the politics out of humanitarian aid

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Sonali Fernando meets Marvin Parvez, Coordinator of ACT's South Asia Forum.

ACT Alliance, one of the world's largest humanitarian aid networks, has accused western governments of sullying humanitarian aid by harnessing it to foreign policy objectives.

Marvin Parvez, director of the Pakistan and Afghanistan branch of one of ACT Alliance member organisation CWS, says that the so-called war on terror is dictating the west's decisions on humanitarian relief. As a faith-based network, ACT's belief that all people are equal in the eyes of God underpins the humanitarian principle of treating all human beings without discrimination. ACT strictly adheres to Red Cross principles not to use aid as a form of ideological barter and pledges to serve all people, on the basis of greatest need, regardless of their ethnicity, religion or political beliefs.

But many secular groupings, among them governments in Europe and the US, are apparently not so scrupulous. "They have confused their foreign policy objectives with humanitarian assistance. When it comes to Afghanistan and Pakistan, aid has become increasingly politicised. Aid money is going to where the war on terror is and not where the need is", says Parvez.

This conflation of aid and military action is a grave miscalculation, argues Parvez. It breeds a culture of cynicism about US motives that undermines the country's huge aid contribution. The confusion of humanitarian aid and foreign policy has led to some grotesquely ironic scenes. Parvez cites video footage he saw at the height of the flooding that showed US military helicopters evacuating people from their homes: the flood survivors were lifted off rooftops and trees by US helicopters that were there to save their lives - and then they were frisked on entry!"

Parvez argues that the paradox for ordinary Pakistanis is that they see the US is distributing aid with one hand and dropping bombs with the other. "The US and NATO are pumping millions of dollars into the war effort in Pakistan. We've had US drones coming in and shelling people in basically the same province where the US military helicopters are working on rescue missions". American drone attacks have doubled in the last three months, firing missiles at training centres, safe houses and anywhere that local intelligence has suggested might be harbouring Al Qaeda Taliban operatives.

This conflating of humanitarian relief with foreign policy is now affecting ACT members in Pakistan directly. USAID, the aid wing of the United States government, has recently insisted that organisations it funds display its logo prominently, regardless of whether that makes them vulnerable to attack by people who resent the American presence in Pakistan. Until now, USAID has given waivers on visibility to groups it funds who were working in parts of Pakistan with militant strongholds. But this is no longer the case.

Parvez objects. "If it's so safe, why don’t they take one of their cars from the embassy and drive into SWAT? Would they send a car containing US personnel with the USAID logo on the side and the American flag at the front? No. They don’t even use cars with diplomatic plates now".

He argues that directives such as this mean that humanitarian principles are compromised. "In regions where the US military is involved in conflict, it is particularly important for us to show our neutrality in order to maintain our humanitarian credentials and not look as though we are an arm of the government. You deliver a nutritious meal to a person in distress and that gesture should be politically neutral".

The contradiction is too extreme to continue, says Parvez, arguing that Washington’s strategy of combating terror is fundamentally at odds with its approach to winning hearts and minds. "One of the biggest flaws I see is that they don’t understand the hearts and minds in this parts of the world. They should be looking at the long term – at promoting democratic structures, access to education, livelihoods, basic human rights - rather they are just attaching more and more political strings to aid that is driven by their foreign affairs strategy".

For Parvez, Pakistan's most pressing problem now is the one that is being overlooked. "There has been a failure to talk about survivors. Twenty million people have been seriously affected by the floods and that’s what we should be talking about. The number of people living in poverty has increased to 40% of the population. What is tragic is that the flood hit the poorest of the poor. Poor people have always lived in areas where disasters take place – that’s where they can afford – on flood plains and near volcanoes. Close to a million homes were destroyed by the deluge.

This year's floods have ruined the lives of people who survived the 2005 earthquake and were still recovering from the devastation, still living in prefabricated houses and struggling to rebuild homes and livelihoods. The flood went through the ‘bread basket’ area, the most fertile region of Pakistan, where all the country's rice, fruit, and vegetables are grown, and has destroyed the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of small-scale farmers who used to live off the land. The whole agriculture sector – farms, livestock and many people – was wiped out. The NGO-run clinics and schools that were painstakingly established over the past few years were literally washed away.

"These twenty million survivors need help. Otherwise we will have a long-term disaster in Pakistan where we have a new population living in inescapable poverty”, says Marvin Parvez. “The world needs to be very gracious and generous. We're not talking about helping the government or the military here - we're talking about the survivors. Western governments should send aid to where the need is”.

He follows up with a stark warning: "If the international community does not come up with support at this time of need, the flood-survivors' children will go in droves to the madrassas because they have food there. If you don’t send aid to where the need is, people will be more vulnerable to the militant organisations that believe in violence. They have nothing left, so we will be pushing them into the arms of these militant groups whose the humanitarian wings are providing help".

Despite this bitter prognosis, there is a glimmer of hope for Marvin Parvez. "The most encouraging thing I have seen is that people do not blindly follow the diktats of their governments. They do their own thing and express their humanitarian instincts in ways that are odds with what their political leaders are saying. Even though the new British Prime Minister travelled round India in the aftermath of the floods telling anyone who would listen that "Pakistanis export terrorism", British people contributed £60 million through the Disasters and Emergencies Committee appeal. That shows true humanitarianism at work: regardless of religion, race or where they’re located, people will dig deep in their pockets to help others”.

That generosity is needed now as never before, as the harsh Pakistani winter sets in. The unforgiving climate will place an additional strain on people who are already demoralised, homeless and dependent on aid for their survival. "These people have suffered so much in the last few years", says Parvez, shaking his head. "It's been one disaster after another. And I'm not sure whether people who are so broken have the resilience to suffer yet more trials".

According to the UN, over 100,000 people will still not be housed this winter. ACT members in Pakistan are now prioritising this vulnerable group who need warm clothing, shoes, nutritious food, clean drinking water and shelter materials.

But, beyond the winter, the big issue is a root and branch recovery strategy. "A comprehensive national recovery plan needs to be supported - one that works both immediately and in the long term. It has to be a participatory strategy, not one where donors or governments make decisions about how the people will live. The priorities are the reconstruction of homes, health services and livelihoods and to give people access to basic clean drinking water, food and sanitation".

That, according to one of ACT's most seasoned representatives in South Asia, is the only way to defuse the timebomb of Pakistan's twenty million new poor.