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Afghanistan: humanitarian needs remain great

Published: Tuesday, 8th April 2014

Afghanistan is entering a new phase after the Afghan people went to the polls with so much enthusiasm a few days ago. Whatever the result of the election, with NATO troops continuing their withdrawal, it is clear that the burden of responsibility for the country now rests with the Afghans themselves.

However, it is vital that the international community do not lose interest, and that western governments in particular do not now consider their responsibility to the Afghan people to be over. The reality is that, despite the trillions of dollars spent on the war effort, and the sacrifice of so many lives, the people of Afghanistan still need international help. There has been progress in infrastructure and in areas like education, but these gains are fragile, and need to be preserved.

More than a third of Afghans live in poverty, on any definition. Maternal and infant mortality rates remain dreadful, and most schools and health facilities are still appalling. The population growth rates are among the highest in the world, yet habitable land is strictly limited. On top of all the security challenges, Afghanistan is also victim to frequent natural disasters. The UN estimate that nine million Afghans, or almost a third of the population, are in need. They have appealed for over $400 million for aid for the five million people who are suffering most.

Despite these alarming numbers, there is a danger that the media and public interest in Afghanistan will disappear along with the troops and that this will also affect governments’ willingness to contribute. There are already worrying signs – the United Nation’s appeal is only 22 per cent funded so far, even though the funds needed are only 0.025 percent of what the US alone have spent on their military operations since 2001.

Attracting resources for humanitarian need in Afghanistan has always been a challenge. During my three years as the UN’s Emergency Relief Coordinator, I saw first-hand how governments, including the Afghan government themselves, were almost obsessively focussed on the political and security challenges in Afghanistan but frequently lacked interest in the humanitarian part of the story. 

There is often scepticism over whether aid can really make a difference to ordinary Afghans. People are worried about corruption. There is an understandable fear of throwing good money after bad. Certainly delivering aid in Afghanistan is fraught with difficulties. It is complex and dangerous, and much care is needed to make sure the money goes where it is supposed to go. But humanitarian NGOs like the International Rescue Committee (IRC) have still been able to deliver real help on the ground where it is most needed. Community-based projects have had significant success in Afghanistan, not least working with the National Solidarity Programme, and been a source for much needed employment for local people. It is through this approach that the IRC has reached over four million people in 4,000 villages, digging wells as well as building schools and health clinics.
Working in Afghanistan in the years since 2001 has been very challenging. Humanitarian agencies have to maintain neutrality and impartiality in one of the most highly politicised environments in the world. Over the past 12 years there have been many who have wanted to take advantage of aid delivery for their political purposes. It was vital to ensure that we were not seen as being used by anyone. It was for that reason that I fought hard and ultimately successfully, as the Emergency Relief Coordinator, to decouple the UN’s humanitarian efforts from the rest of the UN presence in Afghanistan. NGOs were similarly determined to keep their own activities separate from those of NATO’s military presence.

Continuing to work there after NATO has left will be no less challenging. But aid agencies like the IRC were there before 2001 too. Security is likely to remain a major problem. That is why it will be particularly important to go on having the acceptance of local communities for what we are doing. That is always the best protection. It also means the projects concerned are likely to survive in the long term. The local community has to feel the project belongs to them if they are going to persuade armed groups not to target their school or health clinic.

It is not yet possible to know how things will turn out in Afghanistan. We have to hope for the best but plan for other possibilities too. Whatever the political future, it is clear that while needs remain so great the international community must make a firm commitment not to turn their backs on the Afghan people.

The IRC’s latest report on helping Afghans, What next for Afghanistan, can be found here. To support the IRC's work in providing life-saving aid to people forced to flee their homes because of conflict and natural disaster visit their website: http://www.rescue-uk.org/.

Sir John Holmes GCVO, KBE, CMG
The Ditchley Foundation