Issue 49 - Article 4

Securing access through acceptance in Afghanistan and Pakistan

February 4, 2011
Ingrid Macdonald, Norwegian Refugee Council

Humanitarian actors claim adherence to humanitarian principles in order to win the acceptance of local populations, parties to conflict and other stakeholders, and thereby secure access to vulnerable people at risk. In recent years, however, questions have arisen as to whether humanitarian principles are still relevant as a tool for securing access. Using Afghanistan and Pakistan as examples, this article outlines the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC)’s approach to strengthening the implementation of acceptance strategies, including by reinforcing adherence to humanitarian principles. Implementing the approach will take time and effort, but with the changing nature of access challenges NRC believes that the effort is worth making.

Massive needs, limited access

Afghanistan is one of the world’s poorest countries following 30 years of conflict and annual cycles of earthquakes, flooding and drought. Afghans have the world’s second worst maternal mortality rate and an average life expectancy of 43 years; approximately nine million are food insecure. In Pakistan, millions of people have been affected or displaced as a result of armed conflict and the recent devastating floods. The country has also suffered instability due to military coups, political assassinations and large-scale corruption.

NRC has large and established operations in both Pakistan and Afghanistan assisting Afghan refugees, returnees and internally displaced people. More than five and a half million Afghan refugees have returned since 2002, comprising 20% of Afghanistan’s population. Despite these massive returns, Afghans still constitute the world’s largest refugee population, with over 1.7 million registered refugees in Pakistan and almost a million in Iran. Most have lived in Pakistan and Iran for decades and have no plans to return, whilst those who have returned face massive reintegration challenges associated with crippling poverty, poor security, intensifying armed conflict, weak governance, lack of access to livelihoods and land and recurrent natural disasters. Well over 300,000 Afghans are internally displaced.

Whether the challenges and dangers faced by humanitarian agencies working in conflict and complex emergency contexts such as Afghanistan and Pakistan are worse today than 30 years ago is debatable. What is evident is that the challenges to humanitarian access have changed. Both countries host a proliferation of actors – private sector, military, political, human rights, development and humanitarian – with identities and activities that can be difficult to tell apart; anti-terror and counter-insurgency campaigns have replaced Cold War conflicts; and rapid urbanisation, population growth, protracted emergencies and the increased severity of natural disasters are placing new pressure on civilians and humanitarian actors alike. Humanitarian agencies increasingly use physical security measures such as high walls, reduced mobility and, as a last resort for NGOs at least, armed security and escorts, limiting interaction with local people.

With over 200,000 international and Afghan military personnel engaged in an intensifying conflict with opposition groups, humanitarian access has become extremely difficult to secure in Afghanistan. Humanitarian staff are regularly killed and kidnapped. It is unclear how many Afghans are being denied assistance and protection as a result. In Pakistan, the conflict between the government and armed opposition groups has severely constrained access in the north-west of the country. The recent devastating floods, along with bureaucratic obstacles, have placed further limits on access. Donor fatigue is an additional obstacle preventing Afghan refugees from accessing protection and assistance.

NRC’s access strategy: perception, acceptance and access

In Afghanistan, NRC has programmes across the west, north, east and central parts of the country. In Pakistan, operations extend across the north-west. Activities include supporting Afghan refugees, returnees and IDPs with the provision of information, counselling, education, livelihood support, shelter and emergency non-food items, and assistance to resolve land and property disputes and access identity documents.

NRC has prioritised increased access to protection for populations affected by displacement as a global priority since 2009. Strengthening acceptance of NRC in order to increase access is at the core of this work. NRC’s approach includes:

1. Ensuring that programmes are timely, relevant and robust

An important means for securing and maintaining acceptance is by demonstrating reliability, building trust, fulfilling agreed promises and delivering high-quality, transparent and on-time programmes. In one sensitive area in Pakistan, NRC spent four months meeting influential elders and other stakeholders to build trust and to familiarise them with NRC’s mission and activities before establishing programmes. The agency then prioritised delivering on commitments and ensuring quality. For example, when engaging local partners to support distributions NRC ensures a physical presence for monitoring and quality control. NRC also maintains consistent communication with affected populations. In Afghanistan a similar approach is being pursued with respect to shelter programmes in northern areas.

