Aid workers in Afghanistan say the expanding scope of the Islamic radical insurgency is fueling a humanitarian crisis. Emergency aid agencies say they need several hundred million dollars to address the threat of widespread hunger. But foreign donors who have troops in Afghanistan are reluctant to admit the situation continues to deteriorate, aid workers complain, leaving the humanitarian needs consistently under-funded.
Half of Afghan children less than five years old are underweight and 16.7 percent face acute malnutrition, according to the United Nations' new Consolidated Appeal for Afghanistan. Approximately 7.8 million of the country's 26 million -- or more than a quarter of the population -- will need food assistance in 2011.
After donors funded last year's annual appeal by only 66 percent, the UN has been more specific and restrained in its request, despite the increasing need. The appeal, launched on December 5, is for $678 million, nearly $100 million less than last year, even though it records Afghanistan's "dramatic increase in humanitarian need for its chronically vulnerable rural population."
"We have a more specific focus on life-saving activities that are critically important," David Del Conte, the Senior Field Coordinator for the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Afghanistan, told EurasiaNet.org. "Afghanistan has gone through so much suffering. We are trying to ameliorate and prevent loss of life and loss of livelihood and meet the most basic needs."
By focusing on the purely humanitarian needs, the Consolidated Appeal hopes to foster a better response from donors. "This is a more effective marketing tool," said Resident Humanitarian Coordinator Robert Watkins, the UN's Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary General in Afghanistan.
The appeal is the largest worldwide. Yet, compared to the amount of development money poured into Afghanistan by donors annually, the humanitarian aid request "is peanuts," admitted Watkins.
While, in principle, humanitarian aid must be delivered in a neutral and impartial manner to anyone who needs it -- including combatants -- development aid in Afghanistan is largely tied to political and military objectives such as strengthening the Afghan government. Development aid is also delivered in large part by private commercial contractors or through the international military forces' provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs). Non-governmental organization (NGO) activists have long complained that humanitarian aid is being neglected because donors are unable to use it to score political points.
"The US government alone spends around $4.4 billion annually" on development, estimates a senior UN official. Donors are unwilling to provide consolidated figures but "the international community spends between $6-$8 billion annually" on development and security for development projects, said the official on condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of criticizing the donors.
The lack of interest in funding humanitarian aid is also political, says Farhana Faruqi-Stocker, the managing director of Afghanaid, an NGO that works with rural communities. "It is difficult for donors who have spent billions in aid in Afghanistan to admit to their domestic public that the situation in Afghanistan is going from bad to worse, that the basic indicators of human security and well-being are getting worse in large parts of the country."
A recent paper by the Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit points out that while the 2008 Afghan National Development Strategy (ANDS) paid "considerable attention to the goal of poverty reduction," the topic had slipped off the agenda at donor conferences this year. "Reconciliation, reintegration and anti-corruption" measures took precedence. Development projects focusing on the economy emphasized job creation rather than poverty reduction, the AREU report notes.
The dire humanitarian predictions contradict donor and military claims that they are making the security, governance and development gains necessary to allow them to exit Afghanistan. The UN estimates that 177,169 people have been displaced due to conflict this year. 400,000 children are at risk of losing access to regular education. The food security situation is likely to worsen during the lean winter season, December to April, the Consolidated Appeal predicts, adding that the "number of people lacking the minimum daily kilocalorie intake has steadily increased since 2005."
The humanitarian and security situations are linked, a recent investigative report in Kabul's weekly Killid magazine illustrated. The unemployed appear to be joining the Taliban out of pure economic necessity. One youth who had joined the Taliban said, "I was fed up with being jobless. People despised me. I couldn't find any work so I had to pick up a weapon to fight the government. I had to join the Taliban as a last resort. Now that I have a weapon, I have both work and food."
In the "most likely scenario," the UN's appeal predicts "increased conflict leading to a deterioration of security, displacements and expansion of conflict to currently stable areas. That situation would hamper development progress and increase the demand for humanitarian interventions." The displaced will have less access to aid, moreover, as the increasing conflict makes it progressively more difficult for humanitarian agencies to reach affected areas.
Any residual hope for Afghanistan has faded into an emergency, it seems.
"Over the past three years we have seen an increase in violence and a number of natural disasters. Now the needs are growing ... compounding the impact of chronic needs and increasing the vulnerable population," said OCHA's Del Conte.
Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul.