Select Committee on International Development First Report


4. Context for Humanitarian Assistance in the current crisis

Need for stability/law and order

65. Everyone we spoke to, whether in London or Pakistan, stressed to us that the most serious barrier to humanitarian assistance has been and remains poor security. Delivering assistance in Afghanistan has never been easy with insecurity and harassment among a number of obstacles placed in the path of aid workers by the warring factions[101]. In its memorandum, the WFP said that maintaining law and order on supply routes was critical to the continued success of efforts to move food and non-food items into Afghanistan[102]. There have been many examples of incidents involving international and national NGOs and aid agencies whose goods were looted or stolen, or whose staff where threatened and intimidated by either the Taliban, the Northern Alliance or by bandits and thieves. There is a danger that in the absence of law and order, aid agencies will become a target[103]. Security needs to extend to the secondary distribution network as well as to the supply route into Afghanistan. Delivering food into the country is not enough - it must be distributed as well.

66. Along with its memorandum DFID submitted its 100 day plan, 'Afghanistan - Recovery: An emergency plan for the first 100 days'[104]. It will have to be implemented against the background of a poor security situation. It had defined Mazar-e Sharif as a key initial supply base for expanded humanitarian action in the central highlands[105] but recent reports indicate that fighting in the area continues and at the time of writing this report UN staff were being withdrawn.


67. International humanitarian law sets out the key principles governing humanitarian assistance: neutrality, impartiality and independence. In complex emergencies of the kind occurring in Afghanistan there is a complex dynamic between the political (or diplomatic), military and humanitarian responses to a crisis. Unless a careful balance is struck, humanitarian aid workers can find that:

68. In Somalia and Bosnia there were attempts to use the military to protect humanitarian corridors. While this provided protection for the humanitarian workers and the relief supplies it did not provide protection for non-combatants. To be effective, humanitarian corridors require acceptance by all sides in the conflict. In Iraq, military intervention was used to create safe havens which had the advantage of protecting non-combatants as well as the humanitarian workers. It is hard to avoid humanitarian principles being compromised by the involvement of the military. Where there is direct military help to the humanitarian operation there is an even greater risk of partisan use of humanitarian aid undermining the humanitarian principles. Military involvement needs to be underwritten by a UN mandate if humanitarian principles are to be preserved. In Rwanda and Southern Sudan there was no military involvement in the humanitarian response. But while humanitarian principles were safeguarded humanitarian personnel and non-combatants were exposed to danger[106]. The situation in Afghanistan contains elements of all of the above cases. There is clearly some degree of co-operation between the humanitarian relief effort and the military but there is no direct protection of aid workers or non-combatants. Calls for an international or UN-led peace keeping or peace enforcing military deployment were initially resisted by members of the coalition[107] and by parties in Afghanistan. There is no one single solution and further research is needed on how military and humanitarian needs can be reconciled. It is vital that the international community works to encourage peace and stability and avoids actions that could lead to greater insecurity and intensified civil war[108] - something the West has failed to do in the past with not one peaceful transition of government in Afghanistan in over thirty years.

69. UN and humanitarian workers deserve greater protection. Ross Mountain of UNOCHA told us "We have lost more civilian humanitarian staff than the UN have lost peacekeepers"[109]. International humanitarian law covers non-combatants but there may be a case for explicitly making attacks on humanitarian workers a crime under international law. Ross Mountain of UNOCHA, suggested that the International Criminal Court had an article on the assassination of humanitarian workers[110]. We invite the Government to set out the measures in place for the protection of humanitarian aid workers in international law and to outline its policies for ensuring greater protection of aid workers and non-combatants in complex emergencies. While laws are important for the protection of aid workers, so is security. More money is needed by the UN for its own security measures[111] and we were pleased to see that DFID had prioritised security by fully funding the UN security operation in Afghanistan. Improved UN security would be cost-effective as well. We were struck by the number of UN personnel waiting in Pakistan for security approval to be given to allow them to take up their posts in Afghanistan

Co-ordination of the aid effort

70. The aid effort needs be co-ordinated internationally, nationally and regionally. There are a large number of humanitarian actors on the ground whose response needs to be co-ordinated if effort and resources are not to be wasted. Part of the co-ordination is the relationship with local authorities in particular regions. CARE international told us that prior to September 11 they had been able to work and cooperate effectively with the Taliban and that there had been no interference in humanitarian activities[112]. Oxfam reported a good relationship with the civilian administration but said there were difficulties with the various militias who had been involved in looting[113]. It is, as yet, unclear how factional control is going to impact on the humanitarian relief effort.


