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AFGHANISTAN: Call for return to aid basics

KABUL, 1 April 2010 (IRIN) - When Antonio Donini was head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Kabul in the late 1990s, large parts of the Afghanistan were controlled - as is the case now - by anti-government insurgents. But there was an important difference - humanitarian organizations had access to areas not under the government's authority.

He regards the inability now of UN agencies and NGOs to work outside of the towns controlled by the government or foreign coalition forces, as "a failure in the way the humanitarian enterprise works".

Donini is a promoter of principled humanitarian action - independent, neutral and impartial. Now an academic at the Feinstein International Center of Tufts University, USA, he was back in Kabul this week to explore the challenges facing aid delivery in Afghanistan.

He had driven from his guest house in central Kabul, with its high blast-resistant walls and armed foreign security guards, to the fortified OCHA office. He would have squeezed past a boom and into a narrow corridor of the security front office for checks and scans before being allowed to proceed - standard practice for international organizations in Afghanistan.

Aid money is available for recovery and development in Afghanistan, more so than at any other time. But the risks and restrictions facing humanitarian workers are also greater. They have been deliberately attacked and intimidated by the Taliban, and their operating environment has become heavily politicized and "militarized".

Gone are the days when aid workers were largely perceived as impartial and allowed to operate across the country. Now, where the Taliban's influence starts, humanitarian and development work ends.

In a bid to reverse this trend and help reorganize humanitarian action, OCHA returned to the country in 2009, after an almost seven-year absence. Donini headed the office between 1999 and 2002.


During presentations to UN agencies and NGOs in Kabul, Donini emphasized the need for a clear separation between the “political” and the “humanitarian” mandates of the UN which, he said, would help tackle misperceptions around the world body's role and loyalties.

“The UN is not only UNAMA [UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan]. The UN is also the custodian of the UN Charter, and of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and OCHA has been mandated to play an independent, neutral and impartial role in the provision of humanitarian assistance. When there are needs, I think the UN should be more active in engaging with whoever controls the territory," he told IRIN.

"I would argue there needs to be clearer separation between the political and the humanitarian wings of the UN, each of which should render their duties as enshrined and mandated. This is what the UN has been doing in other countries.”

Talks with the Taliban on humanitarian access have been recommended by some, but negotiations have so far failed to ensure unrestricted access.

And despite maintaining a dialogue with both sides, the International Committee of the Red Cross is unable to operate in many insecure parts of the country.

Different scenarios

Given the insurgents’ lack of interest in a compromised peace, increased volatility and suffering is a strong possibility.

An increasingly topic of discussion in Kabul is Afghanistan after foreign forces withdraw. “A lot will be determined by the military and political developments over the coming 18 months. The best scenario could be a political settlement [of the conflict]," said Donini.

"However, aid actors must also be prepared for a scenario which involves more fragmentation, more humanitarian needs. Therefore it’s important to have a good level of trust with all the players on the ground which might make it easier, if the situation fragments and becomes more complicated, to do humanitarian work.”


Theme(s): (IRIN) Aid Policy, (IRIN) Conflict


Copyright © IRIN 2010
This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
IRIN is a project of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

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