Select Committee on International Development Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)




  1. Thank you very much for coming and giving evidence again. The purpose of this session is, as you know, we did only last year an inquiry into our humanitarian relief into Afghanistan. We published our report. The government has just published their response to our report where broadly I think they agree with most of the points we make. There is only one issue on which they disagree with us. We secured a debate in Westminster Hall on Thursday to debate our report and the government's response and we wanted to try and ensure that we were as up to date as possible with what was happening in Afghanistan. One of the frustrations last year was it was sometimes quite difficult knowing just exactly what was happening on the ground. Thank you very much, as NGOs. We are very conscious that we said in our report that much of the secondary distribution of humanitarian relief is entirely dependent upon NGOs so we would like to ask you for your impressions. Elizabeth, I think you might like to say something on behalf of witnesses collectively?

  (Ms Winter) We are very grateful to have the opportunity to come and talk to you and we would like to congratulate you on the report, for the grasp of the main issues and the dilemmas that aid agencies face. We thought you did a good job. We remain very grateful for the government's support and we concur with the view that DFID and CHAD are in the forefront of donors. We think you got that right as well. We endorse their policy of taking a regional approach to the situation which we understand the EC is taking as well, which is a good thing. We confirm that a long term commitment to Afghanistan is essential and we welcome the Committee's intention to return to it—we thought that was a very hopeful sign—and your recommendation that the United Kingdom government reaches the 0.7 per cent target for overseas development assistance and looks more closely at conflict prevention and the identification of failing states. We thought that was a good recommendation too. We commend the views expressed that the legitimate foreign policy objectives of donor nations should not impinge on humanitarian actions and that poverty and injustice need to be tackled if terrorism is to be ended. We agree with the priorities as outlined which include of course security, health, potable water, education, particularly secondary education for girls, and the importance of demobilisation and providing alternative livelihoods. We also think it is important of course to help re-establish the role of women in Afghan society and in the economy in real ways. Above all, what we endorse is the statements about the importance of the Afghans in ensuring that the aid programmes have been continued so far and the great contribution that they made; and that the reconstruction process must be Afghan led. Afghans, as you know, have retained a deep sense of identity and are ready to rebuild their country. NGOs are ready to assist them as well as to work with the interim and transitional authorities in the process. We look to the government to continue their support for this and we are happy to answer any questions that you may have for us.

  2. Thank you for your kind comments about our report. Throughout our report, a word which frequently came up was security. The reports from Kabul where at least there are some United Kingdom troops as an international peace keeping force—even from Kabul, the suggestions on security are pretty depressing, suggestions that police are not being paid, that the army is not being demobilised. What are your impressions of what is happening on the ground in terms of security? Sakandar, I think you have just come back. Maybe you would like to lead on this?
  (Mr Ali) I was in Kabul about three weeks ago and last week I was in Kandahar. Security recently has thrown us off ground because in the last ten days or so the events that have happened have surprised us. There is a general feeling that security may be a focus in that some deterioration may be happening. In my personal experience and the staff that are there when I was in Kabul, I did not feel that. As an aid organisation operating in Kabul, at the time that we were there, security seemed fine. However, I have had reports as recent as 19 February from our office in Kabul where international aid workers are being targeted in some pockets north of Kabul. That is an interesting phenomenon because it did not happen before. During the conflict, yes, there was insecurity but for the most part insecurity related to the bigger issue of safe delivery of convoys etc., but no individual targeting of aid workers. Since this has happened, it makes one think what is the reason for it. Why is it suddenly happening now? Other than that, the general perception—if you wish, I can talk to you about the south also. I spent a few days in Kandahar and the main reason for that is we have closed down our quieter operations and moved back to Kandahar and security was one of the assessments that we had to make. Kandahar seems stable. There is visible presence however of troops, American marines, on the streets as a deterrent and even the drive from the Chaman border to Kandahar you can see the armoured vehicles of American marines. We had a coordination meeting with the international NGOs including some of the UN agencies where security was one point of discussion and generally people felt that we are not experts to make a security opinion, but the feeling was that we felt safe in Kandahar at the time that we were there last week. There was plenty of activity on the street, music in the restaurants. You could discuss with people, so there was not the tension that we used to feel before. Most people said they felt safe enough to start moving back and reopen offices. That is the same situation, in my view, in Kabul but these events that have happened do concern us. Why suddenly has the UNICEF aid worker been targeted? Why suddenly is there a focus on targeting international aid workers, albeit here and there? It is not like a policy but there is an incident that has happened which is unusual. I hope that it remains just an unusual incident. Otherwise, the general sense of security is okay. I can tell you the latest security reports in terms of the highways. The highway from Turkham to Kabul is still deemed safe. The highway from Kabul to Mazar is deemed safe. The highway even from Kabul to Kandahar is deemed safe, although we need to take precautions when passing through Ghazni and the areas in the east like Paktya etc. In conclusion, I am hoping that these were isolated incidents and I still question why it should happen at this time.

