IDPs and the Challenges that Await

Posted on May 13, 2009
Filed Under >Mosharraf Zaidi, Disasters, Law & Justice, Society
Total Views: 51767

Mosharraf Zaidi

At the end of January this year, the international community’s key humanitarian agencies had done some basic number crunching for how they would deal with the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) crisis that was brewing in Pakistan towards the end of 2008. They estimated that the armed conflict in Bajaur and Mohmand agencies would likely drive the numbers of these Pakistanis who are refugees in their own country to about 600,000. To cater to those folks, it was estimated that roughly $36 million would be required to provide for the shelter, water and sanitation, food, and basic health care and schooling needs of the IDPs.

As I write these words, and the long overdue military operation to eliminate terrorists from Swat, Buner and Dir scorches more and more of the earth, that original estimate of 600,000 is exploding into ever larger numbers. Some civil society groups feel that the Swat-Buner-Dir IDPs alone will account for over a million people. The multilaterals and international agencies are slightly more conservative, with off-the-record numbers being cited in the range of 750,000 to 850,000.

Adding the new wave of Pakistanis who’ve been made refugees in their own country to the ones already displaced from Bajaur, Mohmand, Orakzai and other FATA agencies (around 560,000) places the total number of IDPs for 2009 at roughly 1.3 million.

It is very tempting, too tempting in fact, to begin to surgically deconstruct how we’ve got here. And perhaps some issues really do bear repetition. Pakistan is in this mess because this is a state that does not deal with small problems until they become big problems. It then tries to blast those big problems out of existence with heavy artillery. When it realizes it doesn’t have the legitimacy, the will or the actual firepower to do so, it cuts deals to make the problems go away. It then realizes that cutting deals with the devil makes the devil stronger, not the state. And with renewed strength the devil further undercuts whatever sliver of authority and legitimacy the state has.

That is the position the Pakistani state was in when President Asif Ali Zardari flew to Washington DC last week to give a final grand push to what has become the international relations equivalent of the Super Bowl of international begging. With ambassador Husain Haqqani leading the charge as quarterback, Pakistan has tried everything, including equating itself to the sinister and deeply unpopular AIG, to get more US money, so that it can fight and win the war against the terrorists. It seems the final Hail Mary, the myth of a Taliban takeover as being “60 miles from Islamabad” has worked.

Of course, the world is now so scared of Pakistan’s dysfunction, even Indian hawks are happy to sign checks for the Pakistani state. But where all the money will go is the world’s biggest mystery. It won’t go to the military, by design. But if things continue the way they are, and donors sign money over to the Pakistani treasury, it sure won’t go anywhere useful either. The Pakistani state can barely spend what it already has on the things that matter. Proof is in the across-the-board under-spent budgets in education, health, water and sanitation. The most recent example of the state’s indifference, ineptitude and incompetence is in the environmental arena.

The Rawalpindi Environment Improvement Plan (RIEP) has apparently been shut down by the Asian Development Bank, because the money Pakistan keeps borrowing to fund the project, never seems to produce the outputs they’ve agreed on. But the real punchline is that all this is taking place in Punjab, the most efficiently run province in this weakened federation. The reason for constant delays? The project has had four changes at the top owing to constant charges of corruption.

Given this kind of a context, opponents of the military’s scorched earth tactics need to consider the alternatives. What would critics of this latest and much more assertive offensive into Swat, Buner and Dir have the army do? Follow ambassador Haqqani’s brilliant new juxtaposition of Pakistan with Iraq, and pump Punjabi boys by the dozens into Pakhtun homes — Fallujah-style? Or perhaps sign another peace deal? The previous half a dozen having worked so well.

Alternatively, of course, those who have been advocating decisive and lethal military action need to dial it down a little bit. The necessity of military action does not mean that its execution is a cause for celebration. As of May 9, over 110,000 people from Swat, Dir and Buner had registered as IDPs in Swabi, Mardan and Charsadda. Those that have so rightly been calling for decisive leadership and military action must now go beyond Facebook and Twitter. The IDP crisis is the biggest test of Pakistan’s humanity since the October 2005 earthquake. This country’s besieged citizens and its civil society have come through for each other before. They must do so once again.

Pakistanis need to take a time out from being for or against a raft of abstract ideas and histories about Jinnah’s speeches, Iqbal’s social habits, Zionist conspiracies and the Cookie Monster’s evil eye. In times of war, moral clarity is a luxury, and not one that any camp in Pakistan has any kind of monopoly over. Circumstances in the near to medium term will likely continue to allow for moral clarity only among those with little regard for nuance or delicacy. Pakistanis don’t have to stop having an opinion on issues, but they must certainly stop being paralysed by those opinions.

The actions now on the top of the Pakistani priority list require much less discussion and debate than what Pakistanis are used to. Of course, police reform, decentralisation, the restoration of the 1973 constitution, neutralising the president’s office and the reinvigoration of the prime minister’s office are primary tasks needed to rebuild the broken institutions in the country. But the IDPs influx out of Swat, Buner and Dir, requires us to get moving, and get moving fast.

IDPs, both those in the camps and those that are out of camps, all need some basic things. Tents, bedsheets, mattresses, pillows, toothbrushes, soaps, and combs. They need single-source support, meaning that Pakistanis wanting to help must go through the so-so channels that already exist, rather than the perfect channels that exist only in our imaginations.

Those Pakistanis that do get involved will discover dozens of NGOs, both of the auntie and uncle variety, and the mullah variety, ready to absorb money, in-kind donations and the time and effort of volunteers. Those that invest in going to the IDP camps, as near the urban centres as the ones in Islamabad, and Rawalpindi, and as far as the ones at Jalozai, will discover that the humanity of people knows few bounds.

Depressingly, what everyone will discover is that very little of the response to this crisis is being led from the front by the government. This is not because the government doesn’t care. It cares deeply. It has to. Those folks that are being displaced are not just people, they are voters too.

But caring for people, and knowing how to take care of them are two separate things. Sixty years of getting it wrong in Islamabad, Peshawar, Lahore, Quetta and Karachi means that the basic instruments needed to coordinate a response to the crisis don’t lie in government. They lie in the innovation, ingenuity and emotional investment of NGOs, international agencies and most of all, ordinary Pakistanis. We must celebrate the fact that Pakistan has banked on these entities before, and ensure that they are out in full force once again. The response to the earthquake must not be a one-off demonstration of humanity. It must prove to be the rule in Pakistan.

But in mobilising to respond to the IDP crisis, and in generating an appropriate respond, Pakistanis must remember how we have got here. The only thing that is a guarantee against the terrible tragedies that have haunted this country for the last several years is an effective state. For that, there is no NGO large enough, nor international agency competent enough. In the long run, only Pakistan can help Pakistan.

Mosharraf Zaidi wrote this originally for The News. Mosharraf has recently set up a special website to consolidate information and data on the IDPs situation in Pakistan.

28 responses to “IDPs and the Challenges that Await”

  1. samreen says:

    Amir just want to say that i will second you
    we pukhtoons must have to prove now that we are peace lover and the most skillfull inteligent race in the world.
    So all Pukhtoons Zinda Bad Pakistan Painda Bad

  2. Aslam Khan says:

    Junaid. Do NOT insult my heritage by deliberately painting Taliban and Pakhtoons as the same. The Taliban are killers and murderers of children. We Pukhtoons are a proud race. Some Taliban may be from our region, just as they are from many other regions and parts of the world, but only propagandists will try to deliberately insult Pukhtoons by saying what you are saying. Pukhtoons are NOT with the Taliban. Taliban and their supporters (you sound like one) are killers and enemies of Pakistan, enemies of Islam and enemies of Pukhtoonkhwa.

  3. Aamir Ali says:


    The Pakhtuns made the mistake of supporting Taliban in the past, not today. The Pakhtuns are now sick of the Taliban and want to be rid of them.

    The only Taliban supporters in Pakistan today are in the Punjab and Sindh, who continue to hold on to romantic view of Jihad while sitting safely in their provinces.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *