Last summer, the plight of Pakistan’s Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) garnered constant news attention. However, once the government announced the phased return home of these people last July (beginning with IDPs from Malakand province), the coverage all but came to a halt. The IDP situation was just not news worthy anymore. But the sad reality is that it never stopped being an issue. Just last month, news agencies reported that an estimated one million Pakistanis remain displaced, adding, “Most of the refugees are staying with host families, but tens of thousands are in relief camps.” According to the organization’s news release, “UNHCR has also rushed relief supplies to help an estimated 135,000 people who fled their homes to escape a security forces operation against militants in Orakzai Agency in December 2009.” A humanitarian update released February 5 by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) further reported that since December 2009, the number of IDPs from Orakzai has risen nearly tenfold to over 23,000, [ReliefWeb also has an interesting read on Shia IDPs from Orakzai and their situation].
There are also around 250,000 IDPs from Bajaur, who have been displaced since 2008. In Jalozai, the site of one of UNHCR’s largest IDP camps, around 74 percent are from this tribal agency. So, although a large number of IDPs have returned home in the past year (almost 1.7 million people, mostly to Swat and other districts of Malakand Division), a significant amount remain displaced.
As for those who have gone back, their return was the easiest part of the journey. Yesterday, Al Jazeera English had a very interesting story [see below] on the current situation of Swat Valley, nearly a year after the military regained control of the area. In the report, correspondent Hashem Ahelbarra noted that IDP returnees in Swat feel that progress and rebuilding has been too slow “and not enough.” In order to tap into the government funds for these people, Swati families have to open a bank account and get an ATM card, from which they can withdraw $12 at the end of every month. With that meager amount, they can only buy a bag of flour and four kilograms of “low-quality rice,” hardly enough to feed their entire family.
As someone who works in the philanthropy field and, more specifically, with development issues in Pakistan, I find the issue of handouts, even if it’s via more innovative ATM cards, to be problematic. In terms of short-term emergency response, it does provide immediate relief to families in a more organized way than straight cash distribution. However, from a long-term lens, handouts foster a deeper dependency between donor and recipient. It is not a sustainable solution and, at the end of the day, doesn’t address the root causes of the problem, especially if food prices continue to rise and the security situation remains tense, (13 were killed and 40 were injured in a suicide attack in Mingora last month).
Therefore, there needs to be further efforts to build local capacity in Swat in order to develop these communities and lessen their dependence on government and international agencies for basic necessities. This week, the UN World Food Programme announced it has contracted eight mills in Swat Valley to produce fortified wheat flour, “in a bid to boost the local economy and make food more easily accessible to families in the area.” Not only will this initiative ideally provide jobs and generate income in the area, the locally produced flour is also expected to stabilize prices. According to the UN, “They will have the capacity to produce more than 2,000 metric tons of wheat flour daily. That capacity will be increased as the security situation improves.”
All of this is a lot easier said than done, especially given that peace is still a tenuous notion in Swat Valley. However, it is nevertheless important to view reconstruction from a more long-term perspective in order to achieve more sustainable and lasting solutions.