Aid agencies welcome UN attention to the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan
Today, aid agencies met with the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, Sir John Holmes in Kabul. We very much welcomed his visit and the increased interest in Afghanistan's humanitarian problems, which the UN shows by sending its highest level humanitarian representative. We hope that this visit will result in sorely needed focus on the increasingly difficult humanitarian situation in Afghanistan and stronger support from the UN in the challenging situation.
In order to keep humanitarian assistance impartial, the agencies specifically asked Sir John Holmes to Ensure that the UN in Afghanistan:
- Address the needs of the Afghan people and undertake the vital coordination that will help us reach those in need and make the best use of resources;
- Speak out on civilian casualties and the need for clear separation between military and civilian actors necessary to enable aid agencies to assist people in need;
- Become an advocate for keeping politics out of humanitarian assistance;
- Personally be an advocate for better response to Afghanistan's humanitarian problems and, urgently deploy additional resources to strengthen the UN's coordination capacity in country.
The humanitarian problems in Afghanistan are substantial. Not only does the war kill an unacceptable number of civilians - 650 so far this year, close to 2000 in 2007 - but insecurity also deprives people of access to basic services such as medical assistance and education. Schools and clinics are under attack: students and teachers are killed and schools and clinics burned. Recent reports suggest that as many as 300 000 students can no longer go to school and that more than that have lost access to health services because of the increased insecurity. "This is such a tragic loss of recent gains," says Save the Children USA's country director, Leslie Wilson.
Alarming for aid agencies are the lack of access to people in need. Areas that have traditionally been considered safe are becoming increasingly difficult to reach. In addition to the traditionally insecure areas in the South and South East, some agencies now have to withdraw from the West and the North. "NGOs have had to pull out from areas in which they have been working for decades, leaving the population assisted to care for themselves" Ciaran Donnelly, country director for the International Rescue Committee in Kabul comments. And the problems are real. Last year, 89 aid workers were abducted and 15 killed, and the worrying trend continues in 2008, with 12 NGO workers killed and 16 abducted this far this year. Increased insecurity for aid workers means that NGOs are able to assist less people.
International military actors' increased involvement in relief and reconstruction is further complicating the operational environment for NGOs, particularly in terms of security. Their involvement in aid activities, for which they are not adequately trained, forces a closer relationship between civil (NGO) and military actors and creates confusion about the relationship between aid agencies and the international military. "Our principles prevent us from being agents for any armed parties to the conflict, moreover, being perceived as such by communities, or any of these armed parties, is a clear threat to our security" says Nigel Pont, head of Mercy Corps in Afghanistan.
Despite these enormous challenges, the UN Mission in Afghanistan has not paid sufficient attention to humanitarian needs and the ability of agencies to respond. "The resources allocated to carry out humanitarian coordination in country have been completely inadequate compared to the size of the tasks we are dealing with" says Niamh Murnaghan, resident representative for the Norwegian Refugee Council. "We therefore very much welcome the increased focus that the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator and UNAMA is now giving to humanitarian issues in Afghanistan", she continues. The traditional UN agency tasked with humanitarian co-ordination globally, the Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is not present in Afghanistan.
Aid is politics in Afghanistan - it is used as a tool to "win hearts and minds" and achieve political and military objectives. Humanitarian assistance is supposed to be impartial: given only according to the criteria of need free from political discrimination. "Therefore we find it problematic that humanitarian coordination is currently placed under the political mission of UNAMA" says CARE Afghanistan's country director, Lex Kassenberg. "UNAMA has a political mandate to support the Government of Afghanistan, which makes it difficult for UNAMA to also fill the role as an apolitical coordinator of humanitarian assistance" he concludes. Aid agencies have repeatedly been asking for the establishment of an independent OCHA office to ensure that the help reach out to all people in need.
CARE International in Afghanistan
+93 799 239511
+93 700 285688
International Rescue Committee
Mob (1): +93 (0) 700 283 930
Mob (2): +93 (0) 799 160119
Norwegian Refugee Council, Kabul
Silje Vik Pedersen
Public Information and Advocacy Officer
+93 (0) 700181656
Save the Children USA
Country Director Afghanistan
+93 (0) 799-803-165