Safe humanitarian space is contested terrain in Afghanistan, where the independence and impartiality of aid work comes under daily challenge in the country’s ongoing conflict.
“We think we are independent and impartial. The only side we're taking here is the side of victims and the civilian community, and we hope people understand this,” Adrian Edwards, chief spokesman for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), told IRIN.
But the Taliban take a different view: “The UN and aid organizations are not impartial,” Qari Yosuf Ahmadi, a purported spokesman for the anti-government militants, told IRIN over the phone from an unidentified location.
“If they are truly impartial why do they use armoured cars, armed guards and hide behind barricaded walls…They receive funding from the US and Britain; support the puppet government in Kabul; and damage our Islamic and Afghani values.”
Dozens of aid workers have been killed, kidnapped and threatened over the past few years and attacks on aid convoys and facilities have risen steadily. The south, southwest, east and central areas of the country are no-go areas for many international organizations.
Attacks on aid workers can be politically motivated - meant to send a message to the aid community as a whole, the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) said in a briefing paper in April.
Afghanistan: Humanitarianism under Threat, a report by the Feinstein International Center, argues: “There is no humanitarian consensus in Afghanistan and very little humanitarian space. Both have been trampled by political expediency and by the disregard by all parties to the conflict for the plight of civilians.”
The blurring of the lines between humanitarian assistance and a political/military agenda is seen as a dangerous trend by many observers.
“The militarization of aid, the PRTs [NATO-led Provincial Reconstruction Teams], too many security contractors and the increased blurring of lines have contributed to shrinking humanitarian space and to misperceptions about the work of NGOs,” Ashley Jackson, a researcher with Oxfam in Kabul, told IRIN.
“Involvement by the military in development places beneficiaries, projects and implementers at risk,” the British and Irish Agencies’ Afghanistan Group and the European Network of NGOs in Afghanistan said in a research paper in January.
Moreover, some donors have attached strategic and political conditions to their funding of NGOs, sometimes undermining the core principles of independent humanitarian action.
“We feel a pull on our sleeves pulling us to the military tent,” Dave Hampson, a representative of Save the Children UK, told IRIN in April.
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Lack of understanding?
Most Afghans, particularly in rural areas, are unable to easily distinguish between an NGO and other private and military actors. They can be suspicious of aid operations, despite the humanitarian needs around shelter, healthcare, food, education and protection.
“There is little humanitarian advocacy in Afghanistan promoting humanitarian principles and access with the armed opposition groups, despite Afghanistan being an extremely politicized environment with an unpredictable armed opposition who are suspicious of the humanitarian effort being used as a political and military tool in the conflict,” the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) said in a presentation on 28 June 2008.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reopened its office in Afghanistan in January 2009 - strengthening the humanitarian component of the UN’s engagement.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC]), which maintains contacts with all warring sides, said it had been accused “by some actors” of “arrogance” for sticking to its core principles of neutrality and independence and keeping its distance from other organizations.
“In 2003-2006 when there was greater security in the country, many NGOs began working with state institutions on development projects and building capacity for basic service delivery, such as health and education,” said Ashley Jackson of Oxfam.
Dozens of NGOs are still working on various development programmes which are funded, led and supervised by the government, such as the National Solidarity Programme - the government flagship rural development programme - but work with and/or for the government has been a major pretext for insurgent attacks on aid workers.
The Taliban have repeatedly warned individuals and institutions not to work with, and/or support, the government.
The use of armoured vehicles - with tinted windows and armed escorts - by some international NGOs and UN agencies has been controversial.
“Some of our vehicles are armoured, and some not. It varies depending on the area and the risks. Regarding how useful these are, we know that in Afghanistan armoured vehicles have in several instances saved lives. The same goes for having a properly trained guard force,” Adrian Edwards of UNAMA, told IRIN.
In June NATO/ISAF agreed to stop the use of white vehicles in response to calls from NGOs for clearer markings to distinguish between civilian and military vehicles.
“Despite some major strides in security management, aid organizations face significant dilemmas in certain threat environments, with short-term adaptations often compromising longer-term security,” states the HPG’s April briefing paper.
The ICRC and Oxfam said they do not use armed guards and armoured vehicles because it could undermine their distinct humanitarian identities.
“Some aid organizations have entrenched themselves in offices which look more like a military fort than a civilian location,” said Ajmal Samadi, director of the Afghanistan Rights Monitor, a rights watchdog in Kabul.
Lack of access and current high levels of insecurity mean aid agencies face the dilemma of withdrawing from insecure areas or tolerating serious risks to staff and activities. Their response has often been to outsource aid work to national NGOs, government bodies and individuals in insecure parts of the country.
In a report to the Security Council on the situation of Afghanistan in June, the UN Secretary-General warned of higher levels of violence, “including complex suicide attacks, intimidation and assassinations carried out by insurgents”.
Nevertheless, Reto Stocker, head of the ICRC delegation, said he was optimistic about the future of humanitarian action in Afghanistan: “The humanitarian space can be regained and re-expanded because neutrality and impartiality is possible here,” he said.