In under four weeks’ time (5 April) Afghanistan’s 12 million voters will get the chance to elect one of 11 candidates to replace President Hamid Karzai, in what observers hope will be the country’s first ever peaceful and democratic handover of power.
It will be one of the biggest challenges in a vital year of transition for the country, which has seen nearly 35 years of protracted conflict. The election will probably be spread over two rounds and lead to a handover of power in July/August. Meanwhile, the Taliban (who are calling for a boycott of the elections) and other anti-government groups seem to be growing in confidence as NATO-led international forces prepare for complete or near-complete withdrawal by the end of the year.
For humanitarians and aid agencies, the transition will make for an unpredictable year.
“We know 2014 is going to be a critical year for Afghanistan, and Afghans will need continued support from the international community,” said Elizabeth Cameron, Oxfam Afghanistan's policy and advocacy adviser. “But we must also learn from lessons of the past and be smarter with our aid investments in this transition year.”
As well as dealing with potential funding changes, key trends this year are expected to include an evolving conflict, more strain on basic health services and continued high levels of displacement.
The country’s humanitarian coordinator, Mark Bowden, says the evolving security conditions are his major concern in 2014, as the Afghan National Security Forces take on more responsibility.
“We’re seeing a change in the nature of conflict - in the way that the conflict’s taking place. In part it’s because there are more ground operations, but that may well lead to more rapid sudden displacement,” he told IRIN in his Kabul office.
According to this year’s Humanitarian Needs Overview (HNO), “the nature of the conflict has changed in 2013: the parties are increasingly engaging in ambushes and ground engagements in provinces such as Kunar, Ghazni, Khost and Nangarhar, with a consequent sharp increase in civilian casualties.”
A recent infographic published by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) showed the increase in government casualties over the last five years, and also the geographic expansion of incidents.
The withdrawal of international forces will hurt the economy as contracts and local jobs disappear. But the head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Afghanistan, Aidan O’Leary, says the pull-out is an essential process the country needs to go through.
“I think we have to recognize that there is no long-term peace, stability and prosperity in Afghanistan with 130,000 international troops, and a 100,000 military contractors supporting them, so that’s just not sustainable,” he said.
“On the security side, what we’ve basically seen in 2013 is a continued escalation of incidents with more contested areas, and obviously that raises lots of issues, whether it’s access to health care, whether it’s displacement of populations, or whether it’s acute food insecurity.”
Some analysts think a new government and the pull-out of foreign forces will not only create a more sustainable future, but also establish a more fruitful context for peace talks and reconciliation. Politically, analysts say, both sides seem to be waiting for the post-election order to be established before continuing with any peace talks. With fighting currently close to stalemate, they say, a long-term solution is likely to come from talks rather than the battlefield.
In the meantime though, the conflict is having an increasing impact on civilians, which in turn is putting pressure on emergency health services.
The annual UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan annual report on the protection of civilians, published last month, documented 8,615 civilian casualties in 2013 (including 2,959 deaths), up 14 percent on the previous year. Figures for civilian deaths in 2013 are only slightly down on the 3,133 recorded in 2011, the deadliest year of the post-2001 conflict.
This year’s humanitarian appeal estimated that 5.4 million Afghans will need access to health services, up from 3.3 million last year. The under-five mortality rate is 97 deaths per 1,000 births. On average the country has only one health worker for every 10,000 Afghans.
A report released last month by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said “basic and emergency medical care in Afghanistan remains severely limited and sorely ill-adapted to meet growing needs created by the ongoing conflict.”
These needs are highest in the provinces aid workers struggle most to reach - Helmand, Kandahar and Nuristan.
“Afghanistan will continue to face quite large humanitarian challenges with displacement and I don’t think we have done enough in terms of strengthening internal capacity to respond to that,” said Bowden. “We supported the government’s development of a new IDP policy but the issue now is its implementation. Displacement is still a major problem and really a Cinderella in terms of the sort of support that it gets.”
The search for durable solutions to the displacement crisis has been hampered by sensitivities over land and property rights.
