Recently I was fortunate to spend some time in Quetta, a dry, dusty city overlooked by beautiful steep mountains in the west of Pakistan. About a million people live in this major city which lies on the Bolan Pass; once the only gateway from Central to South Asia. Quetta is situated in the Balochistan province and is very close to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. A trade and communications hub between the two countries, it is also often at the centre of regional instability.
Balochistan province, while having 44 percent of Pakistan's land mass, is very sparsely populated with only five percent of the country's 180 million-strong population. For decades, separatist forces have been fighting in the province. Recently, 19 passengers were forced off their bus and killed as they travelled from Quetta to Karachi, violence and insecurity is an ever present danger. The region also has some of the worst development indicators in Pakistan, often comparable with those in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Mercy Corps has been working in this highly unstable environment for nearly 30 years, initially beginning our work in the region in 1986, responding to the needs of Afghan refugees displaced by the fighting following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Because of its proximity to Afghanistan, many young and vulnerable Afghan refugees and Pakistani men and women traverse the border between the two countries in search of work.
Today, Mercy Corps is working with over 2,500 young men and women to build their skills and provide them with opportunities. We have established technical training centres in Quetta and Loralai district, Balochistan, and informal vocational training centres in Kandahar, Afghanistan. This training is not only helping women and men gain new skills and ultimately find employment, it is also creating new forms of social cohesion by providing them with a safe space to bond across ethnic lines and historical divisions, to share ideas and empower each other, and instil a sense of pride and dignity into otherwise very tough lives.
In addition, and contrary to common perceptions about the role of women in this part of the world, I was privileged to see for myself technical training centres where hundreds of women are acquiring new skills in computer literacy, for example, and forging career paths for themselves.
As I visited this very remote and conflict-affected location in Pakistan, it was clear to me that it is possible to create meaningful, lasting and transformational change in some of the most difficult contexts. Too often development investment gravitates to more secure and developed environments, for all the obvious reasons - they are easier to access, safety and security of beneficiaries and staff is more secure, and it is more often easier to capture outcomes and demonstrate impact, which ultimately can lead to more funding.
But, as evidenced by the effect we are seeing in western Pakistan, it is also vital that we continue to invest in locations and environments that are more difficult to work in. It is our role as humanitarians and development practitioners to influence and persuade governments and donors to do the same. In these tough places we can have a major impact - and we can see the greatest benefits of a reduction in conflict and improvement in regional stability, which affects us all.
We must also advocate for better spending of funds in fragile and conflict-affected states, particularly on youth. Mercy Corps' recent Youth and Consequences research showed that it is how this money is spent that makes the most difference. Programmes must not only focus on economic needs, but address the principal drivers of political violence such as injustice and discrimination.
Mercy Corps is continuing to work with the Balochistan regional government to reach thousands more men and women in Pakistan by providing them with vocational training and opportunities to build social cohesion, but this will not be a quick fix. We must remain invested in fragile regions around the world and look to make a difference in the lives of those who live there. Right now, in the face of growing regional instability, this has never been so pressing.