What next for the IRC in Afghanistan?
January 18, 2012 by Ned Colt
|Nigel Jenkins, IRC country director in Afghanistan Photo: Ned Colt/IRC|
Afghanistan is a country facing vast challenges. It is one of the poorest nations on earth. Last year the United Nations reported that 36% of Afghans live in “absolute” poverty. Another challenge? Education. The literacy rate is approximately 43% for men, and 13% for women. Corruption is an ongoing problem as well, with the country currently ranked as the 180th most corrupt nation out of 183.
A NATO-led multinational force has been based in Afghanistan since 2001. Currently there are close to 130,000 foreign troops currently based in Afghanistan, and almost all will be gone by 2014.
Nigel Jenkins (above) is the International Rescue Committee’s Afghanistan country director. A Briton, he came to the IRC after more than 16 years of experience in numerous conflict zones around the world with the humanitarian organization Doctors without Borders. I recently sat down in Kabul with Jenkins to discuss the challenges ahead.
NJ: I think the biggest challenge is the forthcoming transition. NATO have clearly stated that they will soon start to draw down their forces, and will be handing over the security responsibility for the entire country to Afghan security forces in 2014.
Clearly, there’s a non-military element to that transition, as evidenced by a reduction in international aid to Afghanistan.
NC: How will the IRC cope with that change?
NJ: We are well placed to deal with it. There will be a new set of dynamics in play, but for us, the trick will be to anticipate those challenges, which will potentially mean reduced funding for programs, and increased insecurity.
NC: Are there aspects to the NATO drawdown that could change the situation on the ground in Afghanistan in the aid context?
NJ: It’s hard to predict where the current situation will lead. We still remain in a conflict situation in many provinces, and an entire generation of Afghans who’ve known nothing but conflict yearn for a lasting peace. There will be a change on the ground. Obviously with such a large military presence here, some see that as offering a measure of security. But on the flip side, others see the continued presence of foreign troops as a source of instability. Any conflict increases the danger for vulnerable Afghans. Ultimately? There could be a change for the better, but we will certainly see a period of transition.
NC: You’ve worked all over the world. How are the needs different here than you’ve found elsewhere?
NJ: Afghanistan is a poor, agrarian, landlocked country. It’s a nation that has seen close to 35 years of conflict. So it’s going to require a long-term effort and commitment on the part of the global community to make a lasting difference here.
NC: What are the IRC’s current aid and development priorities in Afghanistan?
NJ: We are working on what is called the “National Solidarity Program” (NSP). It is a World Bank funded initiative that aims to let the Afghan people determine their own development priorities. For the IRC, that has meant working on such disparate but critical projects as installing micro-hydropower plants in eastern Afghanistan. We’re currently finishing construction on a community center that will bring a community closer together. And we’ve worked to improve irrigation for wheat farmers, who’ve long suffered from chronic droughts in eastern Afghanistan. It is all community based, and it has a gender element to it. These projects essentially empower people and enable them to make positive decisions for their communities.
We’re also ensuring that we are prepared for any short-term developments with emergency preparedness components in all our programs. This is a country that is regularly visited by natural disasters such as droughts, floods and earthquakes, so we want to be able to respond to emergency needs as rapidly and effectively as possible.
NC: What are the IRC’s plans for Afghanistan in 2012?
NJ: Education will be a key component for the country program moving forward. It was a major component of our work in the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan, and if we intend to help move not only the Afghan people — but the country — forward, education is critical. Currently, we’re actively seeking funding to enable the IRC to broaden its education programs in much of the country.
NC: Outside the humanitarian aid world, few realize that most of the work is done by national staff. Why are they so critical to success in programming?
NJ: Working with our national staff and national partners gives us an edge. It allows us to capacity-build. While I know that will sound like jargon to many who don’t work in the humanitarian aid field, what it essentially means is, we empower those we are working with. The vast majority of the IRC’s staff around the world is comprised of staff from those countries in which we work, and that’s certainly true here in Afghanistan. Our national staff have situational context. They’ve lived here their entire lives. The more tools we can help provide them, the more responsibility they can take on, and ultimately? The more likely they’ll lead Afghanistan forward.
NC: Afghanistan would appear to be one of the most unfortunate countries on earth in recent decades. There has been widespread conflict since the 1980s, chronic drought, and periodic flooding. How do Afghans cope?
NJ: Frankly, I believe with all the misfortune and trauma during that period — which really covers an entire generation of Afghans — people’s coping mechanisms have been eroded. Currently we’re in the ninth drought in the last 11 years. While the combatants may change, conflict has continued here for 30 years. These things happen year on year on year. And while people are incredibly resilient here, and have coped with challenges for so many years, now they are running out of options. In the past, they might have sold livestock or excess grain to get them through the hard times, but with the drought — and the instability — that capacity is now gone.
NC: So what’s the solution?
NJ: So many have nothing left. That’s why IRC initiatives like cash for work programs have been quite successful insofar as they inject a bit of cash into a family and a community, and help them get past these recurring rough patches. While one could throw aid at the problem, we don’t see it as a long-term solution. It tends to build an unhealthy dependency on the part of people who have historically weathered the many challenges they’ve faced.
NC: Is timing an issue for Afghanistan?
NJ: Certainly. Over time, the eyes of the world will focus elsewhere. It’s inevitable. But as long as donors can agree on a certain and impactful level of funding, and the support is responsibly provided, Afghanistan will manage.
NC: Do you have a sense of optimism in what the IRC can accomplish in Afghanistan in the years ahead?
NJ: I certainly do, and my optimism centers on the Afghan people. As I’ve said, they are incredibly resilient. They are survivors. They will adjust to the post-transition environment. And as long as we provide some of the tools to help them get past this difficult period, I’m definitely optimistic.