Leading article: Pakistan risks hurting its children

 

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In one sense at least, the decision by the government in Islamabad to expel six foreign aid workers is understandable. Many in Pakistan are ambivalent about the "war on terror" waged by the United States and its allies, given the heavy loss of life – in so-called "collateral damage" – from drone attacks on the Taliban in both Afghanistan and their own country's northern regions. Many also still smart at the breach of sovereignty involved in US Special Forces' killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad last year.

But the Pakistanis are almost certainly tilting at the wrong target by linking Save the Children with Dr Shakil Afridi, who was sentenced to 33 years in jail for running a bogus vaccination programme which the US intelligence service used to track down Bin Laden. For evidence that the CIA was wrong to use a humanitarian programme in this way, one need look no further than statistics showing that large numbers of Pakistani parents are now refusing to take their children to be inoculated for fear that the health projects are a front for spies.

Save the Children has been tainted because Dr Afridi attended one of its training seminars shortly before the Abbottabad attack. But the charity protests that it has no links to Dr Afridi or the CIA. The training session he attended is one run for more than 100,000 Pakistani health workers over the years, Save the Children claims. Nor has Dr Afridi ever been employed by the charity. Nor is there any evidence of links between Save the Children and the US intelligence services, either in Pakistan or elsewhere.

Meanwhile, around seven million Pakistani children receive help from the charity, which spends a massive $100m a year in the country and employs 2,000 local aid workers. Islamabad would do well to issue visas to six other senior members of Save the Children's international staff, to replace those it has expelled, and to do so quickly. Otherwise it will be guilty of a great disservice to its own children. But the CIA must also stop jeopardising aid assistance by infiltrating agents into humanitarian work.

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