An important aspect of NRC’s strategy is to enhance contextual analysis within country offices to inform programme design, planning and implementation. Analysis of the perspectives and relationships of different stakeholders will be strengthened, as well as needs and risk assessment methodologies. In response to Afghanistan’s fluid and volatile context, the country office has enhanced its risk analysis capacity, has implemented comprehensive protection mainstreaming and will develop local level communication plans. A key goal is to distinguish NRC as a principled humanitarian actor in an increasingly politicised and militarised environment. Enhancing beneficiary participation and accountability mechanisms, as well as strengthening programme synergies and delivery, will also be part of NRC’s comprehensive review of its core programme activities in 2011.

Another aspect will be to strengthen the practical implementation of humanitarian principles as a tool for securing access. For example, according to the principles of independence and neutrality humanitarian actors should not have allegiances to conflicting parties or ulterior religious, political or ideological agendas, nor should they behave as an active agent of government policy. By strengthening adherence to these principles NRC will seek to separate itself from the conflict and demonstrate that it does not constitute a threat, thereby improving its ability to fulfil its primary mission of alleviating human suffering whilst ensuring that the needs of the most vulnerable are met without discrimination.

Although it is often assumed that humanitarian actors intuitively understand how to translate humanitarian principles into programme design, implementation and decision-making, this is often not the case. More practical guidance is required. In 2011 NRC will develop guidance and training to reinforce principled humanitarian action within operations and advocacy. It is important that all NRC staff, especially national employees, who are often in closest contact with affected populations and local stakeholders, are adequately equipped to implement the principles and communicate them consistently. An initial workshop was held in Peshawar in July 2010, and another will take place in Afghanistan in 2011. The workshops focus on analysing access constraints and developing principled response and advocacy plans.

2. Building staff competency

A central component of NRC’s increased access strategy is to have the right staff, in the right place, at the right time. An important initiative is to invest in building the competency of key national staff to strengthen their engagement in contextual analysis, strategic planning and implementation. For example, in Afghanistan NRC is building the competency of national staff to tailor security systems to local areas, based on local contextual analysis. Ensuring that all employees are able to consistently communicate the organisation’s approach and positions will be an important element of the access strategy.

3. Strengthening principled and structured engagement with all relevant actors

In order to safely access affected populations humanitarian actors often need to engage with, or operate in territory controlled by, armed opposition groups. However, in contexts such as Afghanistan and Pakistan engaging with all relevant actors can be dangerous, if not illegal. A recent judgement by the US Supreme Court, upholding a US federal law that makes it a crime to provide “material support” to foreign groups designated as terrorist organisations by the US government, highlights how the criminalisation of aid and aid workers engaging with organised armed groups may undermine humanitarian access. As a result, NRC will develop positions and advocacy approaches, including holding a joint NRC/HPG workshop on the criminalisation of aid in the first quarter of 2011.

4. Targeted experience-based advocacy

NRC has also developed a Global Advocacy Strategy for 2010 to 2012, with increased access as the core priority. The focus of the strategy is to ensure consistency in the agency’s advocacy messages, and to encourage decision-makers to reduce obstacles to access.

As a starting point NRC has initiated mapping and research which will inform the production of position papers and briefing papers. In order to ensure consistent communication, guidance and training will be developed to support NRC’s messaging internally and with external decision-makers. The training will be rolled out to five countries during 2011. NRC will also conduct a series of workshops and publish reports during 2011 and 2012 as part of a project funded by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Topics will include the relationship between humanitarian principles and operational access, the impact of UN integrated missions and the criminalisation of aid.

Together with advocacy work in-country, the Afghanistan and Pakistan programmes are crucial for building the evidence base for NRC’s global advocacy work. One important issue here includes the risks posed to humanitarian action and the civilian population by counter-insurgency stabilisation programmes, efforts to ensure force security and intelligence gathering. Another focus is reinforcing NRC’s advocacy for independent and principled humanitarian coordination and action in Afghanistan. With continued pressure for UN structural integration, UN and donor support for the counter-insurgency and security restrictions on UN personnel and facilities, NGOs may be placed in a position where they distance themselves from the UN in order to preserve acceptance, staff safety and access to the affected population. This situation would further fragment humanitarian assistance and protection efforts.


NRC’s acceptance approach to access will not be easy to implement. If acceptance strategies were straightforward humanitarian access in Pakistan and Afghanistan would not be a problem. Whilst many of the tools and techniques employed involve practical responses to local conditions, the approach requires difficult decisions and serious resource and staff investment, and is easily undermined by the actions of other actors. NRC is investing in strengthening the quality, accountability and timeliness of its programming. Together with advocacy with decision-makers, NRC will invest in transparent and consistent communication with all stakeholders, and endeavour to equip staff with the skills and support they need to meet the many challenges they face.

Ingrid Macdonald is Head of Advocacy at the Norwegian Refugee Council.


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