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The HC Interview: Afghanistan

27 Dec 2011


21 July 2011: UN Humanitarian Coordinator Michael Keating meets with local officials to assess the scale of a drought occurring in northeastern Afghanistan. CREDIT: UNAMA/ Fardin Waezi
Humanitarian Coordinator Michael Keating explains the challenges of helping millions of people in one of the most complex, insecure environments on earth

Even as international military forces prepare to leave Afghanistan, aid organizations are still struggling to help millions of people cope with conflict, environmental hazards, fragile governance and underdevelopment.

Humanitarian conditions have steadily deteriorated in recent years, due to conflict and a series of natural disasters - including drought, flash floods, and other extreme weather. Increased fighting in 2011 has disrupted many essential services, and made the work of humanitarian organizations even harder.

The majority of Afghanistan’s 30 million people are chronically or acutely vulnerable – meaning they rely on outside assistance to survive. Despite deep insecurity, nine UN aid agencies and 47 NGOs have called for US$437 million in 2012 to keep the aid flowing.

Michael Keating, who has been the UN’s Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Afghanistan for the past five months, finds himself in the difficult position of balancing political realities with increasing humanitarian needs, in one of the most complex emergencies in the world.

Q: What are the current humanitarian challenges in Afghanistan?

A: Our priorities for 2012 focus on humanitarian assistance to people affected by conflict and natural disasters, as well as assistance to displaced people and refugees, and advocacy around equitable and sustainable development. In a country as diverse and complex as Afghanistan, and after 30 years of conflict, there remains much work to be done.

Violence directly or indirectly impacts the lives of hundreds of thousands of Afghans, while recurrent natural disasters - such as the slow-onset drought currently affecting an estimated 2.8 million Afghans in 14 of the 34 provinces - weaken coping mechanisms and entrench poverty.

Q: How does the conflict affect humanitarian operations?

A: Afghanistan’s civilian population bears the brunt of the conflict. While all parties to the conflict have taken steps to reduce civilian casualties, the numbers remain higher than in the previous four years.

Violence suffered by the aid community limits both the scale and scope of humanitarian work. Restrictions on movement, difficulties in accessing communities, in monitoring delivery and its impact, and limited road infrastructure affect the quality and quantity of aid delivery.

Today, there are large swathes of the country we are unable directly or regularly to access due to security concerns. Despite these trends, there are some great examples of cooperation that make a real difference.

Q: Is this made easier or more difficult with the drawdown of ISAF forces?

A: It is too early to say whether security will improve or get worse. Security is not just about security forces - it is about access to justice and income too. We welcome a greater role by Afghan authorities. But economic activity, job opportunities and aid levels will decrease as the international presence is reduced.

Q: The 2012 humanitarian appeal (CAP) reflected a greater clarity of purpose within humanitarian organizations [going back to basics]. Is this related to fears of decreasing financial support?  

A: It is a contributing factor, yes, but not the principal motivation.

The blurring of lines between humanitarian, development and politically orsecurity-motivated assistance poses real and significant threat to humanitarian programming, and to humanitarian workers.  For this, further clarity is needed among all actors regarding the core tenets of humanitarian action [neutrality, impartiality, and humanity].

There is growing awareness that much of the development assistance and investment in Afghanistan has been unevenly spread and is unsustainable. So the CAP is advocating renewed attention by development actors to invest in activities that can reduce vulnerabilities – water, energy, agriculture, for example.

Q: The current drought has affected 2.8 million Afghans.  With winter looming, what is being done to assist these and other vulnerable communities?

A: We must address the current drought in two ways. First, raise the money. We revised the 2011 CAP on 1 October to include $142 million in drought-related projects that will continue until the next harvest between June and September 2012. With only 40 per cent funding for these projects as of 28 November, we need donors to continue to step up their support quickly.

Through the Drought Coordination Cell under the leadership of Minister Asif Rahimi, we are working to ensure that food, fodder and seed relief assistance is delivered by the Government, UN, NGOs and others to people in need. Winter poses specific access challenges - particularly for families living at high altitudes in the north, northeast and central highlands - and we are prepositioning and distributing assistance there as a matter of priority.  
Second, we must address the fundamentals. Responding to eight droughts in eleven years makes no sense. For example, by creating livelihoods, strengthening water management, investing in drought-resistant seeds, different crops, effective irrigation systems, potable water storage and so on.   

Q: How is the aid community working to gain access to more people?

A: Access varies. It is often based upon levels of ‘acceptance’ by the communities where we work.  There is no one-size-fits-all solution.  But principled action and quality service delivery are essential prerequisites. Within the humanitarian community, the UN and NGOs are currently reviewing best practices and lessons learnt across the country. The idea is to build upon those models which have proven most effective.

Q: Looking forward, are you optimistic?

A: I have to be, and I am by nature. Afghans are amazingly resilient and entrepreneurial.  With the right support, they can shape a brighter future.

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