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What War and Militancy Left Behind: Swat Valley Struggles Back To Its Feet

Veiled students cross a street in Mingora, the capital of Swat Valley.
Veiled students cross a street in Mingora, the capital of Swat Valley.
While Pakistan’s tribal region and adjoining settled areas are still in the grip of violence as Taliban militants target security forces, peace activists, and public gatherings, Swat Valley is gradually recovering from the turmoil of the Taliban insurgency that displaced 2.3 million people from their homes in 2009.

Nonetheless, the region's efforts to get back on its feet are being hampered by inefficiency and cultural misunderstandings that have made it difficult for NGOs and other agencies to provide effective development aid.

Swat is Pakistan’s prime tourist destination, with scenic valleys, water falls, rivers, orchards, and hundreds of rare Buddhist archeological sites.

Until 1969, it was a princely state, with its own unique social values and cultural traditions.

In 2007, Swat and the adjacent Buner and Dir districts were dominated by pro-Al Qaeda Taliban militants under the command of the extremist leader Maulana Fazllulah.

In 2009, Pakistan deployed more than 25,000 troops to fight the militants and restore state authority.

Civil and military officials claim the area has been cleared of extremists affiliated with Fazlullah (commonly known as Radio Mullah).

Complaints From Community Leaders

They also say construction work on rebuilding schools, health-care facilities, and bridges is well under way.

However, community leaders at the grass-roots level complain of inefficiency, duplication, red-tape, squandered aid money, and a lack of coordination among national and international development organizations.

In Swat Valley, 80 percent of the people depend on tourism for their livelihood.

Before the rise of the Taliban, tourists, researchers and art lovers from around the world visited the region for skiing, fishing, trekking, and enjoying its serene environment.

Zahid Khan, president of the Swat Hotels Association, says Taliban extremism and devastating floods in 2010 caused huge losses to the area's tourism industry.

"Taliban militancy has cost the industry 7.5 billion Pakistani rupees [around $83 million] and 40,000 have people lost their jobs," he estimates, adding that 137 hotels were washed away by floods in 2010.
Victims of massive flooding in 2010 carry relief good across a damaged bridge in Kallam, Swat Valley
Victims of massive flooding in 2010 carry relief good across a damaged bridge in Kallam, Swat Valley

Khan claims the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) provided $4 million for reviving the hotel industry, but that a lot of this aid has not reached its intended recipients.

"USAID sub-contracted the project to another organization and because of this the aid money is not being properly utilized," he said.

"Two million dollars disappeared. The rest of the support has been provided to the owners of the 137 hotels."

Khan added that furniture provided within the framework of the project had been "sub-standard" and that he had written to USAID's management asking them to investigate the matter.

Local Communities Excluded

Reviving tourism is vital for defeating extremism in the region as poverty and deprivation drive the area’s youth into the arms of the Taliban.

Besides USAID, development organizations from some Arab and Western organizations are providing funds and technical support for building basic health and educational infrastructure in the region.

So why is international monetary support not resulting in an improvement in living standards in the region?

Why are hundreds of schools lying derelict while students are being taught in tents provided by UNICEF and other aid organizations?

There are two important aspects to this issue.

First, aid organizations and government departments are not making enough effort to work in close coordination with each other. There is also no viable mechanism through which local communities can become involved in the decision-making process.

Second, international nongovernmental organizations began operating in the valley in an emergency situation and didn't take the time to properly understand local sociocultural values and traditions.

This led to mutual mistrust and suspicion between the people of the region and the NGOs.

Workshops and training sessions were held in hotels and government buildings in areas where traditional local community centers known as Hujra could have been effectively utilized to mobilize the people.

No Sense Of Ownership

The region also has a tradition known as "Ashar," which involves sharing burdens and working together for public welfare.

The former ruler of Swat, Miangul Abdul Haq Jehanzeb, would only provide technical staff, material and logistic support to local villagers who would then have to work together to build schools and bridges.

This tradition also gave communities a sense of ownership of these projects.

Even Taliban commander Maulana Fazlullah employed the same concept to motivate and engage local communities for the construction of his huge complex along the banks of the River Swat. That was a huge success.

In 2010, when floods cut off valleys in upper Swat and officials failed to provide food items and medicine to the affected population, locals came together under Ashar and restored a road.

International NGOs, however, began implementing "cash-for-work" programs, a foreign concept that backfired.

In some cases, they did help people earn some money but they lacked the sense of ownership and fair play required for the sustainability of development projects in war-shattered areas like Swat.

Now, people even demand money for small work projects in their neighborhood and look to governmental and nongovernmental organizations for help.

Consequently, cash-for-work has weakened the spirit of volunteerism among the people.

Mixed Results

Shaukat Sharar, a Swat-based development expert and sociologist, believes the intervention of international organizations has had both a positive and negative impact on Swat society.

“Now our women have more opportunities to express themselves and contribute to their families," he says. "That’s a positive thing, because the Taliban oppressed women. The downside is that we lost our traditional institutions like Hujra in the process."

Hujra is a traditional Pashtun institution shared by all the people in a village. It's a public communal property where youngsters learn from their elders; a kind of guest house, meeting place, and cultural center at the same time.

"Now, some people do have Hujras but these are their private properties, not for the public," says Sharar. "If NGO people don’t feel comfortable with the concept of Hujra, they should work to build community centers, because that's the way to ensure people's participation in development work."

Because NGOs hold their activities in hotels and government buildings Sharar claims Hujra as an institution has disappeared from daily life in Swat.

“On the one hand, you can see some positive things developing on the social scene," he says. "On the other hand, you sense that the old values and traditions, which kept the society together, are on the wane."

-- Shaheen Buneri