  3. One of the suggestions in the press reports over the weekend is that the international community, the donor community, promised a lot to Afghanistan and the Afghans have seen very little, if any, of that come through on the ground other than food aid and that is causing some frustration. Is that a fair assessment?
  (Ms Winter) There has been some problem with that. The money did not arrive so that the central authority was not able to pay people and get some quick impact things going. The money is now arriving. The British government's money was amongst the first to arrive so that may improve but there is a lack of credibility for the central authority. There are jokes being made about it in Kabul now. Yes, there is concern. The aid agencies are trying to get quick impact projects on the go as fast as possible so that there is some dividend for having had the changes that have taken place.
  (Mr Roseveare) I would add a complementary perspective to what Sakandar Ali has just been explaining. Whilst the major routes for transportation and some of the major centres of population are apparently secure and one feels relatively safe in those centres, the delivery of operations and food assistance to remote locations is much less certain. It would be wrong to say that the rule is the rule of the gun, but it is also true that there is no central law and order maintenance capacity. If that does not exist as a central force then that, by definition, means that it exists as local forces. There is plenty of evidence that local forces, as Elizabeth Winter has just articulated, do not have a sense necessarily of looking to the centre for their lead. That is a cause for concern. We are able in some locations in northern Kandahar to do what is essential in terms of delivering within the last couple of weeks 350 tonnes of food to a community that needs thousands of tonnes of food. The 350 is the first they have had since 1 November. We are able to do the essential but the level of uncertainty about how security will be practically maintained and how reliable it is does make it difficult to invest in more elaborate responses than delivering the essential. Of course, the essential in many areas has not been able to be delivered for quite some time. Also in parts of Badghis we have been able to make deliveries of several thousands of tonnes of food to people who are again catching up. This represents their five month ration from November all the way through to March. It does not represent a very sophisticated action; it represents the bare necessity of what those people require, which is finally possible to deliver to them. Where one is describing security, whether it is in Kabul or in urban centres of population or on main roads or small feeder roads or rather more remote locations that are under more localised control of commanders, is important as one assesses overall security in the country.
  (Mr Burch) I could try and give you a snapshot of the far west, the area around Herat. I came back from there about three weeks ago. Christian Aid works there with local partners and I was able to visit Herat province, Ghor and Badghis. The last two, I think you know, have been very much an area of concern for humanitarian reasons during the winter. Essentially, Kabul seems a very long way away from these rural areas. There is very little experience of central government amongst the local population and not much expectation. In some senses, the security was better than it was last summer for example when there was an active civil war ongoing in those places between the Northern Alliance and the rather beleaguered Taliban garrisons of district centres. That has stopped but it is very interesting to see who the local power brokers now are. We have a mixture of tribal leaders, some of whom are quite wise and mature. We have known them from before. There is every reason to think they will make good local administrators; but there are also commanders who have worked with the Taliban before, people who have undoubted criminal records, people who have been known to interfere with aid distribution before. It is a very mixed bag. In practice for local people they have to relate to the gentlemen in their valley or the next valley who can command 50 or 100 rifles. This is still the situation. It is obviously a matter for concern. There appears to have been no disarmament. Armed groups in the countryside are as prevalent as ever. There seems to be in general increased intertribal tension. This is something new. Whereas in some of these provinces—Ghor, for example, which is almost 100 per cent ethnically Tadjik—no big problem. In Badghis, where there are pockets of Pashtuns, it seems there there is a mood to settle scores now, to pay off these people who have been perceived as supporting the Taliban before. There are certain districts in Badghis where incidents are occurring because of that and there is rather disturbing evidence just recently of some dislocation from parts of Badghis of Pashtuns who are showing up near Chaman in Pakistan and it is not clear exactly why they have moved but it would seem likely that it is intertribal tension that has caused this. In addition, if you look at the bigger picture of the west, this is an area which is not exactly clearly loyal to Kabul. Ghor province is. The main commander of the area, Ismail Khan, who certainly controls Herat, most of Farah and most of Badghis, has a very ambivalent position, which is worrying. Also the attitude of Iran, the neighbouring state, and its direct relations to Ismail Khan cause concern to people locally and to the international community. There are a number of reasons for thinking this is not a very stable situation.

