Pakistan: Gov't calls for immediate return of aid workers to quake-hit Bagh

News and Press Release
Originally published
ISLAMABAD, 21 May 2007 (IRIN) - The Pakistani government has called for the immediate return of all aid agencies to quake-affected Bagh district after a suspension of activities in the region earlier this month.

Located in Pakistani-administered Kashmir, Bagh was devastated by the October 2005 earthquake that ripped through much of northern Pakistan, killing more than 80,000 and rendering more than 3.5 million people homeless.

"We are ready to restore the confidence between the UN and NGO [non-governmental organizations] community," Raja Naseem Khan, minister for reconstruction and rehabilitation for Pakistani-administered Kashmir, told IRIN in the capital, Islamabad.

"We want the aid community back on the ground in Bagh," Khan said. "I can personally guarantee the safety and security of all those aid workers working for the NGO and UN community."

His comments come after some 49 NGO and UN agencies suspended more than US$82 million-worth of projects and activities in the area following a spate of security incidents - purportedly carried out by a small group of local people who object to the hiring of women by the agencies, as well as the hiring of non-locals.

The incidents led to the burning of a local UN staff member's home in Bagh sub-district on 7 May.

Awami Action Forum

According to two NGOs in the area, Human Aid Focus and the Maqsood Welfare Foundation, members of various humanitarian groups working in the area had come under attack from a group calling itself the Awami Action Forum.

"The malicious disinformation propaganda and the physical violence perpetrated by the self-appointed custodians of public morality have paralysed the ongoing humanitarian operation in the district," the groups said in a statement. The group's joint secretary-general, Muhammad Farooq Sheikh, described the atmosphere in Bagh as a "climate of fear and violence created by people with self-motivated agendas".

"Those leading the vigilant action are against the participation of women in development work," Sheikh said. His views were shared by a number of other NGOs working in the area, but who asked not to be identified.

The UN suspended its operations in the area on 9 May, calling for enhanced coordination and communication links between the UN, humanitarian workers, local civil authorities and community leaders.

Code of conduct

However, according to Khan, progress has been made with a proposed 18-point draft code of conduct by the Bagh United People's Forum, a group of 33 community and religious leaders, which was presented to members of the aid community for discussion last week.

"As far as I am concerned the NGOs are doing a wonderful job and there is no problem whatsoever," the minister said.

"Whatever discontent there may have been, this has been localised and no foreign NGO or staff member has been involved in any controversy," he said.

"There is a general impression that perhaps Islamic morals and codes of conduct are being ignored, Khan said, adding: "If there is a counterproposal, we can again discuss it," he said.

Asked if the draft code might restrict the independence of the aid community to work in the area, he replied: "Not at all." Instead, he said, it would improve mutual understanding between the aid community and the people they were trying to help.

Not convinced

But many members of the aid community were not convinced.

Zahur Aman Shah, a team leader for the international NGO Mercy Corps working in Bagh said if existing working arrangements were not enough why did the local government not directly intervene and ask the NGOs to follow certain additional codes instead of encouraging local pressure groups to do the job.

"The draft code of conduct faxed to NGOs mainly restricts mobility of female employees of the NGOs thereby reducing training, livelihoods and professional development opportunities for both the female staff and village women," Shah said.

It also asks for the promotion of local contractors - apparently a key concern of the forum, he added.