71. A combined military, political and humanitarian approach is required to tackle the crisis in Afghanistan. Given the volume of public utterances on the subject we would have expected a sharing of information and co-ordination of activity but we have seen little evidence that this is happening. Clare Short rightly pointed out that this kind of liaison needs to be got right at the beginning as it absence could impede later efforts at reconstruction. She told us "The civil/military liaison that we have had in this problem has not worked particularly well at all, nothing like as well as in Kosovo. We are working hard to try and improve it but it is an issue I would like the Select Committee to be aware of because we are going to need in the reconstruction some security. Some parts of the country are not orderly and some are. As soon as there is order you need to be able to say that the humanitarians can move. If military action is getting in the way of the humanitarian operation you need to be able to communicate and say, 'Could you get out of the way please? We want to get some convoys through here'. You need that kind of communication. Some of it is there but it is not operating as well as it could and it would help us a lot if it improved"[114]. She went on to clarify that there was a mechanism for co-ordination but that the message of the humanitarian effort seemed to lose out to the military objectives. The bombing of the Red Cross buildings exemplifies the lack of co-ordination. With precious little security in the country it is vital that what chances there are for moving humanitarian assistance are seized and we urge coalition forces to put more effort into co-ordinating and sharing information to assist the humanitarian effort. Satellite images (which the US Administration has restricted by buying up all commercially available images of the region) and data on access routes, land mines and unexploded ordnance, and population displacement could all usefully be shared. A mechanism already exists for doing this through the Joint Logistics Centre, the Humanitarian Information Centre for Afghanistan and the military liaison personnel.


72. The WFP launched a Special Operation to provide logistics support for the inter-agency relief effort in Afghanistan. It was included in the Inter-Agency Donor Alert which called for US$27 million to support the Joint Logistics Centre. DFID was one of the first donors to contribute towards the special operation, providing US$4.4 million. The Special Operation sought to establish, among other things:

73. One of the activities covered by the joint logistics centre is the pooling of information and data to provide a common data set from which all humanitarian actors (and later those engaged in longer-term reconstruction) can rely. This function is carried out by the Humanitarian Information Centre for Afghanistan (HICFA). HICFA provides maps and other data that are essential for operations, including mapping accessibility, locating mine fields and unexploded ordnance or plotting IDP movements. Our visit to HICFA in Islamabad convinced us that a great deal has been learnt since Kosovo. The operation in Islamabad is most impressive. We encourage DFID to press the UN agencies to have the HICFA operation fully evaluated so that donors and the UN agencies can learn exactly what has made it so much more successful than previous operations and so that a template for future operations can be developed.

74. HICFA also tracks and maps the various co-ordination mechanisms for humanitarian relief in Afghanistan. Figure 4 shows the complex co-ordination mechanisms that have grown up over the many years that aid agencies have been operating in Afghanistan. Having a well-established base to build on and a strong lead taken by the UN has resulted in efforts to bring humanitarian relief to Afghanistan being well co-ordinated. This example reinforces the importance of preparation and demonstrates the level of engagement that the international community should be considering in other areas around the world that are in crisis or at risk.


75. In its memorandum, DFID acknowledged that communication difficulties and a lack of reliable information had for a long time complicated the provision of assistance in Afghanistan[115]. The Taliban ban on communications led to a reliance on informal communications networks such as information passed on by commercial lorry drivers or by aid workers leaving the country. Radio networks were in place but could not be used and e-mail is unreliable in Afghanistan. Communication was notoriously difficult even before the Taliban banned its use and more attention could have been given to communications in the preparation for the crisis as far back as June 2001.

76. We welcome the funding given by DFID for co-ordination and the formation of the Joint Logistics Centre. We see this as an important means of gathering, collating, verifying and then sharing what sparse information is coming out of Afghanistan[116].

The role of international and national staff

77. We have already noted that one of the consequences of September 11 was the withdrawal of international humanitarian workers. The ability of local staff to keep humanitarian operations going in the absence of international staff should serve as an important reminder to the international community that cadres of expatriates rushing around the country in sports utility vehicles with strategies and plans are not always essential. As the DFID 100 day plan acknowledges, a sudden influx of international agencies can overwhelm and confuse the intended beneficiaries[117]. Clare Short told us "¼ all these international agencies, including British NGOs, employ local NGOs and local Afghans to do the operation when it gets right to the bottom. I think we should remember that and absolutely remember it in the reconstruction of the country. There is always a danger that when it becomes safe to go you get this flood of internationals coming in, all with their Land Rovers and expensive equipment and so on. It happened in East Timor to a considerable extent and caused some resentment. We must remember how, despite low levels of education and the rest, Afghans kept this going, and in the reconstruction effort their talents and skills must be used and we must not have lots of expensive internationals coming in above them except in a way that empowers them, and taking over and marginalising the people who are going to have to rebuild their country"[118].

78. Nevertheless, international staff do have an important part to play. For example, national staff have no difficulty in carrying out general food distributions but in carrying out targeted distributions they can come under pressure from their own communities. Carol Bellamy of UNICEF said "It is not that the international staff are smarter or better or anything than the local staff it is just sometimes the kind of pressures that local staff can be under can really be lessened a little bit by having international staff out there"[119]. But we should never forget that national and local staff can do much more than they are sometimes given credit for. They may have alternative ideas of how problems can be resolved that will work better than externally-imposed solutions.

Access and a humanitarian space

79. Humanitarian workers need access and space to operate. Access to the IDPs and vulnerable populations inside Afghanistan has been extremely difficult. Even with the fall of the Taliban the situation has not dramatically improved; insecurity continues to make access a problem. There was some discussion early on in the crisis of the need for safe havens and safe areas. The idea of humanitarian corridors was discussed at one point. However, aid was still getting into the country without the benefit of designated safe areas. Much of this discussion evaporated with the collapse of the Taliban and attention focused instead on the need for peace-keepers or peace-enforcers (whose presence could provide the space and access needed by the humanitarian actors). Whatever emerges it is important that the independence of the humanitarian operation is preserved and that any military involvement in peace keeping or enforcement is underwritten by a UN mandate.

Preparedness and prediction

80. CARE International told us that if the international community had taken action on the humanitarian crisis earlier, the problems that Afghanistan now faces would be less acute[120]. This is certainly true in the case of the humanitarian assistance although it is debatable that after years of neglect an earlier intervention could have made the problems faced in rebuilding Afghanistan any less acute. They went on to say that too little had been done too late to avert a crisis of massive proportions[121]. It is a condemnation of the international community that attention was only focused on the issue after September 11 and there is certainly more that the international community could have done to respond earlier to the needs identified by the WFP.

81. The UN agencies, in particular the WFP, have performed well in this crisis. But there is always room for improvement. Much was known about the humanitarian crisis facing Afghanistan long before September 11. The UN could have been better prepared for the events that unfolded given the scale of the crisis they knew they were facing. It is reasonable to ask why, if the international aid agencies were so well prepared, there was such a major gearing up of effort after September 11 with large numbers of international staff being brought in to strengthen teams. Part of that preparedness must come from being efficient, flexible and responsive - characteristics that are not always associated with UN bodies. Clare Short told us "¼lots of UN agencies are not as efficient as they should be. They are very, very slow. They have incredibly cumbersome, inefficient economic management systems - as bad as, if not worse than, the EC, I have to say, which will fill you all with gloom, but it is true"[122]. We encourage DFID to work closely with the UN agencies on their reform and restructuring. The UN has a vital role to play - bilateral donors cannot be everywhere but the UN can. But governments must help the UN fulfil this universal role; donors must stop asking the UN to do its job with one hand tied behind its back and should properly resource its activities.

82. We believe that there is still more work to be done on the early identification of potential crises. We must ensure the international system can respond adequately with a planned and measured response rather than putting something together at the last minute. Some useful work is being done on disaster preparedness and disaster mitigation particularly with respect to natural disasters, such as the work underway in Bangladesh on disaster preparedness in relation to flooding[123]. There is also a great deal of work being done on conflict prevention and we hope in the future to look more closely at how the Government's pooled resource for conflict prevention is being used. We are less sure that enough is being done to spot complex emergencies. More could be done to track what is happening in failing states. UNICEF told us that it currently classifies 31 states as being in a state of emergency or crisis with an additional 35 on a watch list. While it has no definition of a failing state it assesses levels of conflict, violence, political tension, the occurrence of natural phenomena (such as floods or earthquakes), environmental hazards (such as pollution or water scarcity) and health conditions. UNICEF said that DFID had supported UNICEF's work on these systems[124]. There are several UN inter-agency systems for early warning and conflict prevention. A natural shock, like the series of droughts in Afghanistan, occurring in a failing state will be particularly severe, as the state is unable to respond in any way. Labelling certain countries as failing states may be politically sensitive, but we cannot pretend that all is well in many troubled areas. We hope the Government's response to this report will address the issue of failing states, how they are monitored and what level of preparedness the international system can maintain to respond to problems in these failing states. This seems a role well-suited to the UN but one that would need to be adequately financed.

The media response to the crisis

83. The response of the media to the crisis has been disappointing. A great deal of attention has been paid to the military side of the campaign with little devoted to the humanitarian crisis. Clare Short said "I think a lot of the public commentary on the conflict as well as the humanitarian situation has not been well-informed"[125]. Before access to much of Afghanistan was possible, Justin Forsyth of Oxfam told us "¼within Afghanistan there is a silent humanitarian crisis going on which will not be on our television screens. People will die slowly and in lonely ways in small villages and mountains and it will not grab the headlines of the news"[126]. Once the Taliban began to collapse and access to the most vulnerable people was possible the world's media still chose to follow the military. What little coverage of the humanitarian crisis there has been has focused on refugees and refugee camps while the real crisis is inside Afghanistan among the internally displaced and vulnerable populations. A few reporters have chosen to focus on the humanitarian crisis but much more could be done to show the world the true nature of the crisis and the difficulties the humanitarian effort faces every day.

Politicisation of humanitarian assistance

84. Nearly all the witnesses who gave evidence to the inquiry referred to the neutrality of humanitarian assistance. Increasingly, modern complex emergencies are involving the simultaneous deployment of military and humanitarian personnel and the lines between the two are increasingly blurred - often because of the difficulties in delivering aid in areas of high insecurity and conflict. In relation to Afghanistan, the main concerns for western governments in recent years have been terrorism, drugs, refugees and women's rights. Peace-making in Afghanistan was delegated to the UN but then not fully supported by the commitment and support of western governments. Their main responses have been either a strategic withdrawal from Afghanistan, or episodic military action and sanctions. In a recent article, Mohammed Haneef Atmar said "In these conditions, humanitarian aid works at best as a fig leaf for political action, at worst as an instrument of foreign policy to isolate the Taliban"[127]. The legitimate foreign-policy objectives of donor nations should not impinge on humanitarian actions.

101  Ev 113, [Para 2] Back

102  Ev 85 Back

103  Ev 2 Back

104  Ev 125 [Annex G] Back

105  Ev 126, [Annex 9, Para 6] Back

106  We are grateful to Simon Maxwell for his help with the analysis of the various options for military intervention Back

107  Guardian, 4/12/01 Back

108  Ev 4 Back

109  Q185 Back

110  Q187 Back

111  Q185 and Q186 Back

112  Q5 Back

113  Q5 Back

114  Q209 Back

115  Ev 116, [Para 26] Back

116  Ev 116, [Para 26] Back

117  Ev 125, [Annex G, Para 1] Back

118  Q206 Back

119  Q183 Back

120  Ev 1 Back

121  Ev 3 Back

122  Q200 Back

123  Q205 Back

124  Ev 107-8, [Paras 16-23] Back

125  Q190 Back

126  Q53 Back

127  Atmar, The Politicisation of humanitarian aid and its consequences for Afghans, Humanitarian Exchange, ODI, September 2001 Back

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