Update from Pakistan

Pakistan, July 16, 2009

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    Holden Basch is leading our emergency response to the Pakistan IDP crisis. Photo:

Holden Basch is visiting our Portland headquarters this week after spending the last two months running our emergency program in Pakistan for families displaced by fighting between the army and Taliban militants.

Our short-term programs there continue to aid families living far from home: We're making improvements to water and sanitation systems at overcrowded schools, providing kids with structured activities and safe places to play, and staffing birthing clinics and mobile health teams to treat pregnant women.

Some families have begun moving back home, and we're planning to follow them to ensure they recover their livelihoods after several months in limbo.

Basch, who previously worked for Mercy Corps in Helmand, Afghanistan, reflected on the crisis and our work.

Q. Reuters reported today that, "The Swat exodus was one of the biggest human migrations of recent times." Did it feel like that on the ground?
It is not immediately visible because so many people were absorbed by local communities. When we did distributions I saw 3,000 people in one place, but generally you didn't see that kind of "television" moment. With 80 percent of the people staying with host families, you don't see the displacement as a collection of people in one place.

Q. What did you think of the phenomenon of people sheltering strangers in their home?
It's amazing. Most of the people were sustained by the communities where they took shelter. It wasn't NGOs, it wasn't the Pakistan government, it wasn't the UN. It was the Pakistan community helping them. When you think that 80 percent of the people found a home, that's pretty amazing. I couldnt imagine it happening in the U.S. or in most other places in the world.

Q. The government is beginning to send home about 2 million people, according to news reports. Is this happening?
The government is cutting some services in the camps, and people are getting tired of staying there because it's hot and uncomfortable and the rains will start soon. They're thinking it's better to take a chance and go home. We haven't yet seen people going back in the same numbers that are being reported. Even if the government is starting to provide transportation for people back to their villages, when you think of the logistics, even if 10,000 people returned each day, it's going to take months to move millions of people.

Q. The programs we have are all due to end in the next two months, but do any of them provide a disincentive for families to return home?
No. It's not like Sudan, where people were so badly off that the camps are better places to live than their homes they left behind. Most of the families who've been displaced in Pakistan had a decent life, clearly better than where they have taken shelter, regardless of what we can offer them.

Q. One of our biggest emergency relief programs was distributing cash vouchers to more than 21,000 families. That seemed to go really well.
It was very successful, and somewhat of a new wave in development work. When you're working in a place where the banks are functioning, the shops have something to sell, why disrupt the market by trucking in food or non-food items like mosquito nets or mattresses. With cash, people get to decide for themselves what they need most. It’s good for the people who are displaced, and it's good for the local economy and the communities that are sustaining the displaced.

Q. What kinds of things will Mercy Corps try to do as people return home?
We have started assessing the areas that were abandoned to prepare for the returnees. What we'll have to do is look at how to help them regain a steady livelihood. There might be some animal health initiatives to help replace livestock that was abandoned or sold as people fled. We could also look at doing something to help the farmers who missed an entire harvest. But most projects will be connected to livelihoods.