Humanitarian agencies working in Afghanistan have been saying it for years. Now the United Nations is also admitting it: Humanitarian aid workers are facing increasing risks in many conflict zones where assistance is most needed and not much is being done to protect them.
A new report, released on April 12 by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), says the UN has failed to maintain neutrality by playing both a political and a humanitarian role in Afghanistan, a fact that the UN’s political leadership may find an embarrassing admission, and says Taliban militants now see the UN as a legitimate target.
“Due to the dual nature of the UN as both a political actor and a humanitarian actor, UN aid agencies have more difficulty projecting a neutral image than many other humanitarians. The UN’s political role in many of the most-contested environments has placed it squarely in the Western camp, where it is viewed as a legitimate and prominent target (Al Qaeda along with national-level jihadist elements in different countries have named the UN as an enemy target on more than one occasion),” says the report, To Stay and Deliver: Good Practices for Humanitarians in Complex Security Environments. “Humanitarian action is under attack, but neither governments, parties to armed conflicts, nor other influential actors are doing enough to come to its relief.”
Certainly, the April 1 attack on a UN compound in Mazar-i Sharif highlights the challenges of operating in Afghanistan’s increasingly dangerous environment. Seven employees died in that assault. The crisis for aid agencies is likely to deepen with the escalation of international military operations and the counterattacks expected ahead of the international forces drawdown, slated to begin this July.
“Compared to 2010 there is a multiplication of military operations by the international military forces or those initiated by the AOG [armed opposition groups],” says Laurent Saillard, director of the European Commission’s humanitarian aid programs in Afghanistan. “It is an extremely hostile environment, politically speaking.”
“Access is a huge challenge for all of us,” says Manohar Shenoy, Oxfam’s Afghanistan country director. “It is becoming more complicated as the insurgency is spreading and for the belligerents it is difficult to distinguish between who is impartial and who is not. The impartial and humanitarian lines have become blurred.”
“In provinces like Kandahar and Helmand, as the fighting intensifies, the space for civil society and non-state actors is decreasing,” Shenoy adds.
The threat to humanitarians is widespread, now impacting organizations that have managed to maintain neutrality even in the eyes of Taliban commanders, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross. In a March 15 operational update, the ICRC described the situation as “untenable,” warning that it is relying more on local partners in remote areas.
“People tell us that they are caught in the middle of the conflict and they don’t know which way to turn,” the ICRC’s head of delegation, Reto Stocker, was quoted as saying in the update. “We need to remain close to the people if we are going to be able to do our work.”
“Only half the country is accessible to humanitarian organizations,” said a quarterly report on Afghanistan released by the UN Secretary General in March. “The deteriorating security situation has been hampering safe access to people in need.”
That lack of access is, in turn, hurting the people who need aid the most, wrote Tufts University’s Antonio Donini in the January issue of The Humanitarian Exchange.
“This is particularly true of the UN, whose international staff can only move around in armored vehicles in all but a few more stable areas in the center and north,” Donini writes. “The one-sidedness of aid agencies, real or perceived, is affecting both the reach and the quality of their work. With the exception of the ICRC and a few others, mainstream international agencies, UN and NGO alike, are becoming more risk-averse and loath to rethink the way they work.”
Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul.