The humanitarian emergency in Afghanistan
by Humanitarian Practice Network June 2003

Five years after the Taliban seized power in Kabul, this issue of Humanitarian Exchange takes Afghanistan as its special feature. The country has all the ingredients of a quintessential humanitarian emergency: over two decades of brutal civil war, abetted both by the West and by regional powers, which has impoverished most of the country; a repressive, abusive and unaccountable regime; devastating natural disaster in the form of the worst drought to hit the country in 30 years; economic sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council afflicting, according to many aid workers, ordinary Afghans rather than the Taliban; a vast population of displaced people within the country, and refugees outside in a world that is increasingly hostile to asylum-seekers; and a response from the international community that, in the absence of any effective strategy to bring an end to this tragedy, sets out to use humanitarian action as a tool of political engagement.

Our contributors look at various aspects of this crisis. Afghan aid worker Mohammed Haneef Atmar outlines what the politicisation of aid means for ordinary Afghans, while Penny Harrison of MSF explains the challenge that the Strategic Framework and Principled Common Programming pose to the humanitarian response as a whole. Patricia Gossman, late of Human Rights Watch, makes the link between humanitarian action and human rights, and Alexander Matheou of the British Red Cross reports on the humanitarian consequences of the drought. Finally, the Refugee Council’s Peter Marsden describes the extent of the Afghan refugee crisis, and sets out how civil society might respond.

As always, this issue of Humanitarian Exchange also takes an in-depth look at some of the key issues facing the wider humanitarian community. Jim Bishop of InterAction assesses what the Bush presidency means for USAID and American support for humanitarian action. Contributions from two African NGO workers describe their experience of trying to implement the ideals of principled humanitarian programming in Sierra Leone and southern Sudan. We have an account of how advocacy has been used in the humanitarian response in Angola, and of the humanitarian response to the Gujarat earthquake earlier this year. Françoise Bouchet-Saulnier of MSF and Carole Dubrulle of ACF examine the role of international law and justice in humanitarian action and the implications for humanitarian practitioners. Other contributors look at why we need objective measures of humanitarian need, and why humanitarians can no longer dismiss the problem of small arms as someone else’s concern. Sphere’s Sean Lowrie and François Grünewald of Groupe URD revisit the debate on accountability and quality first broached in Humanitarian Exchange 17. Finally, we round the issue off with articles from the military and from MSF on the heated issue of military involvement in humanitarian crisis response.