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Pakistanis Criticize Government For Banning Aid Group

A Pakistani policeman outside the office of international aid group Save the Children in Islamabad.
A Pakistani policeman outside the office of international aid group Save the Children in Islamabad.

Pakistani aid workers, lawmakers, and politicians have condemned Islamabad for prohibiting an international humanitarian organization from operating in two impoverished western provinces.

They say Pakistan's federal government has told Save the Children to close its healthcare and education projects in the restive provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan and invest the same resources in the eastern provinces of Sindh and Punjab.

Participants in Radio Mashaal's weekly live call-in show "Along the Borderland" accused Islamabad of diverting resources from the violence-wracked regions to Pakistan's most prosperous province, Punjab.

Home to nearly 100 million people, Punjab is the industrial and agricultural heartland of Pakistan. It dominates the rank and file of the country's powerful military and is the key political base of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

"The central government is denying us funds and resources, which means it has a policy to keep the people of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa illiterate, unskilled, and poor," lawmaker Usman Kakar said.

Kakar represents Balochistan in the upper house or Senate of Pakistani Parliament. He told Radio Mashaal the decision to close Save the Children's programs in his province was a unilateral move by the federal government in Islamabad, which was not taken into confidence about the decision.

He said the closure will deprive thousands of women and children of healthcare and education.

On June 11, the Pakistani government ordered Save the Children to "wind up its offices/operations in Pakistan" and asked its expatriate members "to leave Pakistan within 15 days." But the very next day the government suspended the previous order.

The charity was not officially accused of any specific illegal activities, but senior officials told journalists it might have engaged in "anti-state activities" -- a Pakistani euphemism for spying.

In a statement on June 24, Save the Children announced it had reopened its Islamabad office and said the organization "has never been involved in anti-state activities."

A few days later, a senior provincial official in Balochistan accused Islamabad of shutting down the charity's projects in his province.

"The funds which were supposed to be spent on Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's education sector via Save the Children now have been transferred to Sindh and Punjab provinces," Balochistan Health Minister Rehmat Saleh Baloch told journalists on June 28. "It is a clear injustice to the smaller and underpeopled provinces."

Kakar says he intendeds to challenge the decision and would highlight it during a parliamentary debate. He says the decision is cruel because, after failing to bring development to the two provinces, Islamabad now wants to discourage international humanitarian charities from helping people there.

Save the Children was slotted to end its operations in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan on June 30. More than 450 of its employees will lose their jobs in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa alone.

Nizam Dawar, an aid worker in Pakistan's restive Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), says workers at hundreds of nongovernmental organizations are being harassed and their offices closed or regularly searched by security forces and intelligence agencies.

"Islamabad receives millions of dollars from international nongovernmental organizations and foreign governments," he said. "But at the same time it prevents many aid organizations from helping the more than 1 million people displaced from FATA. So such policies adversely impact millions of lives."

Former lawmaker Bushra Gohar says that in recent decades Islamabad has exploited Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan for its security interests while ignoring the genuine issues and problems of local communities. The regions served as the main rear base for the war against the Soviet Occupation in the 1980s and as a main theater for the war against terrorism since 2002.

"I fail to understand how banned militant and terrorist groups continue to operate in these areas while humanitarian organizations are barred from working for the welfare of its people or helping its children," she said.

Inayatullah Khan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's minister for rural development, says their administration will officially take up the ban on Save the Children with Islamabad.

He says, however, that Pakistani officials suspected some international organizations of being involved in spying and other anti-state activities.

Every Tuesday, millions of listeners in the Pakistani borderlands of FATA, Balochistan, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces tune in to "Along the Borderland." It is a weekly, hourlong Radio Mashaal call-in show known for interactive debates on social and political issues.