Rethinking Humanitarian Assistance

Published on March 01, 2011 in Eurasianet

About 8 million Afghans, or more than one out of every four residents of the war-torn country, are in acute need of humanitarian assistance. The best way to meet this tremendous demand is through long-term investment in Afghanistan’s sustainable development.
Right now humanitarian aid efforts in Afghanistan feature a multitude of competing foreign aid organizations, bypassing the Afghan government, trying to find more trucks and safer routes to deliver more food rations or drinking water to an ever increasing number of destitute people. This method is neither desirable nor sustainable. The strategic solution to humanitarian access is prevention through institutional capacity building, and the investment of a greater share of foreign aid resources in Afghanistan’s socio-economic development.Through many international conferences on Afghanistan—from the Tokyo Conference in 2002 to the Kabul Conference last July—the Afghan government has appealed to the donor community to comply with the objectives of its own need-based development strategy, an integral part of which is properly sequenced development and humanitarian aid to ensure the effective management of crises when they occur. The country continues to call on its nation-partners to deliver on a pledge made at the Kabul Conference to channel at least 50 percent of their aid resources through the Afghan state, while ensuring that their independent aid efforts comply with the priorities of Afghanistan ’s National Development Strategy.

While present obstacles to humanitarian access must be overcome, durable solutions based on the Afghan development strategy must be assessed and given priority attention. In other words, helping the Afghan government design targeted and prioritized reconstruction and development projects geared towards prevention and management of natural or man-made disasters will go a long way toward lifting up 8 million Afghans out of abject poverty.

Representatives of the international community are quick to point to the issue of corruption in explaining their hesitancy to give greater authority to Afghan authorities and citizens in determining their own fate. But the doubters should keep in mind that there are existing programs that are producing results.

One prime example of success is Afghanistan ’s National Solidarity Program. Utilizing block grants, people in over 20,000 villages across Afghanistan have organized in community development councils to identify their own local needs, and, working with an implementing non-governmental organization, either local or international, to address those needs. This process is helping to slowly build the capacity of poor Afghan villagers. It is also promoting gender equity in decision-making, and is facilitating humanitarian access to communities where insecurity often makes it hard for international aid organizations to deliver assistance.

Although existing insecurity is a major factor fueling humanitarian needs in Afghanistan, warfare is not the sole source of distress. The country is landlocked and features a rough, arid and inaccessible terrain. Even during peaceful times, Afghanistan was vulnerable to humanitarian crises, created by frequent natural disasters, including droughts, earthquakes and disease.

Even when peace finally returns to Afghanistan , the threat of humanitarian emergencies will not recede. Afghanistan needs to be prepared for a normal future.

M Ashraf Haidari is an international security and development analyst who works with Afghanistan ’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He formerly served as the chargé d’affaires and political counselor of the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, DC .