Issue 19 - Article 3

The politicisation of humanitarian aid and its consequences for Afghans

June 3, 2003
Mohammed Haneef Atmar
7 min read

The politicisation of humanitarian assistance is one of the most critical issues facing humanitarianism today. In Afghanistan this politicisation has excluded and marginalised war-affected people, as well as others in need of help.

As an Afghan, I have lived through more than 20 years of conflict; as an aid worker, I am trying to propagate humanitarian values in an environment of ‘organised inhumanity’. The conflict has left more than a million Afghans dead and the same number maimed for life, and produced one of the world’s largest refugee and IDP caseloads. Yet the response from the West has been driven, not by these humanitarian conditions, but by domestic and foreign-policy concerns, notably the desire to isolate and punish the Taliban regime.

Aid, politics and impartiality

The humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan is, by any measure, severe, and marked by chronic insecurity, poverty and ill-health, mass population displacement and horrendous human-rights abuse. The country is one of the most badly-mined in the world; around 300 Afghans lose their lives and limbs each month as a result of mine incidents. Yet despite these disastrous conditions, politics, not need, has determined the purpose, extent and type of the ‘humanitarian response’. During the Cold War, the millions of dollars in aid that poured into the country every year went almost exclusively to areas held by anti-Soviet forces. Once Soviet troops withdrew in 1989, humanitarian budgets fell rapidly. Between 1992 and 1999, the UN Annual Consolidated Appeals for assistance to Afghanistan received on average only 48 per cent of their needs. The UN Mine Action programme is one of the most successful in the world, yet in 2000 it was cut by half because adequate funding was unavailable.

For Western governments, the key concerns in Afghanistan are to do with terrorism, drugs, refugees and, at least rhetorically, women’s rights. These concerns trigger a response that combines strategic withdrawal with containment through episodic military action and sanctions. Peace-making is delegated to the UN, which is clearly incapable of making peace because it does not enjoy Western commitment and support. While Rwanda and Yugoslavia ‘qualify’ for war-crimes tribunals, Afghanistan does not. In these conditions, humanitarian aid works at best as a fig leaf for political inaction, at worst as an instrument of foreign policy to isolate the Taliban. The principles of humanitarianism – humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence – are increasingly coming under assault.

Donors may have legitimate foreign-policy concerns. But the point is that these cannot impinge on humanitarian action, whose core aim is to save lives. The Taliban’s policies and practices may indeed be abusive and unacceptable, but this is not a good reason for abdicating humanitarian responsibility at a time when most donor states claim to uphold human rights as a key principle of a new and supposedly ethical foreign policy.

Punitive conditionalities: punishing victims, not perpetrators

In response to the Taliban’s discriminatory policies and practices, donor governments – as well as some aid agencies – have imposed punitive conditionalities on their assistance. Whatever underlying principle, purpose or form these have assumed in Afghanistan, the net effect has been to undermine, rather than protect, the rights of Afghans, notably their right to humanitarian assistance. Nor have these condition-alities secured the policy shifts that donors seek.

Security conditionality

In the aftermath of the US air strikes on the alleged terrorist camps inside Afghanistan in August 1998, the US and the UK asked the UN not to send back to Afghanistan British and American nationals working as UN employees. The UK also ruled that any NGO sending any expatriate staff to Afghanistan would automatically be disqualified from UK government funding.1 Also in 1998, ECHO stopped its humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan.

There are suspicions within the aid community that these restrictions stem not only from concerns for the safety of US or British nationals in Afghanistan, but also from a desire to isolate and punish the Taliban. Aid actors believe that security can best be handled in the field rather than at headquarters. These measures were not imposed prior to the Taliban’s assumption of de facto authority, even though security risks were in fact more serious. And they do not apply in other countries, like Angola or Burundi, where more aid workers have been killed than in Afghanistan. Two and a half years on, nothing has actually happened to any American or Briton still working in Afghanistan.

Gender-equality conditionality

The Taliban’s restrictions on women, covering work, education, movement and dress, have sparked intense debate on gender issues in Afghanistan. Sadly, this debate has done nothing to enhance the basic rights of Afghan women, children and families. Given the lack of other policy instruments, humanitarian assistance has become the primary tool with which to fight gender discrimination. As a result of lobbying by interest groups like Feminist Majority and Human Rights Special Rapporteurs, immense pressure has been brought to bear on donors and aid agencies to restrict their assistance until progress is made. This has meant ill-informed conditionalities; WFP, the largest provider of food aid, has made its assistance beyond life-saving spheres conditional upon the Taliban changing its position, and responding favourably to UN appeals on basic rights for women. This has had no effect in Kabul, and the losers have, of course, been Afghan women and their families. Oxfam’s suspension of the Logar water-supply project, in protest at the Taliban’s restriction on Afghan female aid workers in 1997, has done nothing to help Afghan women and their families get access to clean water. Similarly, UNICEF’s conditional support has failed to promote the right of Afghan children to education. The aid agencies have in fact extended to boys the Taliban’s ban on female education by withdrawing their support from education where boys alone are allowed to go to school.

Capacity-building conditionality

Donors such as the UK and the US have ruled that all forms of capacity-building of state welfare institutions should be avoided because this transfers resources to an illegitimate regime. Moreover, they have also drawn a distinction between life-saving activities (which are per-missible) and life-sustaining ones (which are not). Yet in Afghanistan, the conflict has endured for so long and the human, physical and institutional infrastructure has become so degraded that this distinction is not meaningful in terms of aid programming. Short-term, localised, project-specific and relief-focused interventions will not meet humanitarian needs. What is needed is an acceptance from donors that it is possible to negotiate for principled goals with ‘unprincipled people’, or those who have different principles, and that it is possible to work with the state structures in Taliban-controlled areas in a principled way.

The way forward: establishing systemic accountability

The global governance system will prove to be ethically unjustifiable and practically impotent in dealing with the crisis in Afghanistan if it does not itself have ethical accountability. Donors’ foreign policy must be held accountable in terms of its strategic assessment, its response and the consequences of its political action – or inaction. This applies not just with regard to domestic constituencies, but also with regard to the Afghan public. Afghans can legitimately expect the world community to engage in ways that are more constructive and effective than strategic withdrawal, containment and a one-sided arms embargo. The warring parties too need to be held accountable for their actions; the absence of a mechanism akin to the human-rights courts for Yugoslavia and Rwanda must be addressed. Making it clear that Afghanistan is not somehow exempt from international human-rights law could do more to influence the actions of the country’s warring parties than the current conditionality approach. Finally, there needs to be accountability within the aid system itself. As long as they are fulfilling donors’ conditions and meeting their institutional interests, there is no mechanism by which humanitarian agencies need to account for their actions. There is thus a growing need for some form of ‘ombudsman’ and an ‘aid court’ to listen to Afghans’ untold stories about how humani-tarianism is failing them.

Mohammed Haneef Atmar is Programme Coordinator, International Rescue Committee, Afghanistan. Website:

  • In late April 2001, DFID announced that the security restriction will be lifted, and that security conditionality will only be applied on a ‘case-by-case basis’.?


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