Humanitarian space easing in Afghanistan?

Humanitarian agencies are seeing promising signs of regaining space and acceptance from Taliban insurgents while attacks against NGO workers have reduced significantly over the past six months.

 

Up to 1,200 security incidents were recorded in June - more than in any month since the fall of the Taliban - but attacks on NGOs by armed opposition groups in the first half of 2010 were 35 percent lower than in 2008-2009, according to the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office (ANSO).

 

ANSO, which provides free safety analysis and advice to member NGOs, said attacks on NGOs had diminished due to their own enhanced security measures, and also because the insurgents appear to have stopped targeting NGOs.

 

“At a strategic level the armed opposition are in many cases acting more like a government in waiting and so see a convergence of interests in maintaining NGO services. However, it is still possible for mistakes to be made at the tactical level and for an NGO to become targeted,” Nic Lee, director of ANSO, told IRIN.

 

Unlike previous years when the armed opposition abducted aid workers and held them for 6-8 weeks, only releasing them in exchange for money or prisoners, this year the detention period has dropped to 6-8 days; abductees have been released quickly and often unconditionally, ANSO said.

 

What ANSO describes as a shift in the armed opposition’s approach to aid workers has been interpreted by NGOs as a positive sign in terms of the regaining of humanitarian operating space in the country, particularly in insecure areas.

 

A purported Taliban spokesman, Qari Yusuf Ahmadi, had earlier told IRIN the insurgents would ensure security for aid agencies in areas under their control provided aid workers liaised with them first. However, he warned aid used for political and military gains would not be tolerated, and insurgent fighters were instructed to attack aid distributions by government and foreign forces.

 

Ahmadullah Ahmadi, provincial director of the Afghan Red Crescent Society in the volatile southern province of Helmand, said the insurgents were not targeting “well-established and recognized” aid agencies.

 

“They know NGOs and agencies which have operated in Afghanistan for a long time, before the Karzai government was established,” he said, adding that the insurgents were also thinking of their own interests in terms of “to what extent an aid agency was beneficial to them”. 

 

''The situation for truly humanitarian NGOs has improved recently''

About two-thirds of the country has been deemed either inaccessible or high-risk by most international aid organizations, as well as UN agencies, and dozens of aid workers have been attacked in the past four years. 

 

Improved situation?

 

“The situation for truly humanitarian NGOs has improved recently,” Dirk R. Frans, executive director of International Assistance Mission (IAM), which has been operating in Afghanistan since 1966, told IRIN.

 

He said there is an increased understanding by the warring parties, including the Taliban, of the role of NGOs in helping vulnerable people.

 

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) indicated that humanitarian space was slowly expanding: “While security has deteriorated, we have expanded our presence in the conflict-affected and insecure areas,” said Bijan Fredric Farnoudi, an ICRC spokesman in Kabul.

 

The ICRC attributed this to behind-the-scenes dialogue with the Taliban on humanitarian needs, and a sense of enlightened self-interest by the insurgents who may be realizing that civilian casualties alienate the population.

 

The ICRC has been criticized for fostering contacts with Taliban insurgents, but the fact is that it has been able to deliver humanitarian services in areas which are no-go zones for others.

 

Humanitarian principles

 

Not all aid agencies fully adhere to humanitarian principles. Some are accused of supporting government efforts to combat insurgents; others operate in cahoots with NATO and US forces’ “hearts and minds” projects. 

 



Photo: Fraidoon Poya/UNAMA
ICRC negotiated access to insecure areas for a polio immunization drive in 2009

Such agencies have fuelled misgivings about aid work, and NGOs have expressed concerns about the “militarization” of aid and the blurring of civil-military lines.

 

“What the ICRC and other truly humanitarian organizations reap from their impartiality, neutrality and independence is not available to those who violate these principles,” said one foreign aid worker in Kabul who preferred anonymity. 

 

Despite the decline in attacks on NGOs by armed opposition groups, the country has remained a hostile environment for aid work: 45 security incidents involving NGOs were recorded from January to June 2010 of which 31 were attributed to armed opposition groups and 14 to criminals.

 

Criminal gangs have attacked NGOs primarily for monetary gain, ANSO said.  

 

Negotiating access

 

Over 1,200 national and international NGOs are currently registered in the country and involved in various development and humanitarian activities. Many say one credible agency, such as the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), should negotiate access on behalf of the humanitarian community.

 

NGOs have called for an enhanced OCHA presence in Afghanistan to fulfil its mandate. OCHA reopened its office in Afghanistan in 2009 but, along with other UN agencies, does not have a presence in most of the insecure southern provinces.

 

On the other hand, the ICRC has managed to negotiate access denied others in the past: For example, it helped get “support letters” from the armed opposition leadership for a polio vaccination campaign in 2009.

 

Since the insurgents are reportedly active in almost 80 percent of the country, talking to them about the impartial and independent nature of aid work is no longer an option but an obligation, experts say.

 

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