Select Committee on International Development Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)

TUESDAY 23 OCTOBER 2001

MR JUSTIN FORSYTH, MS JANE COCKING AND MR RAJA JARRAH


Chairman

  1. Can I say thank you very much for coming in this afternoon at comparatively short notice to help the Committee with our inquiry. We are not going to have, if you do not mind, opening statements. What we thought we would do is at the end after the Committee has finished our questioning, if there is anything you feel that you want to add or any nuance where you think we have gone slightly astray, I will provide an opportunity for you to make some wrap up comments. I think one of the things which has caused us all concern is that for about the last week there seem to have been a number of differences of opinion on fact between the NGOs and the Secretary of State. I was just wondering if you could explain what are the mechanisms for you and officials within DFID sharing information and experience because it is slightly surprising that there should be such differences of opinion as to actually what is happening on the ground. Perhaps you could help us understand why and what has caused these differences of opinion?
  (Mr Jarrah) We share all our situation reports that come out of the field with DFID. Our information is as good as theirs. The main problem is that we do not have efficient lines of communication with staff within Afghanistan. We are relying on a system of couriers and occasional staff members who manage to cross the border. Some of the information that comes across is either out of date or, through a system of Chinese whispers, not as accurate as it could be.

  2. Could you speak up, please.
  (Mr Jarrah) I am sorry. What I was saying is that our information from inside Afghanistan is not perfect because communications have broken down. We rely on couriers and on travellers across the border. The information that we do get we put in situation reports which are shared with DFID but quite often that information, by the time it gets to us, is probably out of date and we are not necessarily comparing like with like when we put two sets of figures side by side.
  (Mr Forsyth) From our point of view, we have hourly contact with DFID. We have had very close contact with the British High Commission in Islamabad. I think we share all of our information and they share all of their information with us. That is one of the reasons why we were baffled by some of the differences because all the figures that we have used have also come from the World Food Programme. They have come from the World Food Programme in Islamabad. I think the only way to explain the difference in the figures is what the Secretary of State was saying was aspirational, WFP wanted to move 1,700 tonnes a day, but in practice we think it is more like, and some of the figures we have shared with you show, 700 tonnes a day in the last month, maybe even less than that. It is still very sporadic. That is one thing that we are seeing. The other one is that from our point of view on the ground in a number of places, for example in Hazarajat, which is one of the areas that we work in in the central highlands, we did not have any food at all until the day before yesterday when we had one delivery. We do not believe enough food is in the pipeline but also at the end of the pipeline, which is the bit where we link into the World Food Programme, we are not receiving the aid. I think we have looked at the overall figures and we have looked at our position in the pipeline and its delivery and we have been concerned about both elements of that.

Hugh Bayley

  3. We will come back, if we can, in a little while to the quantities of food that are available for shipping and the quantities being shipped. Could we first talk a little bit about the very clear difference of opinion between a number of NGOs on the one hand and the Government on the other about whether there should be a pause in the military operations. Can I ask you what the NGOs' view is based on? Specifically, do you consult military advice when you take such a view? Is your view developed solely on a humanitarian basis irrespective of the military consequences?
  (Mr Forsyth) I cannot speak for all non-government organisations. A number of us have called for a pause in the bombing and that included ourselves, Christian Aid, Islamic Relief and a number of other non-government organisations. From our point of view, we gave an enormous amount of thought to this and came to that reluctant conclusion. It was not that we were against military action full stop. We do not have an opinion on whether military action is the right response to terrorism or not, that is up to you and political leaders and our military people. What we do believe, and the logic of our position, is that we saw a very urgent situation which was getting worse. We saw a connection between the bombing and the truckers willing to truck food into Afghanistan, there was a climate of fear. There was a direct link between the bombing and the willingness of truckers to move food into Afghanistan. We felt with winter closing in there was, and is still, a tiny window of opportunity to get food into millions of people which was closing very fast. We believe the humanitarian situation should be put first. We believe that if it is not then the consequences will be very severe. It is our job to point out the connection between the military action and the humanitarian situation. We did not make the decision that we were against always any military action but we do believe at the moment the humanitarian situation, because of the winter factor, should be put first.
  (Mr Jarrah) Can I just add to that. Some of the indications that we are getting from inside Afghanistan are that the number of people turning up to clinics for medical attention and the number of people coming to food distribution centres receiving supplies is going down. That has been attributed to the climate of fear, that people are afraid to venture out to places that might be targets. A further worrying indication—and this is anecdotal so far, I do not have statistics on it—is that farmers are also not coming to collect seeds for planting which will have knock-on effects for next year's harvest if the drought does break.

  4. The thing that concerns me is what would happen if there was a cessation of military activity and whether it would actually be easier to distribute food , which is your key concern. If you look at your evidence you all give examples, each of the agencies give examples, of barriers put in your way within Afghanistan, whether or not there is military action. CARE International talks about one of your drivers being taken by the Taliban, beaten and tossed into a ditch. Christian Aid raises the question that you cannot rule out the possibility that the Afghan authorities might deliberately destroy transport infrastructure. The Oxfam evidence talks about the Taliban demanding extortion payments from World Food Programme convoys. Now, if I was part of the Taliban and I achieved, because of humanitarian pressure, a cessation of military action, I would want to do everything I possibly could to prevent food getting through to give me as long as possible to regroup militarily and to avoid the awful consequences of military action. Would that not be what would happen?
  (Mr Forsyth) If you look also at the flip side of your argument, a lot of the argument that has been put to us to counter our call for a pause is that the best thing that could happen would be that the Taliban fell and then we would be able to deal with the humanitarian situation. From our experience we do not believe it will be as simple as that. None of us are fans of the Taliban and we have had to work in Afghanistan for a long time alongside the Taliban and also other not very savoury governments but we think it is much more likely the situation will be more chaotic and as insecurity currently is in this transitional phase we could have much more like the Somalia situation in Afghanistan and a clear change which leads to a dramatic improvement in the humanitarian situation. What we are saying is that we only have a few weeks to deal with the very immediate humanitarian situation before snow sets in. Then we have a number of possible scenarios unfolding, one of which is a possible fall of the Taliban and everything being better, but that is a very unlikely one, much more likely that it would be increasingly insecure, we would have some kind of Northern Alliance taking Kabul and Herat but also the very middle of the country remaining insecure. Therefore, we said not that we do not understand that others have to look at the wider political issues and the military issues but we felt because it was not clear about the changes in terms of that wider situation, that we needed to emphasis the need to prioritise the humanitarian side which we did know would get worse if we did not act.
  (Ms Cocking) Maybe I could just put some numbers around that. In August we were planning to be able to distribute food to 260,000 people in Afghanistan, all of whom were most certainly among the most vulnerable. Although we will continue to be creative, to use all the mechanisms we can to reach people, undoubtedly that job has become much more difficult. Even in the last few days quite clearly two things have been happening. People have been moving away from the main cities because of fear and moving up into the rural areas where they come from, which makes them much more difficult to reach, which means that the logistics of the whole operation and the actual delivery of food becomes much more difficult. Undoubtedly we will not reach the number of people that we could perhaps have done so in August.

  5. One final question. In the past the Taliban have used food, or depriving people of food, as a weapon within the civil war with ghastly consequences. What is the likelihood, if there were a cessation in the military activity, of the Taliban co-operating with food distribution during that window, to use your word? Would they co-operate in all parts of the country or only in those parts where they have firm control and a feeling of support on the ground?
  (Mr Jarrah) In the parts of the country where CARE works, which are exclusively the Taliban controlled areas, we have gone through periods of remarkable co-operation with the Taliban authorities without any interference in our humanitarian activities. It is very difficult to judge how they will react to particular circumstances, so I do not know the answer to your question, but I can tell you from our experience that we have had periods of very solid co-operation or at least non-interference from the Taliban.
  (Mr Forsyth) I would say we do not know. We do not know what has happened in the last 24 hours with our own offices. Like CARE, we have very difficult communication but we think in the last few days that some of our offices were looted by the Taliban in Herat, Kandahar and Mazar-i-sharif but we do not know, and then there are probably three or four Talibans on the ground. We often have very good relationships with the civil administration in some areas, it is mixed in different areas, and then there are these Arab militias, as they call them in Afghanistan, who are mainly made up of foreigners who have also probably stolen some of our vehicles in Kandahar and other places. It is very mixed. What we can say though is that we have managed, as in Sudan, in Somalia, to negotiate access in very difficult situations in the midst of conflict and we hope that we will be able to do that during the pause. Before September 11 we had been able to do that.
  (Ms Cocking) May I just add to that very briefly. Again, I think it is important to paint a picture of multiple strands of assistance. For example, Oxfam from the Netherlands we know have been working to secure food in Tajikistan through a local partner because they have access into areas where we do not. I think it is important to paint that picture of a multifaceted operation which, as Justin says, we have extensive experience of in other parts of the world. It is not easy, and nobody ever thought it would be. There are examples of different techniques that we can use besides just being directly operational ourselves.

