Pakistan: Peacebuilding in an impossible context?

July 27 2012: Zahid Ahmed, Insight on Conflict's Local Correspondent for Pakistan, explains how, caught between the restrictions placed on them by the state and a relationship with the general public framed by suspicion of collaboration with the West, Pakistani peacebuilders need to articulate their work on their own terms.

South Asia Partnership Pakistan (SAP-PK) protest for peace

Caught between the restrictions from the state and suspicion from the public, Pakistani peacebuilders need work on their own terms.

International development organisations and their local partners are seen with much suspicion in Pakistan
Since 9/11 there has been a shift in policy towards Pakistan at the international level, with the US-led war on terror focused on destroying Al-Qaeda and its allies in Afghanistan and the neighbouring tribal areas of Pakistan. Anti-US/West sentiments have grown in Pakistan as the number of US drone attacks has increased, sentiments which intensified especially after the operations in Abbotabad that killed Osama bin Laden.

Some incidents external to Pakistan have also contributed to feelings of enmity against the West. One main trigger was the publication of blasphemous cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad by a Danish newspaper in 2007. Several other Danish and non-Danish newspapers re-printed the same cartoons, igniting the feelings in the Muslim world. Following this there were protests and attacks on white foreigners in some Muslim countries. In 2008, there was a bomb blast just outside the Danish Embassy in Islamabad. Since then, aggression against Western elements has been the common response of extremists in Pakistan.

Consequently, international development organisations and their local partners are seen with much suspicion in Pakistan. Western organisations are perceived to be supporting the US agenda, or supporting the anti-Islamic ambitions of the Western world in Muslim countries by promoting Western values under the disguise of development assistance or peacebuilding work. Thus, insecurity has been increasing for both local and foreign organisations in Pakistan.

There have been direct attacks on local and international NGOs in Pakistan
In the recent past, there have been direct attacks on local and international NGOs in Pakistan. In February 2008, armed men opened fire and threw grenades at the office of a British-run aid agency called Plan International in Mansehra. Four people were killed in the incident and ten wounded. This region of Pakistan in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is known to possess pro-Taliban militants, who have bombed the offices of NGOs in the past, alleging that international donors are trying to undermine their version of Islam. There have been other cases of attacks on or murders of US-funded partner organisations in the same province. In Khyber Pakhtunkwa, NGOs face greater security threats, irrespective of the nature of their work. More insecurity adds to a widespread hopelessness and pessimism in the country – a growing concern for local peacebuilders. This situation has presented local and international peacebuilders with the massive challenge of building rapport in their project areas.

Between the state and tribal institutions

Peacebuilders encounter multiple challenges on a daily basis in Pakistan.
Peacebuilders encounter multiple challenges on a daily basis in Pakistan. There is a constant need to clarify their work in local communities, especially where there is a lack of education, awareness, and motivation around the issues of peace and conflict. The trust deficit between NGOs and their local constituencies has been on the rise due to constraints on NGO in the form of opposition from local alliances, tribal leaders, sectarian groups, and from religious extremists.

The freedom of peacebuilders to act varies across the country: in some places there is a more favourable environment than in others. For example, NGOs face fewer challenges in the Punjab than in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where peacebuilders encounter opposition from both state and non-state elements. One peacebuilder working in the tribal areas, who wished to remain anonymous, shared that they cannot work there without the permission of the political administration, intelligence agencies and other influential elements. He stressed that people in his area do not always have hostility towards the West, particularly if the foreign elements do not interfere in their religious and traditional values. This creates a situation where the peacebuilder must set a course between state bureaucracy and the cultural independence of the tribal areas.

People in the tribal areas have enjoyed some level of autonomy since the independence of Pakistan in 1947, and preserving their distinct customs – of governance, of justice – has been their biggest concern. Humaira Shaikh of Shirkat Gah, who has been working in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to promote the role of women in peacebuilding, highlighted some of the constraints this places on her work:

The biggest challenge I think is the right of revenge that is part of the [Pakhtun] culture, where feuds can linger on for generations. Sometimes, the mothers and grandmothers hold on to these practices and taunt their sons and grandsons until they have killed the foe. The parallel justice systems e.g. jirga, Panchayat etc., are prevalent in society and create hurdles in building relations between the state and citizen, and reinforce patriarchy which keeps women out of any peace building roles in society.

Western organisations and their partners are not only seen with suspicion in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, this animosity has also developed in other parts of the country. A peacebuilder from Southern Punjab reported that, “local people take foreign-funded projects as a conspiracy [from the West], to impose an agenda of domination and promote unethical views in the society”. This creates a fundamental barrier to peacebuilding: how can one do worthwhile work when it is impossible to even develop a good rapport with the locals?

