International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Transcript: Voices from the field - Insights from Afghanistan

June 6,  2011 -  Bob Kitchen has worked with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in some of the most demanding and dangerous places in the world, including Iraq, Sierra Leone, Sudan and Congo.  He’s directed the IRC’s Afghanistan program since 2009, and he leaves this summer to assume a new post as director of the IRC’s Emergency Response Team. During his last week in Kabul, he spoke with Ned Colt via Skype about his time in Afghanistan and the accomplishments of the country staff there. The conversation begins with Bob's thoughts on the challenge of working in a country where conflict and kidnapping are a constant threat.  A recording of their coversation is available here.

Transcription thanks to volunteer Brennan Hickson

Bob Kitchen: The international staff were all restricted because of the security environment. We've had to become used to not really seeing our programs frequently, and relying heavily on the talented and dedicated national staff that we have working here. We've had to employ different policies and management approaches to assure quality within our work, where we're triangulating more of the information we get to make sure that it's reliable. [We're] involving the community more and more to ensure that our programs are as good as they can be. It's extremely complex, and our national staff [are] cautious and measured but [take] risks everyday as they travel on the road.

Ned Colt: Specifically in terms of the IRC; there have been a number of success stories, in terms of our projects there in recent years, and the years that you've been there. What can you tell us about those?

Bob: There's been two major successes that I'm really proud of. First is that we've been working toward the end of a major project for community-based education, where almost 100,000 kids--of which 60% are girls (so, almost 60,000 little girls)--have been able to get access to education because of this project. It's a project where we go to places where the Ministry of Education don't have access to (because they're either way, way out in the middle of nowhere and they just don't have the resources to get there yet, or they're within Taliban-controlled areas). We've been able to negotiate safe access to these locations. It's a really exciting way of extending the reach of social services in a pretty dangerous, risky environment, but in a way that's safe for the kids. So it's really exciting. So many kids have been able to get access to education because of the IRC.

The other major success of the IRC over the last two years has been our ability to really get involved in humanitarian issues. People have been driven from their homes, conflict has been waged across the country, and the IRC has been there to support the communities that we've been working with for more than 20 years. Over the last year, we've responded to hundreds of thousands of people who have been impacted by the floods that happened last year that destroyed agricultural infrastructure; people lost all of their harvests, they lost their homes, they lost all of their belongings. The IRC has been there to help them in the first few days and weeks to give them plastic sheeting and buckets and kitchen sets and basic clothing and tents, just to start the process of getting things back together again. And then more recently, we've helped them reconstruct their irrigation systems so they could get ready to plant again this year and get their livelihoods back on track. So, helping in the education sector and then helping those most in need have been two big successes for the International Rescue Community over the last few years.

Ned: There have been a number of high visibility humanitarian crises around the world in the past year (North Africa, Japan). Are you concerned about a drop-off in awareness about the humanitarian issues that do remain in Afghanistan?

Bob: What we do know is funding that's coming into Afghanistan will start dropping off very rapidly during this year. We hope that the international donor community will make smart decisions to sustain funding for essential humanitarian programs, so we're advocating strongly within the donor community that as they shift their focus away from Afghanistan, they sustain the small funding stream that allows us to continue helping people when they're most in need.

Ned: And a personal question for you, if I may: you've worked in a number of other conflict zones with the IRC. As you leave Kabul in the coming weeks, what are you going to take with you from your two years there?

Bob: It's been a fantastic two years. It's the most complex place I've ever worked; that aspect has been extremely challenging. What has been most rewarding for me has been working with our national staff. I have staff who work within the team who have been with the IRC for more than 20 years. It takes such loyalty and bravery to continue working for an international organization through different regimes. It's been a real privilege to work with our Afghan staff and learn from them, and I'm looking forward to staying in touch with them as I continue working with the IRC.

Ned: Thanks, Bob. Bob Kitchen is the director of the Afghanistan program. Best of luck in your new post at the IRC, Bob.

Bob: Thank you.