Hugh Bayley

  4. I want to know what can be done to improve the security situation. How effective are the foreign military soldiers, the British soldiers in Kabul and the Americans in Kandahar? Are they helping or hindering? Would more soldiers from outside help or hinder the process and is there any evidence of security in parts of the country improving to allow refugees or internally displaced people to return home? If not, what more could be done on that front?
  (Ms Winter) It is worth reporting back to you what every single Afghan has ever said to any of us—I checked this with my colleagues before coming in—which is, "Please bring in more forces because without security and stability we cannot rebuild our country." The economy improved 25 per cent in the six months when there were no hostilities in 1995. Entrepreneurs are waiting to come back in. They ring you up and say, "We want to invest. As long as the security is okay, we are ready to get this country back on its feet", but we do need more forces and not just in Kabul. We need them elsewhere.
  (Mr Ali) It is important from my perspective to view security in how it affects aid assistance. I am not necessarily going to analyse it from a political angle but how it affects aid assistance. There are indicators that we must have to assess security or lack of it and what are the reasons for it. Firstly, looking at the country as a whole, we have to remember that time is a big factor. The forces have just come in. The interim government is organising itself and due to a lack of communication, a lack of phones, a lack of infrastructure, it does take time to disseminate orders. I will give you an example of that. Back in December, myself and one of our colleagues, Dr Hannay, travelled to Kandahar and when we crossed the Chaman border the people, who were not organised, but people with Kalashnikovs, responsible for giving you a stamp, despite the fact that we had a visa from the embassy in Britain, charged us $200 each to give us an entry stamp. When I went again, that was not the case—i.e. that set-up was dismantled. There is a proper building and people who ask you questions and interview you and even speak to you in English. The key question here is at that time, when we showed them the visa, they said, "We do not recognise this visa." Now, the same visa is recognised so it is an indicator that all the time orders do disseminate and there is a recognition of some kind of a central authority. The same at Bukhum border. The first time we crossed after the conflict, it was a shambles. People with Kalashnikovs, nothing organised. This time round when we went, it was organised. People actually ask you questions and they have English speaking people who are dressed very well. These may seem petty issues but there is an effort being made to create a sense of normality at the border posts, which is an indicator to me that, given the time, there is an effort at the central level to try and disseminate orders. Yes, there are pockets around Afghanistan which will remain a cause for concern. One of the main reasons for that is there is a lack of infrastructure to consolidate these pockets into a central set-up. There are pockets which have been isolated and they have been isolated for many years. Security has always been a problem in these pockets and will continue to be so, even now. These are issues that we need to bear in mind. Other security areas which are visible are where there is community fighting, like Ghozni. There are disputes within the community and there are often shoot-outs within the community. The media is well informed of that. These are causes of concern that we have to bear in mind. To answer your question, what can be done to improve security, an effort needs to be made to strengthen the central government. More troops are required because when there is no infrastructure it is difficult to reach with less people. If there were more troops, they cold be in different places and therefore create a sense of security. In Kandahar, there is a heavy presence of military. It seems like Bosnia. When you drive down the highway, you see these big, armoured vehicles. I was glad to see it because, one, it creates a secure feeling for me and, two, I know it is a deterrent. If you drive two hours into the desert towards Helmand from Kandahar, for example, it is an open desert. You do not see armoured vehicles and anything could happen. That is an area known for bandits. If there was infrastructure to ensure that there is a reinforcement, that is one practical thing that would improve security, whether it is communication, road links or strengthening the government with additional troops. Infrastructure of that kind is a key element.