Ann Clwyd

  6. How did you react to being called "emotional" and "unreal" by the Secretary of State?
  (Mr Jarrah) I do not think being emotional is a sin. We are driven by the humanitarian imperative and that is a belief that orients everything that we do. It may well have been an emotional reaction but it is emotion that drives us.

  7. Can we have an answer to the question from the others?
  (Mr Forsyth) To disagree with my colleague a bit, we did not feel that we were being emotional, we thought we were being immensely practical. The two points that we wanted to get across were, one, not enough food was going into Afghanistan on WFP figures and, secondly, even if it was one of many factors, the bombing was having a negative impact on the ability to distribute food and you have to look at those other factors as well. We felt that we were making a sensible and practical case based on our experience of working. We still have 150 staff in Afghanistan and it was based on that experience. I do not feel that we were being emotional. We often have these backwards and forwards with the Secretary of State and it probably adds to the excitement of a vibrant democracy.

Mr Khabra

  8. Would you not agree that your job has become more difficult since the military operation in Afghanistan because the Taliban are, as they are known to be, unco-operative and running a very dictatorial regime in their own country and they will be suspicious of any Western faces doing any kind of work, humanitarian or other work, they will not trust anybody at all?
  (Mr Jarrah) We have certainly felt that in the rural areas particularly, not necessarily among Taliban officials or Taliban sympathisers but among the population at large. We are afraid that one of the consequences of the militarisation of the past month or so is that when we are able to resume our operations at full scale in Afghanistan we will not be able to use any of our international staff for those operations because of that mistrust.

Ann Clywd

  9. Can I ask you generally to speak up because you are all dropping your voices. Some of us cannot hear you as well as others. It is important to keep your voice up. It was also suggested that the NGOs had spin doctors who, for very good reasons, made exaggerated claims. The spin doctor accusation is usually thrown back at the Government but how do you feel being accused of having spin doctors making exaggerated claims about situations? Do you have spin doctors?
  (Mr Jarrah) I will answer that in a nice loud voice. We do not have any spin doctors. Our job is to plan for the range of contingencies that could face us and we feel it is part of our responsibility to alert the world to the worst possible outcome. Luckily the worst possible outcome does not always come to pass but in our own contingency planning we have to be prepared for it and we share that information with those people whose support we need, which is essentially governmental donors.

  10. So you are saying you present the facts as they are?
  (Mr Jarrah) The facts as we understand them.
  (Mr Forsyth) I think the point is we can disagree. Clare Short may be right or we may be right about the facts but we should debate the facts. The reason that we raised our concerns about the facts was because we did not believe enough food was going into Afghanistan and this concern was being expressed in very strong terms by our staff in Afghanistan and our staff in Islamabad, in Quetta, in Pakistan. We felt it was our duty to raise our concerns about the facts. I hope we would never make up things to get publicity, if that was the implication. I am not sure Clare really meant that. I think it is a shame that we have got into this position of being head to head on this because the situation is so important and so urgent we feel that it is better not to respond directly to those accusations but to concentrate on talking about the situation on the ground. We also have quite a lot of respect for the Secretary of State, we think she has done a good job in highlighting the humanitarian situation. From our point of view we would never make up facts to get publicity.

Mr Battle

  11. I was in the Foreign Office for two years and in April a statement was put out by the UN about the impending tragedy in Afghanistan. In January last year an even bigger tragedy was happening in Mongolia. In February last year there was a statement put out about Tajikistan as well. Have you raised the question of how much aid was going in there before September 11 as well or is the tragedy also the fact that the attention of the media draws us to the immediate crisis?
  (Mr Jarrah) I think you have answered the question in the way that you have put it. As a group of agencies, not just CARE but Oxfam and other agencies, we were acutely aware of the drought that had afflicted Central Asia; Tajikistan, Afghanistan being places that you have named. It is perhaps ironic that media attention on Afghanistan in the last weeks has made the public aware of this situation but starvation was facing five million people in Afghanistan earlier in the summer.

