Afghanistan suffers from cyclical natural disasters - floods and drought - which affect people annually and require expensive emergency responses, but their impacts could well be avoided, or at least mitigated, if proper water management systems or dams were built, for example.
Some farmers could switch from rain-fed wheat crops, which require a lot of water, to other crops, like grapes or almonds. But these kinds of transitions require long-term multi-year plans, inherently at odds with emergency responses, based on annual appeals for funding.
“Responding to eight droughts in 11 years makes no sense,” Michael Keating, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Afghanistan, said recently. “There is something going wrong.”
“It is not a complete mystery how some of these problems can be addressed,” Keating told IRIN. “They shouldn’t be addressed by basic emergency humanitarian action.”
And yet, for much of the past decade, humanitarians have been drawn into things like infrastructure and early recovery programmes.
“A lot of humanitarian assistance has been partly diverted from its objective,” said Laurent Saillard, head of the European Commission’s humanitarian aid arm (ECHO) in Afghanistan. “Instead of being used for what it’s supposed to be used for - life-saving emergency interventions - it is trying to address chronic poverty, and of course, at the end of the day, not achieving sustainable results.”
Over the past 10 years, a cumulative US$3.2 billion has been spent in Afghanistan on programmes outlined in the international community’s annual appeals for humanitarian funding - the Consolidated Appeals Process (CAP). The CAP is estimated to account for only half of all humanitarian funding.
“[There is] frustration from the population which receives the assistance [because it] is not exactly what they need... frustration from the implementing agencies, [who] realize that they have been present for 10 years, repeating all sorts of interventions, and yet they have not addressed the problem… and frustration from the donors, [who] feel that the money is being wasted, in a way,” Saillard told IRIN.
This year’s drought - affecting 2.8 million people - brought the problem to new heights: “That is a scale that is simply not sustainable,” said Aidan O’Leary, the head of OCHA in Afghanistan.
“At the end of the day, humanitarian actors can only ever bring emergency relief," he added. "We cannot bring solutions. [People] want houses, roads, livelihoods. Humanitarian actors can’t deliver that. They’re never going to be able to deliver that."
This year’s CAP, launched in Kabul on 28 January, aims to “go back to basics” by focusing on more strictly humanitarian needs. “If you make the field too broad, you can’t get anything done,” O’Leary told IRIN.
The international humanitarian community has requested one quarter less than last year, even though humanitarian needs are increasing. It has asked for $437 million to help 8.8 million Afghans, including help for civilians affected by armed conflict, initial assistance for refugees and internally displaced people returning to their areas of origin, and life-saving actions for those affected by natural disasters.
This excludes projects for the “chronically vulnerable populations” - a task deemed better left to development actors.
How we got here
Much of the problem, aid workers say, lies in the fact that the billions of dollars in development aid invested in the country over the last decade have not been spent cohesively or based on needs, but rather driven by short-term political and military aims.
Around $57 billion dollars of development assistance have been spent in Afghanistan since 2001, and yet 10 million people are still living on the edge, Keating said.
“That does raise the question: Have the investments been equitable? Is the money being used in a way that helps these communities reduce their vulnerability and doesn’t expose them to repeated humanitarian crisis?”
Falling through the cracks
Nor has the government provided the answer, aid workers say. Saillard argues the humanitarian community is partly to blame in allowing the government to defer its responsibilities, often under the guise of lack of capacity. “The fact that there is this presence keeps the right actors sometimes outside the game,” he noted.
But the minister of rural rehabilitation and development, Jarullah Mansoori, argues that with its budget of $500 million per year, his ministry has made great strides in building communities’ resilience to shocks and in managing the impacts of disasters.
It has created a central coordinating body, the Afghanistan National Disaster Management Authority; has dug irrigation canals; encouraged rural enterprise development; and improved access to health and education in rural areas. The ministry’s flagship National Solidarity Programme has been credited with reaching the local level with cash-for-work or cash-for-assets programmes.
“If you compare the damage of disasters eight years ago to... now, you will see a lot of differences,” the minister told IRIN. “But still, since this country went through more than three decades of very damaging and destructive war and crisis, it needs a lot of effort in every aspect.”
Other aid workers say mitigation projects, like flood protection walls, have fallen through the cracks. They are not a central part of the Afghanistan National Development Strategy, which the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan is mandated to support; nor are they technically part of OCHA’s mandate. The UN Development Programme (UNDP), which might traditionally take on such projects, has been focused on improving governance and reducing poverty, and is scaling back its direct presence across the country in order to increasingly work through the government.
"Disaster risk reduction is almost non-existent," said one development worker. "I've noticed that gap. There's very little proactive work done here. It's all reactive."
Another part of the problem has been a lack of understanding of what exactly “humanitarian” means and where the line is drawn. “It’s quite blurred,” as one field worker put it. “Is any one activity development or humanitarian?”
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has been dealing with this question for years, as refugees returning from Iran and Pakistan - given an initial humanitarian assistance - struggle to integrate in the longer term.
“Where does humanitarian assistance stop and where does development aid begin?” Suzanne Murray Jones, a senior adviser at UNHCR, has been asking herself. “How do we bridge the gap?”
Part of the answer, she said, is a greater dialogue between humanitarian and development partners to encourage development investments in the same areas where people are returning en masse.
“We know nothing about development of livelihoods or about large-scale agriculture. It’s not our expertise. It’s for the FAOs or ILOs to go to these sites and say this is what’s needed,” she said, in reference to the Food and Agriculture Organization and the International Labour Organization. “It’s getting the synergy together to work together.”
To that end, humanitarian actors now participate in monthly meetings of the heads of developmental agencies to try to flag issues of concern, and O’Leary is increasingly advocating development.
“We have to be more vocal,” he said. “I have no interest in having humanitarians indefinitely here in Afghanistan. We have to be looking for our exit strategy. That involves a peace process and development actors developing the key issues. Is it going to take decades? Yes. But it has to be on the agenda now.”
In the meantime, as humanitarians try to return to their more traditional role, they find themselves in a tricky position. Keating recalls an informal settlement he visited in Kabul where people were living with “nothing”.
“You can’t respond on a humanitarian basis endlessly, and yet there is no development activity that we could perceive to address their needs," he said. "They’re falling between two stools. I suspect that is true of a very large number of people in rural areas as well.”
Aid workers acknowledge that pulling back could lead to holes in coverage. But for Saillard, it might be a necessary evil. “Sometimes you have to create gaps for the right actors to wake up and take their responsibilities seriously,” he said.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions