Issue 49 - Article 2

Humanitarian action in Afghanistan: an uphill battle

February 4, 2011
Antonio Donini, Tufts University

What does Afghanistan tell us about the condition of the humanitarian enterprise? After 30 years of war (and counting), the situation for ordinary Afghans is bleak, the manipulation of aid to advance political aims has reached unprecedented levels and humanitarianism is in a parlous state. Many factors affect the plight of Afghan civilians and the response to the crisis in the country. Three are briefly discussed here: the extraordinarily politicised environment, the difficulty of assessing the humanitarian caseload and a divided and weak humanitarian community.


Afghanistan provides a sobering catalogue of unenviable characteristics:

  • the world’s longest-running major armed conflict;
  • with some of the world’s worst social indicators, compounded by extremely high levels of violence and gender discrimination;
  • a distressing human rights situation, and poor protection of civilians; and
  • limited access and a significant but unquantified humanitarian caseload.

However, what makes the Afghan crisis unique is the extreme politicisation of the context in which aid agencies work. Afghanistan is:

  • the only complex emergency where all major donors – with the exception of Switzerland – are also belligerents;
  • the only conflict where the political UN is fully aligned with one set of belligerents;
  • the only complex emergency where the humanitarian UN is neither visibly negotiating access nor openly advocating for respect for humanitarian principles with both parties to the conflict; and
  • the only protracted crisis where there is no critical mass of humanitarian agencies: only the ICRC and MSF are operating in a neutral and independent manner.

That belligerents would attempt to use humanitarian assistance to their advantage in order to achieve political objectives or win hearts and minds is nothing new. What is surprising is the extent to which the aid community at large, with the notable exception of a handful of ‘Dunantist’ agencies (i.e. agencies that recognise themselves in the founding principles of the ICRC) has been unable to shake off the perception that it is co-opted by, or associated with, the world-ordering enterprise that descended upon Afghanistan after the demise of the Taliban regime in 2001. The roots of this alignment, perceived but in many cases also real, are to be found, on the one hand, in the assumption (misguided, it turns out) that a post-conflict era would be ushered in by the Coalition intervention and, on the other, in the consequences of the so-called ‘joined-up’, coherent or integrated approaches propounded by the Coalition powers.

The Taliban were routed in 2002, but they did not disappear. There was no attempt to include them in the internationally-mandated peace process. As an Afghan analyst quipped at the time: ‘They are like broken glass. You can’t see it but if you walk on it, it hurts’. The aim of the UN and Coalition members was to support the government. Donor largesse and the general affirmation of ‘post-conflictness’ gave a weak and increasingly corrupt government a de jure legitimacy – while de facto it was being strongly contested on the ground by assorted power-brokers (the new euphemism for warlords) and by a re-emergent Taliban and other insurgent groups. At the same time, humanitarian need was downplayed and the strong UN humanitarian capacity was disbanded.

Nine years later, the failure of this international strategy and its consequences for humanitarian action are stark. Humanitarian capacity is weak, there is no consensus on the basic operational requirements of humanitarian agencies, no clarity on humanitarian needs and an extremely politicised environment, where aid agencies are pressured into, or not averse to, supporting the Coalition and the government’s political and military objectives. As a result, there is little understanding of or respect for humanitarian principles by the Taliban and other insurgents.

The beleaguered aid community is increasingly bunkerised behind blast walls of ever-greater height. In Kabul and other major cities, there is little to distinguish the blast walls of UN compounds from those of the Coalition or of private security companies. Aid agencies are cutting themselves off from the very Afghans they are meant to assist. This is particularly true of the UN, whose international staff can only move around in armoured vehicles in all but a few more stable areas in the centre and north. For NGOs as well, operational space is rapidly shrinking: long-standing relationships with communities are fraying because senior staff cannot visit projects. Remote management and monitoring difficulties are affecting programme quality. Responsibility and risk are being transferred to local staff, and the risk of being associated with the government or the Coalition is one that, understandably, few are prepared to take. The one-sidedness of aid agencies, real or perceived, is affecting both the reach and the quality of their work. With the exception of the ICRC and a few others, mainstream international agencies, UN and NGO alike, are becoming more risk-averse and loath to rethink the way they work. As a result, they are allowing their responsibilities to be defined by political and security considerations, rather than by the humanitarian imperative to save and protect lives.

Information vacuum

One of the consequences of the ‘coherence’ agenda – pursued both by the UN integrated mission and the Coalition – is that humanitarian needs have largely been obscured. In early 2002, the OCHA office was incorporated into the UN integrated mission. The UN humanitarian function was quietly disbanded. UN agencies, donors and most NGOs quickly followed suit. The emphasis was on post-conflict recovery and there was a reluctance to focus and collect information on humanitarian need. For donors, even in the face of escalating conflict, to do so would have been an admission that their strategy was not working. While a separate OCHA presence, with one foot outside the integrated UN mission, was re-established in January 2009, its leadership and capacity remain uncertain. The fact that the UN Humanitarian Coordinator is also the Resident Coordinator and Deputy SRSG further muddies the waters.

