In 2002 Mercy Corps had an active presence in most districts of Helmand, Kandahar and Uruzgan, implementing large-scale agricultural livelihoods programmes. In the years following, programmes grew in scope and scale as major funding became available for the first time in decades. At the same time, however, the security situation was deteriorating. Armed opposition to the government started in the south, took root and spread. ICRC international staff had been targeted and murdered; the national staff of agencies with perceived affiliations with the international military agenda were being targeted in coordinated assassination campaigns; major international military offensives were taking place in the fields of partner communities; attacks on Western targets were becoming increasingly frequent and the criminal sector, linked to drugs, private security and profiteering from the international presence, was booming. International staff had to fly between cities and could not visit communities beyond city limits, while national staff had to take extreme precautions, shedding any traces of organisational association while travelling.
By 2006 the threshold of acceptable risk for most international NGOs had been exceeded, and expectations of what could be done had to be reduced. Mercy Corps decided to continue working, albeit on a smaller scale using a zero-visibility approach. The strategy remained heavily dependent on community acceptance, in conditions where other international organisations could not work without the extensive use of armed private security companies. Currently, Mercy Corps has an active presence in five districts (82 communities) in Helmand and Kandahar.
The (security) strategy
Mercy Corps’ strategy is heavily weighted towards an acceptance approach. In part this is grounded in the agency’s long-standing presence in the area. Work started more than 20 years ago during the Soviet occupation and continued unchecked through the civil war and Taliban eras. Programmes follow simple community development principles rooted in locally led and highly participatory problem-solving and decision-making. Mercy Corps is a household name in many communities in the region, and staff have excellent connections. All are local locals, many of them respected white beards with extensive local relationship networks. The organisation has become part of the local landscape, enduring multiple regime changes, growing and shrinking depending on funding, needs and security. Another key factor in Mercy Corps’ acceptance approach has been its decision to focus on its core area of expertise, namely agricultural livelihoods. Agriculture is the mainstay of the local economy, and is not burdened with the same value-laden complexities as, for example, education. The majority of local Taliban are themselves farmers, with interests in improved agricultural productivity. In addition, not responding to localised conflict-related displacement has allowed Mercy Corps to avoid becoming embroiled in highly sensitive local politics and being seen to be cleaning up after Western military operations.
More than a section in a plan
Maintaining acceptance involves much more than simply assuming that if we do good work, we will be accepted and safe. Mercy Corps’ Afghan team does not distinguish between good programming principles and specific measures to actively manage acceptance. There are strict protocols in the protection category covering such things as movement, communications and premises, but these merely structure activities within a broader programming approach. Security management permeates the entire culture of the local organisation.
Good agricultural development requires excellent relationships that span tribal, geographic, government and non-state actors. There are of course substantial difficulties associated with relying heavily on well-connected local managers. Local politics are always represented in some way, and as certain factions gain ascendancy it becomes possible for them to influence the direction of development resources according to their affiliations, be it the area in which a project is implemented or who is hired. More obvious issues of ethnic balance are easier to understand, though it is much harder for international managers to assess the tribal and political make-up of offices and to try and keep it as balanced as possible.
Other NGOs also seek to manage perceptions of their organisations amongst various stakeholders, including the government, beneficiaries, their own staff, local community leaders and opposition members. These perceptions are the fundamental determinants of access. In a very messy field of competing interests, managing relationships with stakeholders who hold the key to accessing communities is vital. These stakeholders have varying and evolving interests in Mercy Corps’ work, and trusted senior local staff must manage them accordingly. One of the most explicit relationship management activities is hosting Iftahar (the breaking of the fast during Ramadan) for government and community elders. As the situation has deteriorated, deliberately placing projects in strategic communities with continued relationships has become increasingly important. If local communities value projects, local Taliban usually allow that work to continue.
As noted, the majority of local Taliban are farmers, and have an interest in improved agricultural productivity for themselves, their families and their communities. Their interests in development work in general are twofold, and somewhat contradictory. First, they clearly understand that a core component of the international strategy in Afghanistan is to expand the reach and credibility of the government through the provision of social and economic development. Hence, any organisation that has been contracted by the government to advance this agenda may be seen as an enemy. Second, as the Talibans sense of their ascendency in the conflict increases, and as their efforts to establish a more formal shadow political administration grow, they are starting to think more holistically about their relationships with communities. There are indications that they are trying to establish credibility with the local population, partly through enabling certain types of humanitarian and development work to take place. Some Taliban district governors have been authorised to allow organisations to work in their areas of control.  In such situations, NGOs presence can lend credibility to the Taliban in the eyes of the local population as was sometimes the case in the 1990s. As the insurgency has grown in strength and its representatives have become more visible to the local population, they also become susceptible to lobbying by local people. Communities in large part are interested in the projects NGOs bring and put pressure on the Taliban to allow these organisations to work. In many cases the Taliban by no means a homogeneous group are locals themselves, and clearly understand the practical benefits, but also the local political necessity, of enabling, or at least taking credit for enabling, development activities to take place.
