Emilio Morenatti/AP
Pakistani police officers escort the ambulance carrying the body of U.S. citizen Stephen Vance
into a hospital in Peshawar, Pakistan.

Are Western Aid Workers Welcome in Pakistan?

November 13, 2008 10:30 AM
by Sarah Amandolare
An American aid worker was killed in a highly dangerous area of Pakistan, prompting questions about the role of Western charities in the Middle East.

Countering the Taliban

Aid worker Steve Vance was on his way to work as director of a project for the U.S. government-funded Cooperative Housing Foundation in Peshawar, in northwest Pakistan. Vance and his Pakistani driver were gunned down in their car “in a residential area of the city known as University Town.” Vance had been working “to bring small-scale projects and jobs” to FATA, Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Area on the border of Afghanistan, “a stronghold of the Taliban and Al Qaeda,” according to The New York Times.

Vance’s job was part of a five-year, $750 million development initiative in FATA, overseen by the United States Agency for International Development. According to The New York Times, the agency’s efforts are meant to “counter the Taliban by creating jobs and building infrastructure” in tribal areas.

ABC News called the shooting “the latest incident targeting not only Americans but anyone employed by a nongovernmental organization who lives and works” in Peshawar.

Colleagues told ABC that Vance “dressed like the natives, declined Western-style security details” and had enrolled his five children in Pakistani schools, making such concentrated attacks on expatriates more frightening than “random bombings.” One colleague who spoke on condition of anonymity said, “We’re in no capacity to thwart a targeted attack.”

A worker for another Western nongovernmental organization conceded to ABC News that Peshawar’s needs “can be met other ways, but we have expertise. And we want to be able to use that expertise.”

But other options have been proposed, such as focusing on trade with Pakistan to create more jobs. In an editorial in the Baltimore Sun, Robert M. Hathaway and Edward Gresser suggest giving “duty-free treatment to Pakistan’s clothing, leather and textile industries” instead of increasing aid, enforcing sanctions or using political pressure, all tactics which have been largely ineffective at curtailing conflict in Pakistan.

Opinion & Analysis: NGOs and ‘democratization’

On his blog, journalist Tarik Jan examines what “invites hostility towards” NGOs. Jan draws from the work of American political scientist Dr. Joan Roelofs, who described NGOs as “Byzantine.” Part of the problem, according to Jan, is Western NGOs’ assumption of what makes a “civil society,” and the need for “democratization,” which emphasizes “civil liberties and elections,” but also “includes an open door to foreign capital, labor contracts, resource extraction, and military training.”

In 2006, Jan wrote in The Guardian about NGOs’ “stifling” of “genuine social movements” and “independent voices” in Pakistan.

Background: The Taliban, the tribal belt and NGOs

In early October, Reuters reported on the violent conflict between Pakistani tribesmen and Taliban militants in northwest Pakistan. After a Taliban suicide bomb attack on a tribal council meeting, tribesmen fought back by opening fire on militants and destroying their houses. According to Reuters, tribal areas on the Afghan border are considered “safe havens for al Qaeda and Taliban militants,” and the United States has been pressuring Pakistan “to take stern action” there.

But the level of entrenchment and complexity of Taliban-tribesmen conflict makes dealing with it extremely difficult. In an article for The New York Times, Dexter Filkins outlines “The Long Road to Chaos in Pakistan,” emphasizing Pakistan’s “obsession with India” and its 1994 decision to fund and support the Taliban as important factors. “While the Pakistanis have been primarily interested in using the Taliban to exert their influence inside Afghanistan, the Taliban have expanded their ambitions to include Pakistan itself,” writes Filkins.

There are also distinctly anti-Western sentiments to contend with, according to a 2000 Newsweek article that discussed the difficulties faced by Pakistani NGOs. According to University of Peshawar researcher Dr. Fakhrul Islam, “Muslim clergy have long hated ‘anything perceived as Western, and somehow NGOs have come to be identified with Western values.’”

Related Topic: Recent attack in Islamabad

Reference: Steve Vance’s work


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