Issue 10 - Article 7

Assistance strategy for Afghanistan: UN 'business as usual' or a new model of partnership in complex political emergencies?

February 1, 1998
Michael Keating, Senior Advisor to the Office of the UN Resident/Humanitarian Coordinator, Afghanistan

In April last year, the UN’s highest coordinating body, the innocuously named Administrative Committee on Coordination (ACC), chaired by the Secretary General and including the Executive Heads of UN agencies, IMF and World Bank, met in Geneva for one of its regular six monthly sessions. It took a decision to select Afghanistan as one of two countries to serve as a testing ground for a new approach by the international community to complex political emergencies. Sadako Ogata, the High Commissioner for Refugees, was apparently instrumental in the choice.

The decision complemented existing efforts to review the way in which assistance was being provided in Afghanistan. Three months earlier, an extraordinary conference had been held in Ashgabad, Turkmenistan, bringing together UN member states, both from the region and from major western donor countries, with a range of aid actors, including the Bretton Woods institutions, UN agencies, international and Afghan NGOs, the ICRC and the Red Cross and Crescent movement. It resulted in the broad agreement to develop a holistic strategy for bringing sustainable peace to Afghanistan, recognising that “peace needs to be sought through political negotiation as well as built through support given to the population”.

Both the Ashgabad meeting and the ACC decision took place against the backdrop of growing international alarm at developments within the country. The Taliban capture of Kabul in late 1996 revealed their own regressive policies and a number of ugly trends, including the country’s growing importance as a source of ‘drugs and thugs’ and of regional political instability.

By any social and humanitarian yardstick, Afghanistan merited a renewed injection of international concern. The fighting is in geographically limited areas, but could spread. After 18 years of war, the economy is in ruins, the environment degraded, infrastructure shattered, and land mines and unexploded ordnance litter the country. Up to one million people have been killed. There remain an estimated three million refugees and internally displaced people. The country has some of the worst social development indicators in Asia if not the world. Afghan authorities lack administrative resources, expertise and will. Abuses of human rights and humanitarian law abound. Women are denied the right to congregate and speak in public, have unequal access to health and education, and in urban areas are prevented from working. The psychological and physical suffering endured by millions of people and the long-term damage caused by an almost total dislocation of social and economic infrastructure are incalculable.

In September 1997, a high-level inter-agency mission arrived in the region led by Hugh Cholmondeley, the author of reports that prompted the ACC decision to develop a strategic framework approach. The mission, including representatives from UNDPA, UNDHA, UNDP, the World Bank and Oxfam, participated in a workshop with all assistance ‘stakeholders’, making trips into Afghanistan and meeting with a range of actors before preparing a draft Strategic Framework document.

The document assessed the nature of the problem facing both Afghans and the international community, reviewed the assistance record, and assessed the international community’s approach which, it said, had saved many lives, but lacked a unifying vision. It addressed the supply-driven nature of much aid planning and activity, the many overlaps and inconsistencies in programming, and the problem posed by absence of basic information about conditions on the ground to allow measurement of the impact of assistance efforts.

It proposed a new approach which is both radical and plain common sense. It suggested that immediate steps be taken to gain consensus among all those involved as to the nature of the political, economic, social and humanitarian problem. Principles should be identified to guide overall assistance efforts and the international community’s relationship with the Afghans whilst effective means should be found to develop a coherent and coordinated assistance effort in which the respective competences of stakeholders – including countries in the region, donors, UN agencies, NGOs, Afghan authorities and communities – are recognised and their responsibilities made explicit.

In early November, the document was reviewed by the Afghan Task Force, a small ‘home-grown’ group consisting of donor, UN and NGO representatives, which meets regularly in Islamabad to provide a sounding board to the UN Resident/Humanitarian Coordinator, Alfredo Witschi-Cestari. It recommended that the Strategic Framework serve as the basis of an assistance strategy for Afghanistan, and that this ASA as it has come to be known should be drawn up immediately to give greater operational flesh to the concepts in the Strategic Framework paper.

