More violence and a worsening humanitarian situation are likely in Afghanistan in 2013, say aid agencies.
“The worsening conflict trends over the last five years indicate that civilians will continue to suffer because of armed violence and that the humanitarian situation will deteriorate,” says the new Common Humanitarian Action Plan (CHAP) for 2013, published by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
The report brings together the major humanitarian challenges facing the country in 2013, a year that will see the continued withdrawal of international forces: Afghan security forces will take control of three-quarters of the country by June.
Afghanistan has some of the worst humanitarian indicators in the world - 34 percent of the population are food insecure and 10 percent of children die before they start primary school.
With many Afghans lacking access to rudimentary government services like basic education, water, primary health services and housing, the humanitarian community is requesting US$471 million to cover the cost of projects in 2013.
Many analysts think the steady withdrawal of international forces in 2013, ahead of full withdrawal in 2014, will lead to an upsurge in violence as anti-government forces capitalize on their stronger position vis-à-vis national security forces.
The strength of these national forces is disputed. Some analysts saw “significant improvements within the Afghan military” in 2012, while the CHAP points to high levels of desertion and low levels of re-enlistment, meaning that a third of the Afghan force needs replacing each year.
While civilian deaths and injuries declined by 4 percent in the first 10 months of 2012 compared to the same period in 2011, according to the UN Assistant Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA), targeted attacks on civilians by anti-government forces increased by 53 percent in the first half of 2012, and overall, violence in 2012 has spread increasingly beyond southern and eastern areas.
Over the last few years the space for humanitarian work has reduced, especially as anti-government forces have radicalized and fragmented: aid workers say air transport is frequently the only safe way to reach remote areas.
However, the international pullout may also provide opportunities for more independent aid work and greater differentiation from the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), which operate closely with the government and military.
Aid groups increasingly have to work in areas where the Taliban and other non-government actors operate, making perceived neutrality crucial.
Many international organizations opt to manage projects from Kabul and work through local NGOs, says a recent report by the Overseas Development Institute.
“The privileged humanitarian access enjoyed by national NGOs should be more fully exploited,” Suzanne Murray-Jones, senior adviser with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Afghanistan, told IRIN, saying that they often need capacity-building and adequate funding to do the job.
To ensure that humanitarian work is carried out in the provinces with the greatest need, the 2013 CHAP plan introduces a ranking of provinces by assessed humanitarian need, to avoid aid being directed at areas that are either easy to reach or politically important.
If humanitarian challenges in 2013 were limited to conflict, they would be serious enough. But Afghanistan is also frequently a victim of natural disasters, which on average affect around a quarter of a million Afghans each year.
The last 12 months saw a good wheat harvest but with droughts in eight out of the last 11 years, a poor harvest looks probable in the coming year, according to the CHAP 2013 report.
Oxfam’s Afghanistan associate country director Kate O'Rourke says years of conflict have worn down people’s coping mechanisms: “Investing in projects designed to reduce the impact of disasters and improve people's resilience and their ability to deal with crises when they do occur is key. Only then will Afghans who are at risk be better prepared and able to cope, instead of being affected by reoccurring humanitarian `spot fires' that they are constantly trying to recover from, as they are now."
Economic growth has been around 7 percent over the last few years, but opportunities remain few and the private sector is hamstrung by the lack of a reliable electricity supply.
While large mining projects are being planned, the aid effort and the tens of thousands of international troops that make up a key part of the economy are set to reduce in size in the coming years.
“Afghanistan is entering a very challenging period that will likely be characterized by growing economic vulnerability resulting from a reduction in international assistance and the pullout of most international forces that is expected to translate into significant economic contraction and job losses,” said Mark Bowden, the humanitarian coordinator for Afghanistan.
Afghanistan is the world’s most aid-dependent country, with aid worth around $15.7 billion per year, roughly the same as the national GDP. The World Bank estimates that 6-10 percent of the population have worked in aid-financed employment.
Four decades of conflict in Afghanistan have been one of the key drivers of displacement, creating substantial refugee populations requiring support.
Around 2.7 million Afghans live in Pakistan and Iran, while within the country, 450,000 people are displaced; 34 percent of them newly displaced in the first three-quarters of 2012.
Meanwhile, UNHCR say nearly six million refugees have returned to Afghanistan in the last decade, something that has put considerable pressure on the economy and services.
“Many are being perceived as not having reached parity with other members of the communities in which they are living, and there is a possibility of additional unplanned, large-scale return,” said Murray-Jones at UNHCR.
To manage these needs in 2013, the humanitarian community is requesting $471 million, an increase on 2012 when the Consolidated Appeals Process (CAP) was $448 million.
In a sign of donor fatigue and the pressure on leading donor country budgets due to the global economic slowdown, humanitarian funding dropped by around half in 2012.
Afghanistan was the fourth-least funded humanitarian crisis, as a percentage, among the 22 global appeals, although at least $270 million in aid is provided annually outside the CAP funding mechanism.