Relief Leader Says Tribal Youth Need Not be Lost to Taliban

June 1, 2010

Speaking softly, Faiysal AliKhan points to an underlying truth he sees in tribal areas of his native Pakistan. “There is an intergenerational aspect to this conflict which is often not talked about. We talk about socio-economic, gender issues, but we don’t talk about who hostile groups engage with – they engage with youth, not elders, not anyone else.”

“There’s no militant leader over 30 or 35 years old, and their foot soldiers are even younger,” adds AliKhan, founder of the Foundation for Integrated Development Action, a Pakistani organization that works predominantly with youth in the southern Frontier Province and surrounding tribal areas

For AliKhan, engaging young people is missing in the strategic approaches being advanced by civil society, government and political parties. “Even the community itself doesn’t take on board young peoples’ opinions,” he notes.

In Pakistan, especially the tribal areas, nearly 55 percent of the population is below 30-years of age. As Pakistan’s efforts to extend military and civilian authority in the tribal areas intensify, AliKhan’s organization is in a unique position to offer informed observations on youth and their tendency to be recruited by hostile groups, which he likens to attraction held by gangs.

“Take the seventh son of a tribal family who has no status in the family and doesn’t come from a prominent tribe – what is his future?” says AliKhan. “Who are his role models? Are there any positive role models? Not really.” Accordingly, with few opportunities, this youth is very likely to align himself with a hostile group, which provides many opportunities.

Number one, there is an economic opportunity; you have the ability to earn in your own backyard and need not seek work abroad or another city,” says AliKhan. “Number two, you get status, otherwise the seventh son has no status. And thirdly, another aspect in looking at these variables is looking at it like a gang. There’s an appeal for a young person to be part of a hostile group, you’re wearing your turban a certain way, you have guns – becoming Taliban gives this youth a voice, status.”

The son of a family with both business and military backgrounds, AliKhan was awarded a degree in Business Administration and Politics from the United Kingdom’s University of Kent in Canterbury and spent his early college years at Hampshire College in Massachusetts. Having family experience with some of the largest joint ventures in Pakistan, AliKhan is accordingly mindful of creating an enabling business environment in Pakistan and the importance of service delivery. With the success of their commercial activities, the AliKhans invested in making a social impact.

It was his grandfather, who was born in Dera Ismail Khan in the Northwest Frontier Province, that helped spark his interest in his ancestral area. AliKhan wanted to bring his learning from the private sector back to his grandfather’s birthplace. When a local government ordinance was issued in the tribal areas to empower grassroots governance in 2004, AliKhan established FIDA, which means “devotion” in the local language. “We felt we could get involved in terms of helping to build better governance structures, said AliKhan, “We thought, how could we affect service delivery based on our business successes — how could we institutionalize what we had learned?”

childrenplayingonthenewlymadestreets-300x225 Based in Dera Ismail Khan, FIDA also focused its efforts to assist those from nearby South Warzistan, a poor and conflict prone area. Despite this good will and being native to the area, FIDA’s leadership learned early on that the challenges posed by realities on the ground call for a long perspective and sustained commitment. After a five year period of research and development, AliKhan and his partners realized that their initial 20-year vision for effecting change would have to be extended over many decades.

“Because of all the turbulence, we felt that any meaningful social transformation necessitated a focus on young people given that the majority of the population is under 26-years old,” says AliKhan. The team estimated it would take 25-years just to lay the foundation for a robust civil society. “If we as an organization wanted to try to be an alternative to hostile groups, first we realized we had to understand what are the motivational factors for young people and try to relate to them,” he added.

In Washington to speak to the annual meeting of the Society for International Development (SID), AliKhan is wearing a tailored blue stripe suit. Despite his dark shoulder-length curly hair, he could easily be a 30-something young executive in a corporate boardroom. However, at the SID meeting he was wearing traditional clothes, the attire he usually wears in Pakistan. He adds that in traditional clothes most Westerners would not be able to discern the difference between him and Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan leader Hakimullah Mehsud, even if seated next to each other; that’s the stereotype he’s trying to break.

