Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 October 2018

Amid Pakistan's many problems, aid groups quietly do good work

Despite difficulties in channelling aid effectively to the neediest in Pakistan, humanitarian assistance is worth continuing.

Social and political crises in Pakistan may lead some in the West to ask themselves if their humanitarian assistance is worth continuing. It is.

To understand the existential angst of Pakistanis, both within the country and in the diaspora, you need only read the news.

The daily crises seem to repeat: sectarian violence in Quetta kills over 100? Add them to the almost-400 killed in 2012. New border skirmishes with India over Kashmir? Just like the old ones, it seems. Aid workers killed? A sadly common occurrence. Corruption charges against a prime minister stir fears of a military coup? That happened last year, too.

This atmosphere of perpetual crisis has had a debilitating effect on Pakistan's many indigenous relief agencies, often caught up in corruption, militancy and disasters both man-made and natural. Rural areas, in particular, face alarming poverty and energy shortages. The government has admitted an increase in poverty and food insecurity since 2008.

These crises persist in spite of enormous, but little-known, efforts by Pakistanis themselves. Pakistan's Rural Support Programmes Network, an umbrella group for independent agencies, was created 30 years ago and has helped to build a poverty-relief process: organising rural communities to manage and own their relief projects, in education, energy, health, agriculture and finance, based on their own needs and capabilities. It's a bottom-up approach that works.

In Peshawar, for instance, the Sarhad Rural Support Programme has delivered innovative small-scale renewable energy projects in the rural Swat valley, each project managed and maintained by the villages and households that benefit.

In the village of Bayun, a small hydropower project enabled by Sarhad has given 4,600 people electricity for the first time. The villagers came up with more than one third of the 9.8 million rupee (Dh368,000) cost of the project by providing labour, locally available materials and their own funds.

The Sarhad programme has installed 20 such small hydroelectricity units in Swat over 18 months, with a total capacity of 665 kV, at a cost of 56 million rupees, benefiting 2,192 households. And this energy is off the expensive, erratic national grid.

Approaches like this not only promote independence from external assistance, but also insulate Pakistan's poorest from the country's crises, many of which disproportionally affect and displace them. The same methods have been exported to Afghanistan and India, helping millions more people.

The community organisations behind projects like this are essentially incubators for democratic values and democratic development. They include women in large numbers and, as seen with microfinance programmes elsewhere in the region, generally exercise their responsibilities with great integrity.

This is the inverse of what is happening in Pakistan on a national scale, and is doing more to address the West's democratic desires for the country than the better-known top-down approaches.

To counter perceptions of western influence (the CIA's connection with a vaccination scheme may have led to attacks on polio workers), the Rural Support Programmes Network and its member organisations draw funds from Pakistan's federal and regional governments, international aid agencies, corporate sponsors and the beneficiaries.

The US government has acknowledged the difficulties in channelling aid effectively to the neediest in Pakistan and remains supportive, despite repeated attempts in Congress to slash billions from aid. But to continue the progress that is being made, everyone must chip in.

One sign that the needs of Pakistan are not being ignored is a recent decision by the European Union to allocate €42 million (Dh207m) in aid from a fund for five major global hot spots subjected to "long-enduring crises". The EU acknowledged that "the only new crisis on this year's list is the one caused by conflict and internal displacement in Pakistan".

In the scheme of things, €42 million may not seem like much. But there are real possibilities for empowering democracy, if donors will dramatically scale up support for grassroots development work.

These days, every little bit helps.


Zahed Amanullah is chief media officer at Unitas Communications, a London-based strategic communications consultancy