Mr Khabra

  5. Would you consider that in order to make sure that there is security in the country it is important that there should be a national army? All these different groups hold modern weapons and they want to keep their position because of insecurity in their own community. It is important for them that the process should be started to pursue all these different groups. They are prepared to disarm and whatever their military capacity is the people, those who are fully armed and trained, they can be concentrated to become members of the national army. They are integrated into the national army because otherwise the government will always remain weak. It will not be able to do anything about the security situation at all. If there is no security, nothing will happen at all. Therefore, there is a need to have a national army. All these different groups will disarm themselves and become part of the national army.
  (Mr Burch) It is important that our expectations here should be realistic. This is going to take a long time. I agree with you that a national army should be the goal. If we get into the business of trying to provide security everywhere with international troops, the Bosnian experience did teach us—and this is a much smaller country than Afghanistan—that the necessity would be for something like 80,000 troops and a commitment that might be for five or ten years. In Bosnia, they are still not extracted. It is the case today that ISAF is not relevant in most of the country. It is relevant to certain issues in Kabul and a little beyond. If military aid to Afghanistan would be useful, it would be to create a national security force as soon as possible. Possibly some efforts by UN diplomats should go towards in the interim mediating between local power brokers to make sure that they support that effort. I am not sure, with the commitment which exists now, that much more can be done on that.

Ann Clwyd

  6. I do not know whether the military action is still continuing. I see the odd report that there has been more bombing and that there has been some activity in some remote area. Is it your understanding that the military action is still continuing?
  (Mr Burch) In the west, it has more or less finished, I am glad to say.
  (Mr Roseveare) It is interesting to read and it is simply what one picks up in the media, which the Committee does also, that some of the military action has been used in a way which is intended to help to consolidate the position of the government by acting against local or regional dissent. That is a development of interest although the main operations against Al Qaeda forces appears to be virtually over; although I am sure that there are still small operations that continue in locations.
  (Mr Ali) There is a general sense that the military action is over. There may be isolated operations which we are not aware of but within the country and from the NGOs, when we sit at the coordination meetings, military action is not an issue any more. It is more logistical security and travel from point A to point B. Interestingly enough, PIA has started flying its normal route again. For the last few months, it would take an extra hour and a half because it would divert. That is a sign for us that it can now fly normally, so there is no threat from the ground in that sense.

  7. We read horror stories about people in remote areas having to eat grass because they cannot get any food, about people in camps within Afghanistan who are still under-provided for and about refugees still leaving the country and going elsewhere. What is your perception of those things?
  (Mr Burch) A mixed picture, but we are certainly much more optimistic than the last time we gave evidence here. In the western area, we were lucky for certain reasons. One was the fairly rapid conclusion of hostilities in the west. The winter came very late in January so some of these key passes did remain open until then. Now, the snow is there and there are all kinds of problems in travelling. There are facilities in place to try and keep the passes clear. The World Food Programme and the local partners have we think done a pretty creditable job in pre-positioning food in a lot of the areas which people were concerned about, the mountainous areas. Whereas there are criticisms that can be made about secondary distribution in certain districts, there are problems with secondary distribution here and there, in general, the picture is reasonably good. We do not think that we face a widespread, immediate famine. Another reason for optimism is that there has been a lot of rain in the last few weeks. It is raining now, I understand. In the west, there has been about three weeks of precipitation, rain on the low ground and snow on the high ground. That is what they get in a normal winter, so there is some reason to hope now that we may be seeing the end of the drought. There are other problems that may lead to a lack of full food security for another season or so. There is a lack of suitable planting seed at the moment for spring planting and in some cases NGOs have had to go with second best. Come harvest time in July and August, we will see how successful that is. There have been some problems with coordination of some of the newer NGOs who have arrived on the scene with new money about what they should do, where the appropriate places are to deliver aid.

