With about 8,000 staff operating inside the country, the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan (SCA) is one of the largest NGOs active there. Established more than 20 years ago, SCA works solely for Afghanistan, and has three main offices respectively in the northern region, the capital, Kabul, and in the central province of Ghazni. Initially concentrating on emergency response, SCA has been focusing on long-term development for some time now.
With 55 rural clinics, 167 primary schools, as well as seed distribution and engineering activities, SCA has its largest programme in the northern region, including the non-Taliban northeastern area. Despite recent difficulties following the withdrawal of international aid workers, SCA's regional director for the northern region, Douglas Higgins, told IRIN that they were managing to continue operations at almost 100 percent.
QUESTION: What problems have you faced since 11 September in operating inside Afghanistan?
ANSWER: Communication is a key thing. Not having an accurate picture of what is the reality on the ground [is a problem]. Now we understand that our offices were closed for some time; how much that had an impact on the clinics and the schools is hard to assess. Most of the time we understand that the actual impact on rural projects was minimal, but there is [an] indication that there has been some impact.
Staff are concerned about their safety and families, so we can't assume that we are functioning at 100 percent, but [judging] from consistently all our reports we have been pretty close to 100 percent. Communication has been sporadic. There was a period of almost two weeks when we had no communication with any of our staff in the north, and that was very worrying. Now communication is more regular, and [we are receiving information] every two or three days.
Q: What reports do you have of the situation in the northern region? We have heard about people fleeing to rural areas from central and eastern Afghanistan.
A: From what we can tell of population movement, not a great deal. I think we have to understand that there are already layers of displacement due to the drought and conflict, and there has been minimal movement of these people in the current conflict. Also, we gather that there is discouragement for already existing IDPs [Internally Displaced Persons] to be relocated, so significant population movements seem to be fairly low key at the moment. That's not to say it's not happening, but it is not as major as anticipated.
Q: Do you think it is because many Afghans just don't have the resources to move?
A: Any answer would be speculative, and it is difficult to give an accurate response. Security would be one reason also. People obviously have nothing left, and this has been known for some time. Resources have already been minimised, so a large percentage of the population are ISPs [Internally Stranded Persons], and they will still be ISPs.
IDPs had already moved, and because the front lines have not moved significantly to date, this hasn't resulted in significant changes in IDPs. The drought situation hasn't changed. All of these factors contribute to the fact that we are not seeing an escalation.
Q: We have heard about a breakdown in law and order in the [northern] city of Mazar-e Sharif. Are you continuing to operate there, and do you have any information about the situation of Afghans there?
A: Our weakest communication is with Mazar. Our offices were temporarily occupied, but we have managed to regain control, and we are still not clear on the situation there. But I can say that the UN's CDAP [Comprehensive Disabled Afghans' Programme] orthopaedic centre that we are running is still operational there. Reports are inconsistent from Mazar, and its difficult to know what is going on there.
Q: Where are the most vulnerable people ?
A: Pockets in Faryab and Sar-e Pol [both northwestern provinces] are recognised as being particularly hard-hit because of drought issues. Takhar [northeastern province] - I don't know if anyone has a really accurate pulse on the situation in Takhar, not because of drought, but because of the internal conflict.
Although Baghlan [northeastern province] is not considered a major crisis area, the more one goes away from the main agricultural belt into the remote districts, you find some incredibly poverty-stricken areas, where populations have diminished, and we see that with our school enrolments, because the children are just not there, because families have left due to the drought.
Q: The Swedish Committee is continuing to distribute seed. There was a distribution in the northeastern province of Badakhshan not so long ago [Northern Alliance-controlled area]. Are farmers going to be able to plant under the current circumstances?
A: We have several different seed-distribution activities going on. One which we were able to successfully complete with the help of ECHO [EU's humanitarian office] - we distributed 100 mt in Badakhshan alone. In much of the country, farmers cannot continue with farming, but Ragh in Badakhshan, where we distributed seed, is not affected by the military interventions.
A lot of Ragh District is rain-fed, and it is a gamble under the current circumstances as the drought continues. Parts of Ragh are irrigated, and we have distributed appropriate seed in the appropriate places. So we are quite confident that the irrigated parts will be successful. We also have seed distribution in all other provinces across the north controlled by the Taliban, but distribution is on hold due to the security situation.
Q: You have 167 primary schools across the north. Has attendance been reduced due to the US-led air strikes?
A: Some of them are summer schools and some are winter schools, so they are not all operating at the same time. I have had no indication that there has been a major impact on our education programme because of the recent events. I do know that the in-service teacher training we run had been continuing up until fairly recently.
Q: With regard to reconstruction, do you think that too many people are concentrating on the short term, rather than long term?
A: I do think there is a very heavy emphasis on the whole IDP crisis, and those who are considered to be most vulnerable within the current context. It would be unfair to assume that just the IDPs are the most vulnerable. The ISPs are obviously the most vulnerable, but they are still in their places of origin. The Swedish Committee has consistently maintained the focus on routine activities, given that the Afghan rural population in general is vulnerable.
Therefore, to focus on IDPs alone is focusing on a small percentage, and perhaps missing the bigger picture of realities in rural Afghanistan. For that reason, we have not moved substantially away from our routine programming of health, education, agriculture and engineering for rural populations. We will continue to maintain that, expanding it as appropriate and where it is [operating] complementarily with other organisations doing emergency response work.
Q: Would they be the main areas you would focus on in terms of long term reconstruction?
A: Yes, absolutely. In the past we have done quite a lot of reconstruction in health clinics and schools. We have done less of that in recent years, but it is likely that [it] would increase in coming years.
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