FORMER prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani last week said that the IDPs from Waziristan should be recognised as making sacrifices for Pakistan’s future. Their sacrifices are no doubt great: almost a million people have been displaced only to find themselves unwelcome in Sindh, Punjab and Balochistan. Few among the industrial elite have taken up the IDPs’ cause, and the focus remains on vaccinating and registering them so that they don’t spread disease or terror throughout the country. No wonder many on social media channels have recast the acronym to stand for ‘internally disowned people’.
The relative apathy towards IDPs continues despite the fact that the media regularly highlights their plight. Tragic tales abound of homes and farms abandoned, fortunes lost, businesses closed, a tribal economy disrupted. Unfortunately, the voices of women and children, who comprise 75pc of the IDPs, are less heard owing to cultural reasons. But it is essential to learn more about the experience of IDPs, particularly children, because understanding their troubles is key to evaluating whether their sacrifices today really will boost Pakistan’s future.
In the chaos of accommodating the IDPs, government officials have not considered the long-term impact for Fata of having a generation of children endure the shocks of violence and upheaval. A new paper by Tahir Andrabi, Benjamin Daniels and Jishnu Das serves as a warning against the failure to do so.
In Can Extreme Shocks to Children be Mitigated?, the authors assess the recovery in terms of physical development and educational attainment of children who survived the devastating earthquake in northern Pakistan in 2005. They find that infrastructure, consumption and school enrolment in the affected areas recovered, largely thanks to the influx of aid, to levels comparable with areas farther away from the fault line.
Concerns about young IDPs are tied to fears of their being radicalised.
But children who were in the womb through the age of three at the time of the earthquake fare poorly in terms of physical development and education. According to the paper, those who were in the womb or younger than three years at the time of the earthquake are markedly shorter in height than children who have not experienced a major early life shock.
The physical development of children older than three at the time of the earthquake is not found to be noticeably worse, but they are found to lag in terms of educational achievement, with lower test scores and a cognitive gap equivalent to two years of learning.
Development and education indicators for young IDPs are likely to be equally poor, if not worse, owing to the prolonged nature of the shock they are enduring (the Taliban’s violent regime, displacement, and survival in camps or unfamiliar urban environments). Unlike earthquake-affected children, young IDPs are also faced with additional challenges imposed by the Taliban regime — for example, a higher incidence of polio owing to the TTP’s ban on vaccinations.
In today’s political and policy rhetoric, concerns about young IDPs are almost exclusively tied to fears of their being radicalised. This fear is exacerbated by the fact that banned organisations swoop down on disaster-affected communities and offer relief services as the first step toward radicalisation and recruitment. It is also fuelled by the complex picture of life under the Taliban that the IDPs paint: among tales of atrocities are descriptions of TTP fighters as good customers, providers of justice, and tolerant towards religious minorities.
But the paper by Andrabi et al should serve as a reminder that radicalisation is not the greatest challenge young IDPs will face. They are likely to suffer both in terms of their physical and educational development. Beset with these disadvantages, they will have to survive in their adopted homes, primarily in Pakistan’s large, under-resourced and brutally competitive cities, where their lives will be defined by exclusion, ethnic resentment and a lack of opportunities.
The paper’s findings offer some insights into polices that might avert this outcome. Children whose mothers had completed primary education did not demonstrate the educational recovery gap (though their physical development was affected). Household compensation following a large shock was also found to mitigate cognitive consequences. This suggests that the government should urgently devise and implement polices to ensure that young IDPs are well nourished and able to resume their education, that their mothers are cared for and educated, and their families compensated and allowed to return home to stable environments.
Critiques of the plight of IDPs are too often understood to be a condemnation of the military operation. But these are separate issues. The focus now should be on addressing the needs of the IDPs to mitigate the impact of the shock of upheaval, and ensure that the sacrifices of a generation of youngsters truly brighten Pakistan’s future, rather than further dim its prospects.
The writer is a freelance journalist.
Published in Dawn, July 21st, 2014