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Interview with UK international development minister

[Afghanistan] Gareth Thomas MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the UK Department for International Development. IRIN
Gareth Thomas MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the UK Department for International Development
As Afghanistan moves towards holding its first ever democratic elections in early October, the international community is cautiously expecting to see the results of the millions of dollars that have been spent in the country, which is still reeling from the consequences of more than 20 years of conflict. In an interview with IRIN, Gareth Thomas, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for International Development (DFID), said Afghanistan had made major advances, while many challenges, including security, had yet to be fully addressed. DFID is one of the leading donors in Afghanistan's reconstruction, with projects addressing sustainable livelihoods, law and order, and the campaign against poppy cultivation. QUESTION: How do you see the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan? ANSWER: I would describe Afghanistan simply as a country with considerable poverty. It is a country that is emerging from conflict with real security challenges but with huge progress having been made. Q: What is DFID doing in Afghanistan? A: Our priority is to help and continue to build the institutions of the Afghan state and at the same time help to create economic opportunities for the people of Afghanistan, and to provide access to basic services that people need which were devastated during 20 years of conflict. We work very closely with a range of other donors who are committed to the same objectives. We have put in money in the National Solidarity Programme (NSP), which is a fantastic programme, bringing tangible benefits to every part of Afghanistan. The great thing about the NSP is that the community has to come together to decide priorities, and I think that is bringing development to all parts of the country. Q: Do you think Afghanistan has achieved any major development? A: I think development is taking place. A real difference is being made. The European Commission has funded over 70 hospitals and health clinics across the country to be rebuilt. The number of children going to school has increased dramatically and over 40 percent of those going to school are girls, while girls' education during the Taliban was in secret. Measles and polio have almost been eradicated in Afghanistan, which is a successful development. We are beginning to see progress in building the Afghan army and building the Afghan police force. The position of women in Afghanistan has improved dramatically. I have always been optimistic about Afghanistan but I suppose the thing that makes me most optimistic about Afghanistan is the number of people that have been registered to vote in the presidential elections. Q: What is DFID's long-term commitment to Afghanistan? A: DFID's commitment has been 500 million pounds [about US $900 million] over five years from 2002 to 2007. We are working, for example, on what we can do to provide an alternative livelihood for those who work in the poppy trade, particularly in Badakhshan and eastern Hazarajat; looking at issues around the debts that many farmers have, which is the reason why they cultivate poppy; looking at how we can stimulate the many traditional industries Afghanistan has. The money that we are putting into the central administration is also helping to fund health care, schools, the Afghan army and helping the Afghan elections process. Our money is making a real difference in all series of ways. Q: What is the top Afghan priority for the UK? A: One of the top priorities for the UK is our work on counter-narcotics and tackling the opium trade; and that is because probably 90 percent of the heroin that ends up on Britain's streets comes from Afghanistan. We also recognise how devastating the drugs trade is for the local well-being in the long-term of Afghanistan unless we tackle it. We are working not just in terms of alternative livelihood but we are working to develop the Afghan army, the Afghan police force and the national security council, which target those who are engaged in the drugs trade. Q: Just recently the international NGO Medicines Sans Frontieres [MSF] pulled out of Afghanistan due to increasing attacks on aid workers. Don't you think the current insecurity is making the aid delivery more difficult? A: It is not good that MSF finally had to pull out from Afghanistan totally because of the security situation. It is a tragedy, what we are seeing. Those who reject the Afghan government and don't want to see democracy are targeting what they view as soft targets [aid workers]. It is not great that some of the NGOs scale back their activities. But at the same time one has to recognise more development is taking place. The fact that so many people have registered to take part in the elections is a sign of progress. Let's be honest that the security challenges have been there for the last 25 years in Afghanistan. It is not going to go away overnight. It is for the international community and the Afghan government to continue to work. Q: How do you channel DFID's funding in Afghanistan? A: Well, our approach is to put our money through the government. Because one of the ways to strengthen government institutions is by giving them the resources so they can employ the people on the ground. So we always put a significant proportion of our funding to Afghanistan through the government's own finances. The issue of accountability is always challenging in post-conflict countries. I would never say it is 100 percent better but we do have confidence in the way the money is being spent. Q: The Afghans say most of the donor funds have been spent on administrative costs and have had little visible impact on Afghanistan development. How do you see this issue? A: I think you would not have seen the level of development that we have seen in Afghanistan [now]. Schools are functioning and a huge number of children are back to school, including girls. The economy of Afghanistan is growing 20 to 30 percent a year. That would not happen if the money for the development of Afghanistan was simply being recycled in terms of people's salaries and administrative costs. One of those direct ways to stop that happening is spending money through the National Solidarity Programme where communities are being given grants by the Afghan government to decide for themselves what their top priority is. Q: What are the challenges in Afghan rehabilitation? A: I suppose there are three big challenges. The biggest is security. Obviously the Taliban and al-Qaeda continue to operate. Continuing the process in putting in place the institutions that can tackle the drugs trade is another challenge. And I think the third challenge is to continue the process of disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration. Q: How do you see the donors' interest of Afghanistan in a longer sustainable period? A: I am cautiously optimistic about the international community being determined to continue to support Afghanistan. I note from what the [UK] prime minister said, that probably he is absolutely determined that Britain will continue to support Afghanistan. And, similarly, Americans have made very strong comments to provide future financial support for the country. Q: What is DFID's support for the Afghan elections? Do you think it will be a free and fair process? A: We are putting a close eye on the elections. We are putting some money in the elections monitoring. So there will be international observers in Afghanistan to take a view on the elections process. I don't think the elections are going to be perfect but I think it's a massive step forwards for Afghanistan. That is why voter registration teams are targeted by terrorists.
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