The Shrinking of Humanitarian Space in Pakistan

The Pakistani Taliban (the "Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan", or TTP) has been designated a terror organization by the State Department. On the face of it, this would seem to be a no-brainer. The group has bombed minority mosques, tribal elders and murdered women. It has attacked US and Pakistani interests in the region, and is suspected of involvement in the slaying of Benazir Bhutto. The threshold for qualifying for the US State Department list has also been breached: the group has claimed responsibility for the Times Square bombing, and State says it has corroborated this claim.

But a practical political downside of this designation is that it risks shrinking humanitarian space in Pakistan while the country is in the middle of one of the worst humanitarian disasters in its history. Funding guidelines and the power of the purse-string make it extremely challenging for aid groups to do business with black-listed local organizations, and in the US it is a federal offense to provide “material benefits” to any such group. In a recent ruling the Supreme Court interpreted “material benefits” so broadly that even disseminating international law to such groups could result in penalties for aid organizations.

Now, consider four facts. First, civilian NGOs in areas like Pakistan – stateless in places, dangerous and at present in the midst of both man-made crises and natural disasters – must often rely on assistance and cooperation from local armed groups in order to access vulnerable civilians. Second, in areas where such groups are already substituting for the state, their support may be indispensable to getting humanitarian supplies and care to the needy. Third, in places where such groups are responsible for crimes against civilians, humanitarian diplomacy (or what the US would now deride as “negotiating with terrorists”) may be a vital tool for the protection of civilians. Fourth, the appearance of even-handedness allows aid groups a protective cloak of neutrality on which their own lives may depend: aid workers are often attacked as soon as local groups believe they are siding with “the enemy” rather than simply assisting civilians in an impartial manner.

These tensions are not new. But now that the Pakistani Taliban is labeled a “terrorist organization” it may be that much politically trickier for aid groups to access, protect and assist Pakistanis in Taliban-controlled areas of the country. This will not only prevent Pakistani civilians from accessing aid, but may also imperil aid workers, who will increasingly be seen as tools of the US rather than neutral humanitarians. So it’s ironic that it’s this very risk, in part, that the State Department has cited in its decision to blacklist the Taliban – as the designation is only likely to make the scenario worse.

Preventing humanitarian diplomacy by neutral agencies with groups to whom the US is politically opposed has drawbacks for the US as well. Under such circumstances, the aid organizations most likely to get access to civilians in those areas will be those funded by non-Western sources. In terms of public diplomacy, or what the US calls “hearts and minds work,” this risks wasting the opportunity for Western-backed aid groups to provide secular assistance and protection to the Pakistani people. This role is likely to be picked up instead by those elements of the (admittedly diverse) Islamic humanitarian sector who are least dependent on Western funding sources… including elements in Pakistan that may be using humanitarian “soft power” for very different ends.

Jonathan Benthall has written a great deal on the relationship between US foreign policy, the shrinking of secular humanitarian space and the proliferation of the Islamic humanitarian sector post 9/11, and he is interviewed here

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