Ann Clywd

  12. It appears that there will be no cessation of bombing, I think that is pretty clear to all of us now from the reactions to the suggestion. Another suggestion which has been made is that there should be humanitarian corridors and it is possible to negotiate those and negotiation is going on at present I understand. Do you think that is feasible and, if so, how do you see that working yourselves?
  (Ms Cocking) I think on balance we would portray what is necessary in rather different terms than humanitarian corridors. Clearly there are parallels elsewhere in the world and we have worked within that framework on several occasions. In Afghanistan at the moment, and it comes back to almost where our discussions started, which is the division between the humanitarian operation and the military operation, we feel very strongly that those two have to be completely separate. That is a practical point because there is very little differentiation on occasions between the two of them and it is a lesson we have learnt from elsewhere. So at the moment we do not really see humanitarian corridors protected by a military operation, whether that be a convoy system or whatever, as really a viable option. What we see as absolutely crucial to being able to maintain supplies is that there has to be recognition of the principles of humanitarian access by all sides of the conflict. It is only by consensus on that that we really feel that people in Afghanistan will actually have access to what they need.

  13. You were saying earlier that you have been able to do business before with the Taliban. Is this not a particular issue where you could do business with them and get those humanitarian corridors?
  (Mr Forsyth) But why just in a corridor, why not say everywhere they control that we should be able to operate as humanitarian agencies? One of the things we would like to see happen is that Brahimi would actually negotiate with the Taliban, and the Northern Alliance, now on behalf of all the agencies to try and get a public commitment that we would have access. We worry that if you just confine it to the corridors, and then those corridors may be protected by the military, it might make the humanitarian situation in other places worse or it might draw fire to those humanitarian corridors. You can see how it works. It would be interesting to hear your view on it in other situations. We have seen them in Sudan and in other places but they are usually negotiated through consent. We would prefer, if there was potential for consent, for it to be wider than just a corridor.

Mr Robathan

  14. If I take you back to your call to end the bombing which I have to say, I often disagree with the Secretary of State on lots of things but I have to say on this I think it is unrealistic. We well understand the emotion. I think everybody in this room will understand the humanitarian imperatives otherwise we would not be sitting here, we want to see humanitarian aid reach these people. However, as politicians we also see the aim of the actions going on now is, first of all, to get Osama bin Laden and secondly, as I understand it, to see a better system of government installed in Afghanistan. If that was to be achieved swiftly that would be to the benefit of all people in Afghanistan which I hope is what we all wish to see. I am afraid to say, Mr Forsyth, you have mentioned Sudan and Somalia as places where you have managed to negotiate with those involved, I suggest to you, sadly, the situation in Sudan in particular continues to be a festering wound, and actually in Somalia it is not much better, where actually negotiation and feeding people has perhaps lengthened the crisis. We did an investigation of Sudan two years ago where it was suggested the food that was going in was actually feeding the armies that were fighting and creating the misery that is currently in Sudan. What do you say to that?
  (Mr Forsyth) No, I would agree with that. We are very aware of the danger of just focussing on the short term humanitarian needs. I would also ask you back do you think it is a likely scenario that the Taliban will fall in the short term and be replaced and the security situation will improve dramatically? If you say yes then I think you have a good case to be made from your premise that you should continue bombing but if you say no, and you know as well that many people will not get through the winter and the bombings are making it worse, then I think you have to say that we have a case to make for a pause in the bombing before the winter sets in to deal with the humanitarian need given that this is going to be long and drawn out. There is a logic to it.

