PAKISTAN: Securing aid delivery
Islamabad, 21 September 2010 (IRIN) - A resurgence in political violence in Pakistan, after the floods had brought a lull, is causing the authorities concern over the well-being of aid workers, but the international aid community is worried that security restrictions will make it harder for them to operate in flood-affected areas.
Foreign aid workers can enter some areas when accompanied by an armed escort, but humanitarian assistance is supposed to be neutral and the presence of armed policemen provided by the government is contrary to this principle, relief officials said.
International aid workers have been targeted by militant organizations in Pakistan in the past - at least 21 aid workers, including UN staff members, were killed in bomb attacks in Pakistan in 2009. More than a 100 people have died in recent violence.
Rebecca Barber, Humanitarian Policy and Advocacy Advisor of the UK-based aid agency, Oxfam, said they were "being requested by district police to utilize armed police escorts if travelling in the field with international staff" in the provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) in the northwest, and Punjab in central Pakistan.
KPK, where more than 3.8 million people have been affected by the floods, is particularly vulnerable to militant attacks; in 2009 a large-scale military offensive in the province's Swat Valley destroyed homes and livelihoods and displaced two million people. Punjab, where the largest number have been affected by flooding - more than 8.2 million - has seen a resurgence in sectarian violence.
"In most cases, we are being told that this is for our own protection, and because the police are responsible for our security. Oxfam understands and appreciates the concern that the district police have for the security of international staff, and we value their support," Barber told IRIN.
"However, Oxfam believes that travelling with police escorts compromises our impartiality and independence, which are two of the core humanitarian principles that guide all of our work," she said.
"We also believe that the use of armed escorts, rather than enhancing our security, has the potential to undermine the safety and security of our staff and beneficiaries," Barber commented.
Oxfam has not consented to the use of escorts, except in special circumstances. As a result, "In the past two weeks, this has meant that some of our staff have been unable to travel to the field, and this is having a negative impact on our work," Barber said.
There seems to be a gap between the aid community and the Pakistani authorities on the perception of security. "The international aid community does not quite understand," said Ali Anan Qamar, coordination officer in the Nowshera district of southern KPK, one of the worst affected areas in the province.
"In Asian countries like Pakistan and India, travelling with armed escorts sends the signal that these people are VIPs and [armed escorts] are a symbol of prestige - then no one in the community can harm them," he said.
"We are not talking about terrorists ... it could be a member of a community trying to snatch a packet of food," Qamar commented. The slow pace of aid has led to growing impatience and even anger, which has been expressed in more frequent demonstrations.
Barber said Oxfam's global policy was according to strict criteria set by the Inter Agency Standing Committee (IASC), a global aid coordinating body. The IASC guidelines issued in 2001 say armed or military escorts for humanitarian convoys should be used only as a last resort.
The aid agency has been using its local staff to reach affected areas, but "with the needs as enormous as they are in this emergency, we rely heavily on the technical expertise and capacity of our international staff."
Another large international aid agency reported that it had a water and sanitation expert, who happened to be a foreign staff member stuck in a hotel in Punjab's Rajanpur district because of the restrictions. "As a result we have had to suspend a water and sanitation project, which would have benefited a 100,000 people," said an aid worker with the agency.
"I think they should not force the restrictions on us - it should not be compulsory they should leave it to us to decide and take the risk," he added. "In my experience a low profile works better than being surrounded by armed guards - it draws attention and you face a bigger risk of being robbed, kidnapped or murdered."
The UN and provincial authorities in Punjab have been working towards agreeing on procedures that would allow international staff to work, with security provided by the government.
"Striking the right balance is hard," said Simon Lawry-White, representative in Punjab of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian affairs (OCHA), who also heads the IASC secretariat in Geneva.
"The government takes the security of foreigners very seriously, but taking armed escorts can limit our access to populations in need, while extra clearance procedures could slow operations down at just the time when we are trying to gear up to meet massive needs. We are trying to agree a middle path," he told IRIN.
The level of danger to which international aid workers might be exposed is unclear. In August, several media organizations reported the Pakistan Taliban as warning that foreign humanitarians could be targeted as they helped out with flood relief, but "no agency has received any direct threats as far as I know," said one aid official.
Humanitarian workers, including the UN, have been extremely cautious about drawing attention to themselves, and travel in vehicles without logos. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the medical relief agency, has distanced itself further by pointing out that they do not accept funding from any government, relying entirely on private donations. An aid official noted that hundreds of Pakistani NGOs were responding to the crisis, but international agencies boosted the confidence of donors.
The UN has launched a revised appeal for more than US$2 billion on 17 September - the biggest ever request for a natural disaster - to help the more than 20 million people affected by the floods. So far 80 percent of the initial appeal of $459 million has been funded, leaving $1.6 billion unmet.
Theme(s): Governance, Aid Policy, Security,
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
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