“My whole argument here is, why should some of these hostile groups be able to rob us of a certain cultural identity. Why is it when you see an image of a young man in a turban and traditional clothes, you think of Taliban,” asks AliKhan. “Who decided that these groups can take this image, this traditional attire of an entire ethnic group and geographic area?”

The cultural nuances of the tribal area are a complex tapestry that has even stumped AliKhan on occasion. Recently, FIDA attempted to empower its employees all the way down to the lowest staff member by giving them greater latitude in financial authority and decision making. “We thought that this was a great idea, to try to broaden the talent pool,” said AliKhan. Three months later, however, the whole endeavor failed. The newly empowered wanted their old jobs back or to be demoted.

“The reason is that we come from a society where decision making is not encouraged. We don’t always decide whom we marry, we live in joint family systems. Individual decision making is not encouraged in our culture,” says AliKhan. “I’ve lived in Pakistan all my life, spent my childhood here, but I can tell you that only in the last six years of working with FIDA have I learned what’s going on out there. If you’re not talking directly to youth, you have no clue what’s on their minds,” he adds.

In talking with youth all over the tribal areas, AliKhan has realized that vocational training is a priority. But, he says the youth don’t want to learn how to repair a water pump or how to build 2 phase electricity which is outdated now. They want to learn how to repair a blackberry; they need tangible skills for today’s market. They’re interested in transport and logistics, learning to be a lorry driver, a better way to mine gemstones, skills that would be natural to the needs of their environment.

AliKhan offers a cautionary story. “I met this young 18-year old teacher in southern Punjab, another militant prone area. There were some literacy programs there and I asked her about her students’ aspirations. She answered, ‘what you have done is provide a 5 month literacy program, but have you thought about the next steps? You are raising expectations and tomorrow these young women will be married and carrying water. If their expectations are being raised, then to what end, what’s the next step?’”

Last June when military operations took place in South Waziristan, a mass exodus of their local population ensued. According to AliKhan, in the wake of the offensive FIDA registered and distributed aid to approximately 450,000 Internally Displaced Persons. As part of their approach to creating a transparent process for providing needed assistance, FIDA deliberately worked to engage large numbers of disaffected youth. Bringing together members of every sub-group and tribe, including youth, FIDA drew on the traditional tribal shared system for decision making.

“We got the youngsters engaged because we believed the youth would become a party to conflict in one way or another… either we engage them or they would be engaged, recruited by hostile groups. So, we sold them on FIDA, explained to them that FIDA is a movement, a vehicle for them to interact with the government and NGOs, the UN –it’s their organization. Because this structure was a traditional one, we forced youth to interface with tribal elders and told them they had the opportunity to prove to the world and the country that they are a lot more than what they seem to be which is anti-government and Taliban and, hostile,” said AliKhan. Interestingly, during this period of mass displacement AliKhan notes there were no security incidents, which he credits to this innovative youth-focused approach.

AliKhan adds that local and international organizations can complement each other. “I do see the value of those partnerships and perhaps revising the development paradigm in terms of reversing subs and primes is not necessary. There’s a large amount of money that needs to be spent and accounted for in a short period of time.” According to AliKhan, international organizations “bring knowledge from around the world – best practices that would greatly benefit us,” and can play a role in helping local organizations build capacity so they are sustainable. He adds, “Local organization can do the last mile of service delivery, since they know the terrain and the people.”

Finally, he notes with a sense of irony that aspects of our own culture might make Americans apt to understand tribal culture. “When you talk about deeply religious, gun obsessed, suspicious of outsiders, these kinds of terms, one can of think of places in the south in the U.S.,” he says. “In one way, what they call the “good old boys” in the U.S. would have a much better sense and understanding of a lot of Pakistan’s tribal peoples, because they are very similar in their thinking there is a lot of things there that resonate in their daily lives. I think this is a very key point here. The communities you would think would be most uninterested are probably the ones who have a key to understanding a lot of this. When I come and see a sign in front of a house which says, “We don’t dial 911” and I see a dog and an old truck on bricks, it makes one feel at home …a lot gets lost in translation.”

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