Issue 11 - Article 8

The InterAgency Strategic Framework Mission to Afghanistan

May 1, 1998

The UN InterAgency Mission to Afghanistan in September/October 1997 represented the first effort by the UN and its partners to put a common strategic framework (SF) into place for a particular country experiencing crisis (see issue 10). Under the aegis of the UN Department of Political Affairs, the 7-person mission responded to a decision by the UN’s Administrative Committee on Coordination (ACC) that “the proposed strategic framework for response to, and recovery from, crisis be tested in Afghanistan and Mozambique”.

In addition to the report by the team, Larry Minear, one of its members, was asked to “provide an independent perspective and critique of the Strategic Framework planning and implementation process to help ensure success in its pilot application in the case of Afghanistan and its potential applicability in other circumstances.” His 11-page report, summarized here, was prepared for an eventual colloquium of agency heads, yet to be scheduled, to review the Strategic Framework Mission.

Section I identifies six issues for the attention of agency headquarters. Section II analyses the applicability of the process to other countries experiencing crises.

1. Strategic Framework Issues in Afghanistan

  1. Articulating a vision of assistance to Afghanistan to guide the UN and its partners

    The SF provides a vehicle for clarifying the principles that should guide international efforts and according to which resources are mobilised and targeted.

    The SF document is a first step in the elaboration of a framework to guide international activities. The document answers the recurring question, “What are the UN and its partners doing in Afghanistan?” with the answer, “Creating and protecting livelihoods.” In the time available, however, the mission did not flesh out quantifiable targets, propose a division of labour among actors, offer a strategy for dealing with the Taliban and the Alliance, or detail specific activities to create and protect livelihoods. Nor did the Mission’s report suggest the extent to which conditionalities should be applied to some or all of the international resources provided.

    One conclusion was that business-as-usual is not adequate. In the words of one UN official, “The fundamental problem [of international ineffectiveness in Afghanistan] is more with the United Nations than with the Taliban, and we have control over that”.

  2. Increasing the synergy between the UN’s political task and its support for reconciliation and recovery

    The Mission’s report notes the extent to which international aid efforts in relation to Afghanistan have political ramifications. However, although it states that humanitarian activities must not be pressed into a “carrot or stick” approach, it does not explore the extent to which activities should be linked to the achievement of broader political objectives beyond those of a relief nature. It became apparent in the drafting of the report that a companion strategic framework for political activities might be needed.

  3. Improving coordination among assistance actors

    Although the Mission did not propose a blueprint for improved coordination among agencies, a consensus developed around the need for a single international assistance programme. While providing limited details about what a such a programme would entail, the report suggests implications in three areas: institutional and intergovernmental arrangements, the mix of programme interventions, and resource mobilisation and funding.

  4. Augmenting the responsiveness of international assistance

    The Mission report’s emphasis on demand-driven aid placed a premium on local identification of problems faced by the Afghan people. A new, more demand- and field-driven focus would help reduce the decidedly foreign character of current activities and inputs which has put the assistance community on a collision course with the Taliban. Such a focus would require the development of better relations between field and HQ and revision of donor policy to avoid the unresponsiveness resulting from donor-imposed distinctions between relief, reconstruction and development.

  5. Enhancing skills and professionalism

    Individuals are often ill-equipped to deal with problems relating to security, access, under-staffing, and demoralisation resulting from compromising principles. There is also evidence of serious lapses of professionalism. The time is ripe for incorporating into the SF process steps to upgrade the professionalism of the international effort and help inject life into an otherwise languishing learning process.

  6. Clarifying and increasing accountability

    A single international assistance programme in the field will require a review of the effectiveness of such multiple high-level coordinating structures as the Executive Committee for Peace and Security, the Executive Committee for Humanitarian Assistance, and the Executive Committee for Development Operations. The special challenges posed by countries such as Afghanistan will need to be taken into account as standards for institutional and individual accountability are increased. Donors should also be held accountable for providing more predictable and sustained levels of assistance in support of a more coherent set of activities.

The implications of these six issues are expected to be discussed by the agencies at headquarters level, perhaps at a headquarters colloquium. One illustration of how the SF might affect policy and programme concerns the issue of gender, perhaps the most high-profile and sensitive challenge to the principles and operations of the UN and wider aid community. A SF would articulate the fundamental principles of human rights and equality as the central underpinning of the UN’s vision for Afghanistan. A return to first principles would reverse the approach to gender as an ‘injectible’ issue that currently results in an added programme component here, a violation to be tracked there, an element of conditionality to be inserted there, and so on.

2. Applicability of the process to other countries in crisis

This first ever effort by the UN and its partners to put a common strategic framework into place for a country in crisis raises questions that need to be addressed before the process can be applied elsewhere. Although the jury will remain out for some time on the success or otherwise of the InterAgency Mission’s consultative process and report, a number of observations may be made:

  • Within the Mission’s terms of reference, confusion arose about the scope of a SF. Although the Mission took as its cue that the strategic framework should inform and be informed by the political negotiating strategy, the broader question of how the UN’s political functions in Afghanistan would themselves be orchestrated and made more accountable remained unanswered. Would they be subject to a strategic framework of their own and how would that framework relate to the proposed SF for assistance activities? The fact that the Mission, with its assistance brief, was dispatched by and reported to the Department of Political Affairs, designated by the Secretary-General as the focal point for post-conflict peace building activities, caused further confusion.
  • Future SF Missions need to develop a clearer concept of peace building as it relates to their task and a common SF methodology. Work on strategic frameworks already undertaken by the OECD Development Assistance Committee and other institutions offers a potential resource.
  • A number of issues emerged regarding the Mission’s size, composition, and organisation. Was a team of ten, including three persons provided by the UN Coordinator’s office for Afghanistan, the optimum size? What should be the balance among members of the team as regards technical and sectoral expertise, agency representation, and knowledge of the Afghanistan situation? Should Afghans have participated in the team, and, if so, how would they have been selected?
  • Were the Mission’s activities designed to ensure optimum use of time, resources, and competencies? The main vehicles for input from local actors were the five-day strategic planning workshop, travel by mission members to Afghanistan, and discussions in Pakistan with key officials and agencies. However, the complexity of the issues, the number of international and local actors, and the political and military situation made the task more than could be successfully completed in the time allotted. Suggestions for changes include holding the workshop well in advance of the Mission’s in-country dates, or at the conclusion of its stay to test conclusions and recommendations; and reducing the number of team members and/or extending the time allocated.
  • Issues of ownership also emerged. There was some confusion about whether the Mission’s report was a draft to be revised by actors in the field, or whether it represented a finished product which would be viewed as completed at the headquarters level. In effect, both were the case. That is, the Mission carried out an exercise on behalf of local actors which they had neither the time, dispassion, or resources to conduct on their own. At the same time, the report that is later reviewed by headquarters will not represent the latest reflection on the issues.


The SF in Afghanistan had strengths and weaknesses which need review before other such missions are mounted. Issues of cost and cost-effectiveness need further study, as do trade-offs between an inclusive approach to team membership and efficiency. The time allowed for the team to organise itself and implement its activities proved far too limited. Local inputs could and should have been included more fully in Mission activities.

Yet the InterAgency Mission made a constructive contribution to the process of negotiating a strategic framework to increase the effectiveness of UN and related activities in Afghanistan. The report that emerged may not meet governments’ request for “principles and criteria for assistance” or for a “very clear document with down-to-earth recommendations.” However, it does represent a beginning upon which discussions in the field and at headquarters may now build. At stake is the successful fashioning of more effective ways of addressing the myriad and interconnected challenges of peace and reconstruction.


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