Creating a definition for Pakistan

Hhow do Pakistani peacebuilders perceive peacebuilding, and the value of their work?
This situation has implications for all sectors of society, but especially for peacebuilders who collaborate with Western organisations. It is hugely important, so worth taking seriously: is it a purely paranoid assumption or is there some truth in the idea that western donors do promote an agenda of domination?

To some extent the answer lies in the experiences of local Pakistani peacebuilders. A more interesting question, however, is how this complex situation affects the attitude of local peacebuilders towards their own work. It is difficult to undertake work of this nature and be labelled a ‘foreign agent’ in your own country, but a common one for any NGO funded by a foreign organisation, whose officials often visit their offices. This is blunt proof to many project participants that Pakistani peacebuilders are partial, directed by outside elements for propaganda against Pakistan or Islam. Faced with this, how do Pakistani peacebuilders perceive peacebuilding, and the value of their work?

I have met peacebuilders who are frustrated by the intense problems they face on a daily basis. Nonetheless, I have observed a fabulous level of optimism for peace in Pakistan.  There is a common view that there is need for cooperation to develop a common understanding of peacebuilding in Pakistan. People working for peace understand the central aspect of their work as – in the words of one peacebuilder from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – “an important factor in the development and prosperity of Pakistan”. There is general understand that achieving the “sustainability” of any peace established in the country is crucial. In recent times, peacebuilding has centred on promoting intercultural and interreligious harmony, as articulated by Humaira Shaikh:

Peace is the absence of war, but building or constructing peace is to create harmony and tolerance through pluralism and brotherhood/sisterhood, and about cherishing human diversity.

The way forward

For peacebuilding to have any chance of success, it has to be transparent
If on the one hand peacebuilders encounter many challenges to achieving their goals, then on the other hand they have opportunities to do their work in a better way.

The majority of peacebuilders interviewed for this article emphasised that peacebuilders should respect local cultural sensitivities. It is important because without that it will be a hard journey for any peacebuilder to develop relationships of trust in Pakistan. Secondly, the respondents emphasised the need to integrate local aspirations into their peacebuilding models, through consultations with locals. Yet, according to one peacebuilder from the Punjab, “We should bring different stakeholders onboard including local leaders and international community to have an exchange of ideas”. This exchange is much-needed, rather than a one-way consultation, because it enables locals to develop a better understanding of peacebuilding and its related practices in other contexts. This is very important if we are to develop optimism for peace, sorely lacking among local communities in Pakistan.

As previously stated, relationships of trust are key to work in Pakistan, something that should not be ignored either by peacebuilders from Pakistan or abroad. I can attest from personal experience that locals are always concerned about the involvement of Western elements in the kind of work NGOs or individual peacebuilders do; therefore, they ask pertinent questions. Peacebuilders must be prepared to provide professional justifications for collaboration with foreign agencies. For peacebuilding to have any chance of success, it has to be transparent.

Considering the fact that Pakistan is home to over 100 peacebuilding groups and thousands of individuals working for peace, it is important to build strong alliances. These alliances could help to sustain peacebuilding projects but also could be used for the protection of fellow peacebuilders and NGOs. A colleague in Islamabad told me that the city is called ‘a birthplace and a graveyard’ of peacebuilding networks. There is a tendency for groups to form collaborations but for those networks not to be sustained beyond a few years. However, some emerging collaborations show promise, such as Peace Network Pakistan (PNP) and some small-scale interactions between women’s peacebuilding groups. PNP is young and limited in scope at this stage, with only 14 member organisations the majority of which are from Islamabad.

Previous broad focused networks failed due to lack of funding and divergences between the members. It is important for new networks to learn from these previous experiences and sustain their efforts, especially in circumstances of limited or no funding from the outside. Nonetheless, a national network of peacebuilders is lacking, which is the need of time. In this regard, it is timely and appropriate to merge NGO networks, such as PNP, with citizens’ initiatives like Amn Ittihad, to give peacebuilding the best chance of survival in Pakistan.

Pakistan is not an impossible context to work in, as the ongoing and determined work of many peacebuilders attests, but it is difficult
Pakistan is not an impossible context to work in, as the ongoing and determined work of many peacebuilders attests, but it is difficult. There are ways in which foreign involvement undermines the legitimacy of peacebuilders in Pakistan; however, at this moment, outside support is needed, in the form of both financial and human resources.

Foreign aid should focus on building the capacities of local organisations towards sustainability after the end of short-term aid. In addition, it is also the responsibility of donor organisations to ensure that there is transparency in the way they operate via local partner organisations, because that is needed at local levels for people to trust peacebuilding interventions. Local organisations also need to inform the local communities of the nature and limitations of their collaborations with both internal and external donors. Such measures will help build a foundation for peacebuilding in Pakistan.

Previously published on openSecurity as part of the debate: Peacebuilding from a Southern Perspective

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AG Chohan on September 21, 2012

Beautiful Article.

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