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In Pakistan's Tribal Areas, Doubts About Development

  • Majeed Babar
  • Charles Recknagel

Pakistani soldiers inspect a bridge over the Kurram River. Can development go forward when military operations are driving people from their homes?

Pakistani soldiers inspect a bridge over the Kurram River. Can development go forward when military operations are driving people from their homes?

It's an axiom in the "war on terror" that to free areas from the grip of militants, you have to develop them economically.

In Pakistan, that translates into both the United States and Pakistan allocating millions of dollars for projects in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The projects range from dams to roads to women's vocational centers, and the goal is to lift the economy of an area where 60 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, compared to 22 percent nationwide.

So, it should be no surprise that the website of the Pakistani government's development agency for FATA is filled with descriptions of big programs. Reading it gives the impression that help is not just on the way but right around the corner, despite the constant news of conflicts and population displacements in the tribal areas themselves.

Yet if the website of the FATA Development Agency (FATADA) is reassuring, it can be disquieting to ask people in the tribal areas what confidence they have that the projects will change their lives. What emerges is a worrisome picture of leaders and ordinary people with little faith that the projects will be realized and Pakistani development authorities' seeming inability to convince them otherwise.

Part of the problem is a sometimes glaring gap between the reports of progress on the official website and what people actually see on the ground. One example of that is a small dam planned for the area of Bara in Khyber Agency.

According to FATADA, a feasibility study has already been completed for the dam, which would have a capacity of 5.8 megawatts of electricity and enable irrigation of almost 42,000 acres of land.

But when RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal asked Bazar Gul Afridi, a well-informed local man in Bara, what he knows of the project, his response was negative.

"There is nothing on the ground. Let me tell, for two years there has been a curfew in the Bara area, security forces are doing operations and raids," Afridi said. "In this kind of situation, doing development work is almost impossible. There is nothing [being built] on the ground. It is only talk."

Unrealistic Plans

A more dramatic example of disconnect between the projects described by the Peshawar-based Development Agency and local confidence in them is one of FATADA's larger flagship projects, a planned "Marble City" in Mohmand Agency.

The city is projected to be a fully equipped, 120-hectare industrial estate where marble quarried in the region can be processed into products for the international market. The project is intended to ultimately create 6,000 badly needed jobs.

"As far as Marble City is concerned, we have already provided 351 million Pakistani rupees [$4.1 million] to the political agents of Mohmand tribal area," said FATADA's planning manager, Mohammed Ghous Ur Rehman.

"This money is to buy the land, build a connecting road and an electric grid. This Marble City will be established in the city of Machinay and all the funds have been transferred to local authorities."

A little girl stands outside the rubble of a school building destroyed by militants on the outskirts of Bara in 2009.

Rehman noted that once the land was purchased from local owners and the electricity grid was in place, much of the hardest work for the project would be done.

But when Radio Mashaal asked a prominent member of Pakistan's National Assembly, Javad Hussain from Orukzai Agency, whether he thought Marble City would ever actually be built, the response was decidedly guarded.

"How is it possible to have development work when the tribal areas are having army operations? The people of Mohmand tribal area are leaving their homes due to the operations. The people from Kurram [another strife-torn tribal agency] are on a hunger strike in Islamabad," Hussain said.

"Schools are in a shambles. Teachers are not going to the classrooms. In this kind of bad situation, how is it possible that they have or can start any development projects?"

Locals Left Out

Yet if lack of security is a big reason many people in the tribal areas have little confidence that development projects will change their lives, there are other reasons, too.

Ali Farid Khan, the chief of the Wazir tribe in South Waziristan, says that local people welcome the prospect of development projects because they hope they will generate immediate jobs, starting with the construction phase.

But he says that many people have been disappointed to see that the construction phase of many of infrastructure projects is handled mostly by the Pakistani Army's public-works division, which provides its own labor force.

Worse, Khan says, local people, even tribal leaders like him, do not feel their opinions matter. "Everybody in the tribal areas is [constitutionally] supposed to hold stakes or shares in the area's natural resources," Khan says. "But nobody informs us. I am not talking just about myself; I am talking about any members of my tribe."

The Pakistani Army says it undertakes reconstruction projects because it can provide security for them in an area where that remains a major concern. Militants targeting infrastructure projects in the FATA have sabotaged roads, destroyed bridges, and blown up many government school buildings in addition to electricity towers and medical clinics.

Achievements Untrumpeted

The local complaints about the development process do not mean no progress has been made. Among the major construction projects since 2001 are a road connecting the Khyber and Kurram agencies, and a road in South Waziristan. At the same time, several dams have been completed and irrigation in surrounding areas improved.

Pakistani development officials are quick to defend the record of reconstruction work in the FATA, and none more so than officials at FATADA. Planning manager Rehman says there is more progress than the public generally knows:

"The media never reports the successes, even though we put out information about our work," Rehman says. "When we give press conferences they don't come."

The fact that the press does not come is true. But the reasons for that are perhaps the strangest disconnect of all in what should be a vigorous government effort to convince the tribal areas that development is on the way.

To enter the FATA, media members must first obtain permission from the Pakistani military, which cites security concerns in tightly restricting access. And even local media -- which consist mostly of a plethora of community FM stations throughout the tribal areas -- say they are not informed of development efforts, much less invited to witness the progress.

All this might suggest that if the development drive is to succeed, a good place to start could be to better involve the public. The FATADA website in English may make reassuring reading for people abroad, but it also illustrates the size of the communications gap at home.