  8. Who is responsible for that coordination of NGOs?
  (Mr Burch) Various actors on different themes but the World Food Programme for coordinating food distribution and UNOCHA, the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Activity, overall. This is not too surprising. There are a lot of new actors on the scene with new money who do not have experience in Afghanistan, do not have an infrastructure of offices, and they have to settle down. There are problems but they are being addressed. On the issue of IDP camps, this is a very interesting situation because you are right. There have been some real horror stories in the press earlier this year, particularly about one, Mazlakh Camp, outside Herat. A very interesting thing has been done in Mazlakh over the last ten days. For a long time, agencies who worked in the area considered that the Mazlakh Camp was almost out of control in that the true numbers of inhabitants were not known. Registration had not been accurately done and this had been the case for more than a year. In the time of the Taliban, the reality was that it was very difficult to force a recount because the Taliban authorities did not want to cooperate and the relationship was so delicate with them that nobody wanted to push it. The International Organisation of Migration, backed up by UNHCR, has now completed a successful registration of Mazlakh Camp. A camp that was supposed to hold 325,000 inhabitants turns out to have 114,000 inhabitants. The key fact behind this is that the 90 tonnes of food that were being delivered per day by World Food Programme will now go down to 40 tonnes. In other words, you have a situation where there were double and treble registrations, probably local, domestic people who have managed to get themselves registered and an over supply of food and other materials into this situation. That we are certain acted as a magnet to draw people out of their homes in some of the rural communities as well. This has now been proved. It is something a lot of us suspected for a long time and it is why we were always emphasising that the key thing was to support people at home and keep people at home. I hope now that Mazlakh is properly registered and the right amount of food and other materials are delivered, it will no longer be a magnet. IOM plan to get on this spring and early summer with returns of IDPs and returning refugees from abroad to their home communities, and that is what we want to focus on next.

Mr Robathan

  9. In the autumn we were told that Afghanistan faced a dire humanitarian crisis. What you are saying is that the system worked with the World Food Programme. Do you think people have been dying in large numbers from starvation or has the food issue been working this winter and therefore the catastrophe did not take place?
  (Mr Roseveare) There is no doubt that the hostilities that took place inhibited the delivery of humanitarian relief. The winter, although later than expected and perhaps there were some weeks of leeway there that had not been expected, has made the delivery of humanitarian assistance to some areas extremely difficult. There is no doubt that many thousands of people in remote areas who have not received the food entitlement that they had expected in November or any month since then have had to resort to eating boiled grasses, chewing on roots from the ground and so forth. We were pressed very hard to predict, at the time when some of us were calling for a humanitarian pause, the number of people who would die if it did not happen. The response to that now and the response to the question now is still the same, which was that our concern was about suffering and about levels of death. There was insufficient means of collecting hard and specific data on rates of mortality and morbidity across the country because of the infrastructure problems, security problems and access problems that in many places continue. The levels of suffering that people have had to endure have been appalling and unacceptable, but there is not specific evidence either to support or to destroy the fact that there will have been deaths of weak and vulnerable people, pregnant and lactating mothers, young children—

  10. I am not doubting that but have people been dying in large numbers or significant numbers from starvation, in your experience?
  (Mr Ali) Since autumn, one of the key things that has happened, perhaps as a result of this Committee, is the swift response by the international community to stop a potential disaster from reaching its peak. Areas like Daykondi, Uruzgan, areas that in the winter would suffer, the cut off areas in the central highlands; the pressure that was put on the aid agencies including the World Food Programme and delivery and the NGOs was such that it made them respond swiftly and target those areas that were highlighted. For example, Kizran and Adjistan. These are two areas in the Uruzgan district where at considerable risk to the Afghan local staff—I think they have done a gallant job—they managed to ensure that food reaches Kizran and Adjistan which were some of the most affected areas in the central highlands, near Daykondi, which was one of the places we highlighted. I can give you an example of our own staff, the Afghans. When they were delivering to Kizran, they were beaten; their vehicles were snatched from them and they were even accused of being spies because they were writing reports in English. Despite that, they managed to ensure that hundreds of tonnes of much needed food did go there and to avert what potentially could have been a disaster if they did not take that risk. It was a time where the local people—again, I must stress that when I had given the option to the Afghan staff to say, "This is a conflict. If you want to go home, you can. We can stop the operation" and the local people turned round and said, "These are our people and this is the time they need us. We are not going home." It is that courage backed up by the swift response by the international community that has averted what potentially could have been a disaster. In response to your question, there are not reported hundreds of deaths because I think we responded quickly as an international community.
  (Ms Winter) However, the death rate has gone up. Micro studies done in Badghis, which is one of the worst affected provinces, do show an increase in the death rate. There has been an increase too in morbidity from disease, from hypothermia etc.,—in other words, a very weak and vulnerable population. Winter is now upon us in some areas. There definitely have been increases in the numbers of deaths. How big that is I do not think any of us would be able to tell you.