  15. I can see your logic. I will not answer too much your question because I think the Chairman will rule me out of order. I do not have the intelligence to tell you whether the Taliban is about to fall. I am aware they have had 20 odd years of war since the Russian invasion and even before it with the deposition of the King. I would say we want to help the people of Afghanistan, that is why we are sitting around the International Development Committee. What about getting medical aid to the women of Afghanistan? Can NGOs do that? Are your doctors allowed to treat them in Afghanistan? This is a big issue actually in Afghanistan if you happen to be a woman. You do not hear many women from Afghanistan speaking but what aid can you get to the women of Afghanistan?
  (Mr Forsyth) Can I just say on your first point firstly, we really support a move to a broad based government in Afghanistan that has civil society elements involved in helping construct it and a move away from the Northern Alliance or the Taliban running the country single handedly. Ultimately we also believe that is the right direction to go in. We, like I am sure all of you, support the UN playing a big role in helping that happen. It is just how quickly that can happen against what we know is happening with the short term humanitarian situation. I would agree, also, with the concern you expressed that we do not just look at the delivery of aid because we have seen the problems of that in Sudan and Somalia in the way that you have said. Maybe I would ask Raja if he wants to answer the question.
  (Mr Jarrah) I would endorse everything Justin has just said about a broad based participation in an eventual solution to Afghanistan's problems. I would agree, also, that we do not feel that it is likely that will be achieved in the short term and that the short term priority should be humanitarian assistance knowing that the task ahead in terms of nation building in Afghanistan is a long drawn out one. We have succeeded in working with women in Afghanistan using female Afghanis in a low key and not in a public way. That is the way we have managed to reach female beneficiaries over the past few years. We would like to see a situation where society was much more open and we could do that in a much expanded way. For the time being, it is very difficult to have access to large groups of women in Afghanistan.

  Chairman: I know this is really important to you so could you please try to speak up. It is not only us but there are parliamentary colleagues and others at the back of the room who are leaning forward and missing what you are saying.

Mr Robathan

  16. Just finally, I think there is tremendous sympathy with your organisations here and what you are doing but I have to say looking at the bigger picture, the bigger picture is that Britain and the United States are involved in military action which they wish to see a swift end to. I think it is a really unfortunate thing that there should be a rift developing between the Secretary of State, with whom I often do not agree, and yourselves in a way which—this is my own personal view, I should say, I do not speak for anybody else—I think is going to lead to people being rather sceptical about what Oxfam say, for instance, and CARE International in the future because actually the end that most people in this country see, and certainly Parliament certainly sees, is a swift end to the military action and a successful end and you want to delay it.
  (Mr Forsyth) No, I do not think we are getting involved in the way you are saying. I think what we are saying, very clearly, and to be honest, yes, some people may be upset by our position and some people have already expressed it in some ways by being upset, we have had some Oxfam shops, the windows broken and things like that—

  17. I am sorry to hear that.
  (Mr Forsyth) We have decades of experience working in Afghanistan and I think our job is to say it how we see it. I think, yes, that might lead to slight division with the Government but I think we can disagree and respect each other. I think we do respect the Government's position but we have a different position about how much food is going into Afghanistan. We are not necessarily speaking out against military action, what we are saying is that we should prioritise the humanitarian action now because the winter is closing in and people may well die if we do not. The scenario you are painting is really based on the assumption that the Taliban will fall and things will get immediately better, and we just think that is very unlikely based on our experience of working in Afghanistan.

Hugh Bayley

  18. Just a question to Mr Jarrah. CARE International's evidence puts a different emphasis on humanitarian corridors. You say "If conditions do not permit normal humanitarian operations . . . extraordinary measures such as airlifts in humanitarian corridors should be considered on a temporary basis". What do you mean by "humanitarian corridors" and in what circumstances might it make sense to try to establish them?
  (Mr Jarrah) If it is impossible to negotiate with all the warring parties in Afghanistan for a generalised access to the vulnerable population in Afghanistan CARE would be in favour of having humanitarian corridors to have access to at least some part of the population. That is an ultimate last resort, we would not like to be put in the position of advocating it.

  19. And security would be provided by?
  (Mr Jarrah) Security would have to be provided by the military. That is not a desirable option but we recognise in the reality of the situation something is better than nothing.

  Chris McCafferty: Just to take further what Andrew has been asking, I was wondering if the witnesses could tell the Committee more about how you operate on the ground in Afghanistan. I am curious to know if you are delivering your own agenda or is it the UN's agenda or DFID's agenda, or is it both? If it is, how do you co-ordinate that? Whose aid is it that you are delivering? Have you got local partners? I gather that you have from what has already been said. How do you decide who those partners are? Do you have any involvement in refugee camps, in the selection of those sites, the construction, or the operation? In particular, we have heard today that the Taliban may be willing to accept refugee camps on the Afghani side of the border. Will you be involved in that from the beginning or do you feel that you will be excluded from that? Just one last point. Given the situation that was in Afghanistan before the bombing started—we all know how fragile it was, a civil war over 20 years and reference was made to farmers not collecting the seeds but there has been a three year drought and there will be an ongoing negativity there—do you feel that there would have been a crisis of this proportion without September 11 or has this made it much worse? How will you rise to the occasion?


 
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