GIVEN that this was a crisis that the government had predicted, and that registration points and checkposts are in place, the lack of consensus that exists regarding the number of people who have fled North Waziristan is quite remarkable. A report submitted to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif over the weekend puts the figure of those registered at 572,529, comprising over 44,000 families. However, officials also say that not all persons evacuating the area have been registered, and that the current estimates might be inflated by people from the same families registering themselves separately. The same day the report went to the prime minister, PTI chief Imran Khan, whose party governs Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, said that the number of those coming to the province alone had reached 750,000. Nevertheless, this much is obvious: the flood of people in need of immediate aid is huge, and the state and provincial machinery are under severe stress, both in terms of funds and logistics. This state of affairs is hampering a coordinated, concerted and multi-pronged effort to obtain the maximum benefit from available financial resources.

Given this context, then, it is impossible to disagree with Mr Khan when, on Sunday, he urged the army to allow foreign-funded NGOs into the area. Reportedly, several organisations that are in a position to make a difference are facing delays in obtaining no-objection certificates. The irony of this is only deepened by the fact that extremist organisations, through their ‘charity’ wings, are active in their relief efforts.

The fact is that in such cases where the number of refugees is so large, international aid organisations are best placed to make a difference since they have the resources and, most importantly, the training for leading a cohesive push. This was amply demonstrated in Pakistan in the aftermath of the 2005 earthquake in the north. State and society did what was possible, but countless lives were saved — and not just physically — by NGOs that drew their funding from abroad. The army may be wary of letting people into the theatre of operations in North Waziristan, but that is where the exodus is from and relief organisations are needed not there but in the parts of Pakistan proper to which people are going. True, the realities of the region are such that there may be fears regarding the entry of foreigners with dubious credentials. But, crucially, it is being forgotten that the employees and workers of such NGOs are in large part Pakistani citizens who can effectively mobilise their local expertise and knowledge of the country’s specifics. Unless the government and army are themselves fully capable of handling this crisis that appears to be escalating — and so far they have not coped well — there is no good reason that NGO aid be denied to the hundreds of thousands of IDPs.

Published in Dawn, July 8th , 2014

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