A new Taliban commander moved into a village in Helmand. His men stole a Mercy Corps water pump from a construction site and kidnapped a community leader. Community leaders agreed to negotiate with the Taliban commander in question. In the end, the kidnapped man was released and permission was given to move forward with the project. The commander even made a formal offer of protection an offer graciously declined. Mercy Corps’ head of office was not satisfied and sent the community leaders back to the Taliban to demand the return of the water pump. The next day, the pump was duly returned.
Managing donor and government expectations (and learning to say no)
Mercy Corps’ capacity and presence in the south where few can work are very attractive to donors and a government keen to extend their reach. Mercy Corps’ leadership chose not to implement the National Solidarity Program (NSP) becoming a government sub-contractor in the south was too politically charged. Repeated calls to expand the scope of Mercy Corps’ micro-finance institution Ariana Financial Services (AFS) into rural Kandahar and Helmand were likewise resisted. In late 2006 USAID asked Mercy Corps to expand from Kandahar into a neighbouring province, Zabul. The local team decided that, while the work was programmatically important, the organisation lacked the presence and relationships that would have enabled access, and declined the request.
Acceptance is very localised
The decision not to extend into Zabul, just one province over from Kandahar, highlights that acceptance is a very local phenomenon. In Kandahar and Helmand, many people have been touched by Mercy Corps work over the past two decades. One evening during Ramadan in 2007, Mercy Corps’ most senior agricultural expert in Kandahar attended Iftahar prayers at his local mosque. After prayers he was approached by a young man whose family he knew, and who was now a Talib. The man asked: Aga [sir] do you still work for the foreigners?. With slight hesitancy he replied Yes, with which the young man abruptly departed, leaving the older man concerned as to the meaning of the exchange. Later that night he received a phone call from the young Talib, who asked if he could have a bag of wheat seed. At a time when distrust of everyone associated with foreigners was growing, this local expert had retained his reputation as the man with the best wheat seed, and continued his work unmolested.
As the situation has deteriorated, the importance of staff and contractors having very local roots has become increasingly important. Strong local leadership with deep connections and relationships in local communities is essential. Mercy Corps staff never formally meet the Taliban, but the line between farmers by day and Taliban by night is hard to determine. Community representatives and local sub-contractors manage these relationships; they come to the office, discuss the situation and a way forward is agreed.
Work continues, but scale is difficult
While staff are very security savvy, much management time is spent reinforcing a culture where personal safety comes first and all staff have the right to say no to any trips, and sometimes do. Staff collectively monitor conditions and make decisions on what is safe and what is not. The greatest risks are during field visits, primarily on the road to and from rural communities. Communities are heavily involved in making these visits possible. They are always consulted beforehand, and they sometimes accompany staff to the field. They sometimes reject requests to visit, primarily when they do not feel in control of local security. This usually means that elements of armed opposition groups often younger and more radical fighters as opposed to political operatives are present or passing through.
Negotiating permission to work in parts of Helmand and Kandahar is an ongoing process. Relationships with communities remain more-or-less constant, though groups controlling any given area change frequently. A few months after elders negotiated written permission from one commander for projects in their community, that commander was replaced with another with whom a new agreement was required. Other organisations report similar experiences in other parts of the country.
Looking to the future
It is hard to predict what the next two or three years hold in store for Afghanistan, though it is likely that risks will continue to increase and access will continue to contract. The overt manipulation of NGOs to achieve political or military objectives will continue, and the operational environment will become more fraught and volatile. It will remain difficult for Mercy Corps to maintain a balance between long-term development work and the imperatives and associated risks of addressing escalating conflict-related humanitarian needs.
Mercy Corps has consistently tried to maintain an identity separate from the government, the international military, Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) and contractors, but with so much of the development agenda and associated resources now subordinated to counter-insurgency and state-building strategies, some stakeholders may come to perceive NGOs as siding with their enemies. In the coming year, as Western governments try to reduce their troop numbers in Afghanistan, they may seek to increase their emphasis on social and economic development, making more resources available for work in contested areas. Meanwhile, as the province-by-province transition from international to Afghan security leadership gains momentum, it is likely that local security conditions will further deteriorate as patterns of power shift.
Afghans understand the vagaries of political necessity and are well accustomed to individuals and groups changing allegiances as political realities dictate, and NGOs will be able to continue working in whatever new landscape emerges. However, experience shows that, when allegiance shifts, it takes a great deal of diplomacy, politicking and time it cannot be done in a hurry before that party can operate safely in a given area. Understanding these perceptions and actively managing the relationships that govern them will be key.
Nigel Pont is a Research Fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Between 2006 and 2008 he was Mercy Corps’ Country Director in Afghanistan.