The absence of reliable data on the depth and breadth of the humanitarian crisis increases donors’ reluctance to acknowledge that a robust humanitarian response is necessary. Common sense leads many to surmise that increased conflict, reduced aid agency access, threats and violence against aid workers and attacks against government facilities would all conspire to reduce or even lead to the collapse of health and essential services in large swathes of the country, and that acute vulnerabilities requiring urgent attention are not being addressed. Although anecdotal data exists, for example on access to health,[1] a strong case documenting the scale of humanitarian need has not been made. With the honourable exceptions of OFDA and ECHO, which have large unspent humanitarian budgets, the lack of hard data on vulnerability has provided donors with an easy way out: as one donor representative put it, ‘unless you can prove that there is a humanitarian crisis, we see no need to shift our funds from recovery to humanitarian activities’. Thus, paralysis.

At the same time, a new sense of urgency was also beginning to be seen. Donors and agencies alike had started to realise that an endgame of sorts was looming. With the reduction of US troops starting in mid-2011 and unpredictable changes in the offing, including increasing fragmentation of the political environment, some had caught on to the urgency of repositioning themselves. All of a sudden, talking to the other side, which had been only recently been anathema, seemed to be an idea whose time was rapidly coming. Pressure was mounting on OCHA to negotiate access for the wider aid community and to get a better handle on vulnerability in hard-to-reach areas.

Divisions in the aid community

Afghanistan is peculiar in that, unlike other major crises, very few traditional or ‘purist’ humanitarian agencies are working where they are most needed. The vast majority, whether UN or NGO, are multi-mandate agencies. Most NGOs perform a variety of relief and/or development functions, and in most cases receive funds from belligerent nations or work as government implementing partners or military/assistance hybrids such as the Provincial Reconstruction Teams. As for the UN agencies, they are perceived as having lost all semblance of independence and impartiality, let alone neutrality. As late as 2008, there was still widespread denial amongst these multi-mandate agencies and donors about the reality of the conflict and how it was impacting on assistance activities.[2]

Both NGOs and the UN now face difficult choices as they are seen as aligned with a government whose legitimacy is questioned, and a foreign military presence that is increasingly viewed with hostility or apprehension by Afghans. To be clear, working for the government (or in joined-up government–Coalition programmes) inevitably implies taking sides, and is seen as such by those who are fighting the government and the Coalition. Taking sides is a political act, defensible or not depending on one’s views. Agencies that cross the threshold of politics cannot expect to be seen as neutral and independent, although they can at times be impartial in their activities. Strictly speaking, they cannot be considered ‘humanitarian’.[3] This ‘Wilsonian’ position implies a degree of identification between the agency and the foreign policy objectives and values of its sponsors. At the other end of the spectrum, ‘Dunantist’ agencies put a premium on time-tested humanitarian principles. They see neutrality not as an end in itself but as a means to access, assist and help to protect those in need of humanitarian action. In situations of violent conflict, such as Afghanistan, it makes sense to try to achieve a clearer separation between Wilsonians and Dunantists, not so much for political or ideological reasons but because the Dunantist approach tends to be more effective in reaching those in need.

As the ICRC and MSF have demonstrated, in active war situations such as Afghanistan building trust around rigorous neutrality and independence with all sets of belligerents is the only viable approach. Insulation or separation from partisan political agendas is a better recipe for access and acceptance both by belligerents and communities. For this reason, these agencies are distinctly wary of UN-led coordination, not to mention integrated missions and other ‘coherent’ approaches. MSF has officially seceded from UN humanitarian coordination bodies. Perhaps this bifurcation between card-carrying humanitarians and other actors is no bad thing in difficult places like Afghanistan; maintaining the fiction that there is one aid community is unhelpful – and dangerous.

Antonio Donini is Senior Researcher at the Feinstein International Center, Tufts University. His email address is

[1] L. S. Rubinstein, Humanitarian Space Shrinking for Health Program Delivery in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Briefing Note, US Institute of Peace, Washington DC, October 2010, available at:

[2] See A. Donini, Humanitarian Agenda 2015: Principles Power and Perceptions – Afghanistan Case Study, Feinstein International Center, Tufts University, 2006 (and update Humanitarianism Under Threat, 2009). Available at:–+Afghanistan+Country+Study.

[3] Jean Pictet, one of the ICRC’s leading thinkers, warned that Red Cross institutions, and by extension humanitarian agencies, ‘must beware of politics as they would of poison, for it threatens their very lives’. Pictet, quoted in Larry Minear, ‘The Theory and Practice of Neutrality: Some Thoughts on the Tensions’, International Review of the Red Cross, vol. 63, no. 66, 1999.


Comments are available for logged in members only.