Ann Clwyd

  11. What specific programmes are being implemented by the agencies for what some people consider to be the most vulnerable parts of the population? That is, women and children, war widows. We heard a lot about them at the beginning of the action. Can you tell me what agencies are specifically doing for them?
  (Mr Burch) Many agencies are engaged in delivery of complementary food packets over and above the World Food Programme ration which is basically wheat. This is the addition of extra food such as beans, pulses, oil etc. We are supporting quite a number of programmes of that kind through our partners. These are targeted quite carefully at the most vulnerable families in communities which themselves are classified in terms of vulnerability. We tend to consider families. That is the easiest way to work. They tend to be in the most remote places. We are also doing something which we did last year, also during the drought, in the four districts of Ghor, which is a programme specifically for the families of malnourished children. It involves a monthly measurement, which is very onerous on the team, as you can imagine. Children are measured and compared against the UNICEF/World Health Organisation norm. Those who are below a certain level, their families are put on a project of food distribution. This is very much an emergency phase. We are not generally very enthusiastic about the idea of giving away large numbers of food packets for long periods. We sincerely hope that within two or three months we will be into a new phase of longer term projects where certainly food is given where it is appropriate, but it is earned, food for work projects, which will create some local infrastructure: roads, irrigation works and so on. We are also interested in IOM's plans for the return of IDPs and refugees from camps. The International Organisation for Migration is organising this together with NGOs at the receiving communities. That will be very important this summer but there are many other issues which are going to be of great interest during the next year and years following, including civil society issues, certain things that just were not possible under the Taliban—in particular, education for both sexes.
  (Mr Roseveare) One of the things that has changed quite dramatically and has had a direct causal effect on our ability to address the needs of women, children, widows and female headed households at village level has been the fact that we are now able to employ women on our surveys teams and the teams that go out to conduct the distributions and assessments. That therefore means that our teams can talk to and inquire about the status of women who otherwise might have a status that was somewhat hidden within some village communities and remote settlements. That has made a dramatic difference in our ability to find out about those members of the community that may be more vulnerable than others, who may be women or women with children or female headed households, and to address those needs. We are still at a stage of delivering a lot of humanitarian response to meet people's food needs and a lot of planning is going on for longer term needs, but in the humanitarian response work, that is one critical thing that has changed, that has enabled us to address particularly women's needs; the other thinking about girls' schooling, about an interesting proposal which came through the other day which we may very well serve up and commit to was the retraining and refresher training of women professionals, particularly from Oxfam's point of view, water engineers for the country, and to put these people back in the economically productivity activity that they could otherwise be in. Those are medium term measures that will come on line. For the time being, it is simply our access to women in a simple way that has made quite a lot of difference.
  (Mr Ali) It has made a dramatic difference. At the tail end of the conflict, WFP were poised to do a city wide survey of Kabul and in that we had to employ 305 women to be able to cover the city. It was the first time that I was overwhelmed because you have teachers, university students, women turning up from all walks of life, having access to women, and able to get quality information about their status, about the number of children, information that was given directly by the beneficiary, not by the head of the community. That quality information allowed us to convert into better programmes and better projects. That is a significant change. The same in Kandahar. A survey was done but it was agreed that it is better to do a blanket distribution. The fact that there is now a changing attitude and women are coming forward to do work and aid agencies are able to actively employ them. They go out into the community and bring back quality information that allows better programming. There are a couple of issues that I think need to be pointed out. One, in terms of training, focus on women is very important but within the education sector one point we need to bear in mind is that so far the international debate has been on training of teachers. Building the capacity of the education directorates as well as the educational institutions within the government to do the monitoring and supervisory roles is equally as important to deliver education. Yes, on the one hand, we should train teachers and there are incentives to do that but the two must go hand in hand to ensure sustainability. The British government has been excellent in putting forward money for education, particularly in areas like Kandahar, through Islamic Relief, where this is an approach we are taking. Furthermore, there are now initiatives coming from various agencies which target women specifically like the Afghan Women's Initiative, which is a similar concept that was employed in the Balkans, where a lump sum of money available within the agencies, a project implemented by women for women and the initiative should come from women. It is not an idea that is preconceived but the idea to sit amongst women and say, "What are the good things that you should be doing?" because human beings know their own best solutions. I think it sends out a very important political message that, where an agency puts aside a lump sum of money for women it is recognising the vital role that women will play in the rebuilding of Afghanistan. It highlights the role of women amongst a society where we must admit that it is still predominantly men.

