When disaster strikes charities shouldn't give up

Reports of the closure of Save the Children's offices in Pakistan hint at a tendency to submit when the going gets tough says Marini Thorne

Reports surfaced late last week that Save the Children's offices in Pakistan were being closed down. Then, over the weekend, further claims emerged that the decision had been reversed. For Save the Children, uncertainty remains: there has still been no official comment on the decision or its reversal.

This sort of ambiguity poses a problem for Save the Children, and for the beneficiaries, donors and Islamabad staff who rely on it. But it also raises wider questions for charities operating overseas in volatile environments. They can face a moral quandary: caught between their duty to beneficiaries, their relations with host governments and the safety of their staff, should charities fight on or call it a day?

It isn't that rare for charities to be shut down, banned or refused entry by governments. It can result from indirect pressure, as in India last month when Greenpeace's bank account was frozen. The charity may be forced to close, and 340 jobs will go with it. Alternately, humanitarian agencies may be stopped by explicit government bans, as in the wake of Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar in 2008.

It is easy to see why charities are loathe to cease work. Such crackdowns are potentially deeply damaging for the communities with whom they work. Save the Children has worked in Pakistan since 1980, focusing on humanitarian relief for children in more than seventy districts. It runs programmes focussing on child rights, education, food, and health.

By its own account, the charity supported 880,000 children last year. The closure of Save the Children endangers the future not just of a few small pockets of the country, but a significant number of its children.

This problem hits not only the beneficiaries but the charity itself. Shutting-up shop can be a painful process for organisations which feel they are providing vital care to those who need it most, especially in areas where governments offer little relief to the most needy. And it costs money: donor cash may end up going on administration to wind-up an office, rather than high-impact work on the ground.

UK government policy has its own effect too. As reported recently by the Muslim Charities Forum and the Overseas Development Institute, UK banks fearful of breaching counter terror legislation have started closing and freezing bank accounts which directed money to charities operating in Syria. This has slowed, stopped or even led to the refunding of millions of pounds of donations used to help people caught up in conflict.

The legislation has disproportionately impacted UK Muslim organisations, which brings an additional problem: these are often the charities with precisely the language skills and contacts in the region who might be best placed to support those in need.

Yet for all these challenges, some charities are bullish about their mission to stay put and carry on working, even in the face of adversity. Medecins Sans Frontiere have argued in their report 'Where is Everyone?' that humanitarian NGOs shouldn't be overcautious in responding to security or logistical issues. MSF are unimpressed with organisations who 'go into hibernation' when the going gets tough. Too often, they argue, charities scale down their activities in response to the very crises which make their services so essential.

Hopefully, the situation for Save the Children in Pakistan will soon become clearer. But this isn't the first time this problem has emerged, nor is it likely to be the last. International charities would do well to be prepared.

Marini Thorne is a researcher at NPC



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