“For long-term solutions, I think stability and job security is going to be the key to IDP [internally displaced persons] returns,” said Nigel Jenkins, until recently the country director for the International Rescue Committee. According to the World Bank, 400,000-500,000 Afghans will come on to the labour market every year over the next 5-10 years, but few jobs are being created, especially in rural areas.
“There’s a lot of urban migration, and all the cities are pretty bursting. At the moment, there is a lot of assistance money in the country, and I think when that dries up there will be less jobs in the urban environment so there needs to be some coherent strategy to get people back [to rural areas],” said Jenkins.
Last month the aid community launched the 2014 Common Humanitarian Action Plan (CHAP) for US$406 million, a reduction on last year’s $474 million appeal.
While the 2013 appeal was well funded (nearly 81 percent), several humanitarian workers told IRIN they were concerned that funding was likely to fall in the coming years as donor attention shifted elsewhere.
“In terms of the challenges ahead, Afghanistan is incredibly dependent on high levels of external assistance, and we can debate how valuable that is, but it is important that there’s not a sudden drop in humanitarian assistance because it would have a pretty disastrous result on social services,” said Bowden.
The Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) that carried out development projects, often as part of a counter-insurgency strategy, have now almost entirely disappeared, although aid workers often had mixed views on their benefits.
NGO workers in Jalalabad told IRIN in January that despite increased humanitarian needs, they were seeing reductions in funding, a down-sizing UN, and a lack of donor monitoring visits.
“Funding has declined, and understandably so, for a number of factors,” said Jenkins. “There is a lot of rhetoric about people ring-fencing funding but what they don’t say is that they don’t have the capacity to manage those funds any more, so the traditional bilateral funding, whether it will go to individual organizations or consortiums, is kind of drying up.”
External assistance is currently around 70-75 percent of GDP, and even if much of the money never arrives in the country, Afghanistan will remain dependent on aid and vulnerable to drops in aid levels, particular in the payment of government salaries.
Many in the aid community say a lot of aid and development money has been wasted over the past decade, and that the withdrawal of international forces can also provide opportunities for concentrating on needs rather than donor security objectives.
“Big money hasn’t benefited ordinary people - just those who were skilled at accessing the funds,” said one Afghan aid worker at an international humanitarian agency.
This year’s CHAP focuses on acute humanitarian needs, not chronic underdevelopment. Oxfam’s Cameron says funds should also focus on strengthening long-term resilience: “Connecting humanitarian work with long-term development will ensure Afghans are supported well into the future and give them the tools to withstand shocks to their lives and livelihoods.”
For some humanitarian workers, 2014 will be the year when the “artificial aid bubble” starts to deflate, and a more sustainable situation evolves at a more realistic scale.
“Afghanistan is still recovering - and I think Afghans will agree with me on this - from aid that was primarily security related, even humanitarian assistance,” said Bowden. “Moving away from that to a sort of more normal development and humanitarian process is going to be difficult. We need to see continued international support at really quite high levels if there’s not to be a major shock to the economy and the population.”
According to OCHA, “the most likely scenario for 2014 is a steady deterioration in the current situation, leading to a continued increase in humanitarian need as well as shrinking humanitarian space.”
Off-the-record, some aid workers worry about disruption caused by the electoral period, high levels of corruption, and an upsurge in criminality and unemployment.
“Because of the elections and the pull-out, it’s created a lot of panic, particularly among Afghan staff,” said one international aid worker who asked not to be named. “Expat workers are more cautious, but many are leaving. Funding is also drying up. Afghanistan is overlooked. Even the media is only following the politics. You don’t see a commitment from the international community.”
One Afghan humanitarian NGO worker said “2014 is considered a disaster year.” For aid workers, Afghanistan is likely to remain one of the world’s most dangerous countries to work in.
Nevertheless, OCHA’s Aidan O’Leary says they will remain engaged.
“Amongst the core actors in the humanitarian system, I think there is a commitment to stay in 2014 and beyond. The challenge for us all collectively is how do we approach this in the most effective and efficient way.”