A draft ASA was circulated in mid-November, reviewed by donors and aid agencies in Islamabad, and presented to the Afghan Support Group of donors (14 countries plus the EU that between them account for the vast bulk of the response to the Consolidated Appeals for Afghanistan, formed after the Ashgabad meeting on the initiative of Dutch Minister Jan Pronk).

The Assistance Strategy set out three overall goals to inform the vision of sustainable peace in Afghanistan: that assistance must, at a minimum, do no harm and, where possible, help build peace; that all assistance must empower Afghans to build sustainable livelihoods; and that saving lives and reducing human suffering must remain a priority. As these priorities raise contradictions, it is acknowledged that they will need to form the focus of further discussion over the coming months. The strategy also proposed a number of principles to sustain international assistance efforts and urged that a means be found to ensure that the strategy supports, and is supported by, the international community’s political efforts to seek a peaceful settlement.

These principles included upholding the UN Charter, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women; the presumption of the sovereignty of the Afghan state, transparency, respect for local traditions and customs, and commitment to securing Afghan involvement in and ownership of the strategy. The document proposed that a common programme be formulated and that programme-wide, independent monitoring and evaluation be initiated. It also proposed a common fund, setting out steps for the revision of the Consolidated Appeal to allow it to serve as a management tool for donors and assistance actors alike.

The plan is that in future no projects will be ‘stand alone’, but will be attached to a programme or sub-programme which will in turn need to demonstrate that it has addressed a number of issues, including assessment of Afghan capacities; of external players’ capacities; and impact on fulfilment of agreed principles. The idea is to enable donors to fund more intelligently, allowing them to support the integrity of programmes and not leave them second guessing whether gender concerns have been thought through, for example. Also, in future Appeals will include all funding information, even if donors continue to fund agencies directly.

The Assistance Strategy was warmly endorsed by donors in New York. One said that the only thing it had in common with other UN documents was the staple that held it together. The only major reservation concerns the common fund: that it might pose bureaucratic problems for donors, and that it is premature (because donors would like to see how common programming works before adopting common funding mechanisms).

Actors in the field are now faced with the challenge of translating the Assistance Strategy and the common programme into reality. Issued on February 4th, the 1998 Consolidated Appeal for Afghanistan elaborated steps that might be used to build a common programme, including proposals for revamping the Appeal itself. The UN Coordinator’s office, both in Islamabad and through its five regional coordination offices within the country, is systematically consulting all ‘stakeholders’ on how a common programme might be formulated, and what coordination is needed, and desired by them to make it happen.

A major effort is now under way to communicate the purpose and possible benefits of the common programme with both Afghans and agencies, whether UN or NGO, recognising that their attitude and commitment could make or break it. Generally speaking, NGOs are positive while healthily sceptical, not least about the UN’s own ability to join in and staff a truly coordinated, needs-driven, logical and collaboratively programmed initiative. These doubts are shared by many in the UN itself.

At the time of writing, individual UN agencies’ positions are uncertain. While the merits of a common programme are recognised, there are seemingly inevitable suspicions about its compatibility with the mandates and much-prized independence of individual UN agencies. No clear signal has been given by UN agency headquarters on what position should be adopted, leaving the decision as to what attitude to adopt to local Heads of Agencies and their field staff . But donor commitment, the support being provided by the Afghan Task Force, and the moral and financial backing of three key UN entities – UNDP, UNDHA and the UN Department of Political Affairs –are providing support to drive the new approach forward.

Meanwhile, reality for most Afghans continues to deteriorate. There is greater activity on the international scene to find a political settlement, much of it catalysed by the Secretary General’s Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, but there are few signs that the warring parties, particularly the Taliban, are prepared to come to terms with each other. A major earthquake in February in northern Afghanistan which killed thousands served as an abrupt reminder of the miserable circumstances endured by vast numbers of people.

The fate of the process is in the balance. If it succeeds, it might herald a new approach to complex political emergencies, one characterised by a new partnership between donors, aid actors and beneficiaries. If it fails, it might be condemned as yet another experiment inflicted upon the Afghans, an effort doomed by the intransigence of the international community towards reforming ‘business as usual’. But as a genuine effort at a collective approach to building peace and saving lives, it deserves to succeed.


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