NGOs restricted, operating in fear

The withdrawal of staff by NGOs amid heightened security concerns means remote communities may receive less help.
(Kamila Hyat/IRIN)

Farah Iqbal, 25, (not her real name), is seriously considering a career change away from NGO work, which her parents think has become too dangerous.

“I love my work, and I love talking to the women I meet in rural communities. They are desperate to talk about their plight, and just share their stories,” she told IRIN.

However, her parents want her to quit her job as a women’s welfare worker based in Peshawar, capital of North West Frontier Province (NWFP), arguing: “It is just not safe. There have been so many threats to NGOs that we are concerned for her welfare, especially as she is often in the field.”

Security in the NWFP has deteriorated sharply over the past year. “Things have really become bad here,” Mussarat Hilali, vice-chairperson of the autonomous Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), told IRIN.

HRCP expressed alarm in November 2008 over the growing threat to NGOs in the region - and particularly to female staff.

Fears have also increased since the killing in Peshawar in November 2008 of a US Agency for International Development (USAID) worker, a US national. But local NGO workers have also been targeted, with several employees reported kidnapped since 2006, according to local media.

In September 2006 two women health workers were attacked at Khar, the district headquarters of Bajaur Agency. A remote-controlled bomb hit their vehicle, killing one of them and seriously injuring the other.

Threats continue to be circulated via pamphlets, fliers and on CDs. Jehanzeb Khan, regional director for the Islamabad-based Society for the Protection and Rights of the Child (SPARC), said they had not been able to carry out field work, or even surveys, in areas like Swat, Hangu, Bajaur and the Khyber Agency because of the risk to their staff. “Such activities have been stopped,” he said.

Soldiering on

“We have been fortunate in that we have not been directly affected,” Dorothy Blane, country director of Concern Worldwide, a UK-based NGO, told IRIN. She said her organisation was “active in Mansehra and the Balakot area, but we work normally with local partners who have very good contacts in the communities and the field. No foreign staff are in the field.”

Blane said the only time her group felt “seriously threatened” was when the office of PLAN International, a UK-based charity, was attacked in Mansehra in February 2008 and four of its local staff members killed. But several recent incidents involving the abduction or murder of foreign aid workers had heightened fears, she said, adding: “Sometimes local staff are afraid of saying they work with an international NGO for fear they may be targeted.”

The HRCP’s Hilali underscored the risks: “The reality is that we simply cannot send people to Swat, or Waziristan or other areas in the NWFP where there is an extremist threat. There are no NGOs, not even local ones, operating in these areas. We try to continue our monitoring work and gather facts by maintaining contacts with local people.”

HRCP blames the authorities for failing to maintain law and order.

Meanwhile, NGO worker Farah Iqbal said: “Nobody now wants to work with an NGO because of the risk. So much work that needs to be done will now never be taken on and poor people, especially women and children, will suffer.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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