Standing up to political intimidation

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

When the armed bodyguards of a local politician approached Zahid Ali, a relief manager for a NGO based in Sindh, Pakistan, he had no idea this was the beginning of what was to be a very difficult day. As the men walked up, Ali was preparing to distribute much-needed food for families in the aftermath of the 2010 Pakistan floods.

The men quickly demanded that Ali’s organisation, ACT partner Participatory Village Development Program,  hand over their food packages so the politician could distribute the food and take the credit. When Ali and his colleagues refused, an entourage of 100 to 150 armed men surrounded the building and held the PVDP staff hostage. “They said: ‘We can’t let you go until you give your food items to us,’” Ali said.

While detained, Ali made several frantic phone calls to other politicians imploring them to persuade the politician to leave the group alone. After two hours, the armed men finally left and PVDP was able to freely carry out its work.

A workshop on security and risk management later affirmed the fact that Ali did entirely the right thing in bringing a peaceful end to the incident. The workshop, run by ACT Alliance members Church World Service and DanChurchAid, included using “diplomatic pressure” as a deterrent. Ali says this was exactly what he did.

Training facilitator Paul Wooster says that because of the intensity of the situation and the fact aid workers have been targeted, NGOs have to ensure security management becomes the norm in every organisation. “Security affects everything about how an organisation works – what we do, how we do it, where we do it, and when we do it.”

Afghanistan and Pakistan are particularly challenging because of the presence of international forces and the shrinking humanitarian space for aid groups. “NGOs face a range of threats including kidnapping, improvised explosive devices, direct threats to organisations and individuals, and suicide attacks,” he adds.

Ali describes the difficulties smaller organisations face when resources are minimal. “Currently, I am working three positions – a civil engineer, a regional manager, and as a relief coordinator in one of our districts.” This stretch can mean security management does not receive the attention it needs.

Security analysis will take time to be integrated into the fabric of Ali’s organisation. But he has his management’s support, particularly as the organisation’s level of risk increased as it responded to the massive floods.

“The area where we were working before the floods had a zero percent crime rate so security was not as much of a concern,” Ali says. Yet as the organisation has increased its presence in Sindh, security has now become more complex.

Ironically though, criminal gangs uprooted by the floods respect PVDP’s work because the organisation adheres to humanitarian principles. “These criminal groups have said, ‘You are doing the humanitarian work. You are the aid workers, so there is no harm for you. You can do anything. We support you.’

“Sometimes it is not the criminals but the politicians that you have to worry about,” Ali says.