Issue 46 - Article 12

The uses of adversity: humanitarian principles and reform in the Pakistan displacement crisis

March 25, 2010
Michael Young, IRC


In the span of a few months last spring, Pakistan witnessed one of the gravest internal displacement crises of the last two decades. Beginning in early May, each week hundreds of thousands of people streamed out of the districts of Swat, Buner and Dir into neighbouring lowland areas, driven from their homes by a sweeping military campaign against the Taliban. They joined over half a million already displaced in late 2008 by a similar campaign in the northern tribal agencies of Bajaur and Mohmand. At the height of the crisis, nearly three million people sought shelter in host communities and camps – a movement on the scale of those in Rwanda or Bosnia-Herzegovina, but outpacing even these in terms of its dislocating speed.

Although most people quickly returned home, the crisis is far from over. As at January 2010 close to 1.3m remain displaced – principally from the tribal agencies (the mountainous strip of Pashtun tribal territories along the Pakistan–Afghanistan border), but also from Swat and elsewhere, who feel that return is neither safe nor sustainable. Fresh campaigns against the Taliban by the Pakistani armed forces in South Waziristan, Orakzai, Khyber and Bajaur have displaced close to half a million people in the last five months alone. Although Pakistan often defies prediction, instability and displacement are likely to continue for at least the rest of 2010.

The Pakistan IDP crisis has also thrown into sharp relief some of the most acute issues raised by the humanitarian reform agenda: coordination, funding and capacity. More fundamentally, it has challenged the ability of the wider humanitarian community to remain true to its core principles. This article offers a personal, on-the-ground perspective on these issues from inside one agency that has been engaged with the crisis since 2008.


Principle, pragmatism, complicity

The conduct of the crisis and the resultant relief operation have degraded the humanitarian community’s adherence to principle. This has both been necessitated by, and resulted in, increasing restrictions on ‘humanitarian space’ – the neutral, impartial, civilian space in which NGOs are able to operate, even in the midst of conflict.

The Pakistani armed forces not only decide where, when and how to conduct anti-Taliban operations, but also – primarily through the civil–military Special Support Group – largely dictate the terms of the humanitarian response. While the military undoubtedly has both institutional strength and logistical capacity, its primacy in both prosecuting conflict and providing assistance has obvious ramifications for the humanitarian community. At the most fundamental level, this has made it difficult for people to gain recognition as IDPs and access to humanitarian assistance. Although the government mobilised early to register and support IDPs (a positive step and signal of constructive humanitarian partnership), it subsequently developed restrictive registration criteria based on location rather than vulnerability. This is contrary to the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, and has meant that many families fled violence on their doorsteps only to be denied services in exile because they came from the ‘wrong’ village. This effectively excluded several hundred thousand people (including whole tribes) from government cash assistance, and (until recently) from food assistance provided by WFP and non-food distributions by UNHCR. 

Despite an agreement between the government and the humanitarian community setting out a framework for return that was informed, voluntary and safe, many returns to Malakand Division were coercive. Information on return or relocation options was not made widely available and key consent forms were only in English; camp authorities rushed or coerced IDPs into making decisions; and local authorities in some instances cut off utility supplies to camps to put further pressure on people to move on. Although the majority of the IDP population outside the camps largely returned voluntarily, lack of transparency and a clear effort from the government and military to close down camps for the sake of a political narrative of ‘success’ forced many IDPs to return prematurely to villages that were still insecure or which lacked basic infrastructure and services. This pattern of forced relocation continues. Meanwhile, access to households trapped within conflict zones has been severely limited. In the South Waziristan displacement, the military effectively banned humanitarian organisations from operating in nearby districts hosting IDPs for months, leaving thousands of families vulnerable.

This militarisation of humanitarian aid has meant that, in practice, principles like neutrality and impartiality have been either severely degraded or effectively rendered nugatory. As a result, independent humanitarian actors are viewed as supporting rival combatants within the conflict. It is now clear that the Taliban in Pakistan regard humanitarian agencies as partial actors and therefore legitimate targets. The space to pursue any impartial dialogue with insurgent groups, in order to open up humanitarian space to reach vulnerable people, has been closed off by national and international pressure, informed by a particular counter-insurgency agenda.

The humanitarian community, at the highest levels, has been ineffective at addressing these issues of principle. Despite the development of ‘Basic Operating Rules’ early in the crisis, which restated and enshrined the core principles of humanitarian action, these rules have been honoured in the breach rather than the observance.  They are not widely known, even within the humanitarian community itself. Even the language of humanitarianism is problematic; there has, for example, been constant pressure from the government not to speak of ‘internally displaced persons’ or ‘conflict’, or even use of the word ‘humanitarian’ in appeals and other communications by the humanitarian community. Instead, civilians are temporarily ‘dislocated’ by ‘law enforcement operations’ carried out by ‘security forces’.

The community’s ability to assert humanitarian principles is undermined by its own apparent acquiescence in the politicisation and militarisation of aid. When the UN Secretary-General’s own Special Envoy is on public record strongly supporting the government’s anti-Taliban military campaigns, it is difficult to maintain a neutral, impartial or even independent stance. Pragmatism over principle for the sake of the humanitarian imperative is in danger of becoming complicity in a political–military agenda in which the real imperatives are counter-insurgency and stabilisation. There are different views on how effective such approaches – in which development (for which read also humanitarian aid) is suborned to defence and diplomatic goals – really are, even in achieving their stated goals. The reality in Pakistan is that the latest flavour of counter-insurgency doctrine is proving toxic for the humanitarian community.


Coordination, strategy, advocacy

Slippage on principle and closing of space have also been reflected in the performance of humanitarian coordination and funding mechanisms. Although the 2009 Pakistan Humanitarian Response Plan (PHRP) ended up being one of the better-funded appeals globally, funding was slow to ramp up. At the height of the crisis, key emergency donors were tardy in establishing a presence and dilatory in getting money out and working on the ground (with the exception of USAID’s Office for Foreign Disaster Assistance, which has been the fastest-moving and most responsive donor). As the 2010 appeal finally launches, there is real danger of a critical funding gap – especially in the light of the demands the response to the Haiti earthquake is making on key donors. The performance of the core humanitarian coordination architecture has also been patchy. There was an initial improvement once the UN appointed a dedicated Humanitarian Coordinator and fielded a more robust OCHA presence; however, this short-term gain has not yet translated into a longer-term increase in performance capacity. An Inter-Cluster Diagnostic Mission in 2009, called in at the behest of the Humanitarian Coordinator to address obvious performance issues within the clusters, identified many of the same problems as did the evaluation carried out for the 2005 earthquake response. These problems persist; although some clusters work adequately, others are chronically dysfunctional. The flaws identified are depressingly familiar: conflicts of interest inherent in treating the clusters as funding mechanisms rather than coordination fora; the tensions arising from ‘double-hatting’ cluster chairs as both UN lead agency representatives and ‘honest broker’ sector facilitators; special interest pleading around specific project proposals warping sector needs identification and resource allocation; large, unwieldy groups in which effective decision-making is sacrificed to incoherent inclusion; a lack of basic group and meeting facilitation skills among cluster lead personnel; and frequent changes in personnel.

One of the most corrosive aspects of this problem has been the use of clusters as project funding channels. This has been administratively dysfunctional, diverted clusters from their raison d’être and exacerbated the worst kind of negative competition between humanitarian actors. The establishment of a pooled funding mechanism – akin to an ERF – where funding decisions are made collectively, based on clear criteria and cluster needs mapping, would go a long way to solving this problem. It is therefore commendable that OCHA is currently leading the effort to develop an ERF for Pakistan; this initiative needs to be made operational as soon as possible.

In addition, the Humanitarian Country Team, although representative of the wider community, has been unable to play an effective strategic role and remains focused on issues of process and operational detail. This focus on micro-management has further undermined its ability to act as an effective advocate for humanitarian principles. Critical issues of rights, access and space are neither forcefully nor frankly addressed in humanitarian–government coordination fora. A non-confrontational approach adds weight to the notion of acquiescence in a restrictive, overly politicised and militarised operating environment. These failures are, of course, the responsibility of the entire humanitarian community.

The sweeter uses of adversity?

The above paints a gloomy picture. The humanitarian community in Pakistan works in an environment where even the most fundamental questions of principles and practice are either abrogated or threatened. Humanitarian space shrivels; humanitarian actors are targeted. On the ground, it is sometimes difficult to see a path towards rebuilding adherence to principle and restoring the space for impartial action.

More effort to restate humanitarian principles as embodied in the Basic Operating Rules is a first step. The focused attention of external influencers such as the UN Secretary General’s Representative on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, Walter Kälin, and the Emergency Relief Coordinator, Sir John Holmes, around issues of civilian protection and rights could help agencies advocate with the government. All actors need to recognise that humanitarian need remains great. Pakistan’s civilian authorities for disaster management and recovery need sustained capacity-building so that their institutional strength in humanitarian response matches that of the military. Lastly, internal structural reforms to the Humanitarian Country Team and cluster system would improve the capacity of the Humanitarian Coordinator and colleagues to act strategically, and collectively identify and move forward on issues of rights, policy and advocacy. The humanitarian community in Pakistan must rediscover the basics and regain its self-confidence.

Finally, one undeniable fact shines out from the Pakistan crisis, namely the response of ordinary Pakistanis themselves. Over 80% of those forced to flee from their homes found refuge, not in camps but with private families or in other communal spaces. Some households hosted up to 100 people; many thousands took in complete strangers and offered them shelter. This is a great tribute to Pakistani society. The crisis is also a lesson that the humanitarian imperative remains strongly understood and valued by people everywhere, even as it becomes progressively more difficult for humanitarian organisations to act impartially and independently on that most basic of human instincts.


Michael Young is the International Rescue Committee’s Deputy Regional Director for Asia and Caucasus. His email address is



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