Tony Worthington

  12. With regard to infrastructure and teaching, you have to build up government capacity. I am very interested in the interrelationship between the international effort and the creation of the institutions of Afghan society which does seem to be crucial. If you took a specific issue like water infrastructure, are there signs that there is a body there, either internationally or nationally, instead of individual NGOs going and repairing a well, that is saying, "Look, we have just had total infrastructure destruction. This is what we need to do in this order to bring it back." How is that going to happen?
  (Mr Ali) What exists at the moment are the various coordinations of sectors: the water and sanitation sector, the agriculture sector etc., These sectors somehow link into the Ministry of Planning and the Ministry of Planning is usually overseeing the work of NGOs. The link however is very weak and it needs to be strengthened by strengthening the Ministry of Planning also, because from my experience when we met with the Ministry of Planning, wonderful ideas and words of advice, but not necessarily the technical knowhow available within the ministry to then sit down with the NGOs and draw up a blueprint and say, "This should be the infrastructure plan for this particular area." The onus remains on the international NGOs to draw up the blueprint and go back to the Ministry of Planning and say, "This is what we have done." The Ministry of Planning is then often in a situation where it gives the approval or disapproval which is the weak link, because often international NGOs have put in so much effort into coming up with a plan only for it to be disapproved by the Ministry of Planning creates some kind of resistance. If the ministry could be strengthened in all sectors—education, health, water and sanitation—to be able also to provide expertise and if that expertise is not available locally perhaps we can think of Afghan expert groups elsewhere to be able to give that information and then give the Afghans the lead role in providing that expertise and give the facilitation role to the international NGOs and perhaps the implementation.

  13. What is the Ministry of Planning? Is it a political appointment?
  (Mr Ali) Yes.

  14. Is there any background there of people who have been involved in planning in the past or have they gone? What is its link to the locality? Is there any system of local government at all there? What needs to be put in place?
  (Mr Ali) The structure is such that you have the central ministries which then have counterparts at the provincial level. It is a political appointment, the Minister of Planning, and even at the provincial level it is somewhat of a political appointment. There are not experts available within the ministries to take care of all planning issues because in terms of an international organisation it was down to whatever project you want to do has to be coordinated with the Ministry of Planning for the most part, whether it is agriculture, water or something else. The Ministry of Planning has to be involved. Unfortunately, it is more of you present the project and the ministry often says, "This is good" or, "We like it" or, "We do not like it", but it does not give the expertise one wants to create a consolidated relationship.

  15. You are going to the Ministry of Planning. Are you going to a politician or a powerful person of some kind who relates to who? Is there any kind of civil service whatsoever?
  (Mr Ali) The Ministry of Planning is responsible to the central administration and the Minister is a political appointment responsible to the central administration. There is a central plan of some kind but often it comes across in my view as a wish list. Often, the ministers want to divert assistance to areas that in international NGOs' assessment do not necessarily need it, but because there may be a political link to it they try and divert it. There is a central body that the ministers are responsible to and there is a central plan which is more of a wish list but not in terms of blueprints of projects or technical plans that they can then present to NGOs and say, "If you want to implement this . . .". There has been one good development recently, for example. We had a proposal to build a clinic in Baghman, about 20 kilometres from Kabul. The idea was to get a patch of land from the Ministry of Health and build the clinic which you can then give to the community as a sustainable asset, rather than just renting the building. The Ministry of Health put forward a patch of land and asked if she could lay the foundation stone, which was no problem for us. Then our engineers drew up the technical plan and gave it to the Ministry of Health and she said, "No, we have a standard plan." Our particular plan was rejected but I was happy because the Ministry of Health has now taken the initiative to come up with a standard plan of what a clinic should be and what basic facilities it should provide. It shows that there is now some kind of a move forward to standardise an approach. NGOs can now go, for example, to the Ministry of Health and say, "We want to build a clinic. It will be catering for this number of people in this location." The Ministry has done some kind of homework and they will say, "For that, I think you should go for this and this." That is a good sign. If we can strengthen that further along with other ministries, particularly the Ministry of Planning, which has the overall responsibility for any project that goes on, that would help further.

  16. As I understand it, there is no indigenous resource; there is no tax gathering system; there is no wealth from within Afghanistan going into the Ministry. Whatever wealth there is is coming out of Tokyo and the agreement there and the setting up of a trust fund or the setting up of something under UNDP. I am just not clear how that gets into the Ministry or whether it goes to the Ministry at all or whether there is another set of plans that is being internationally based. I do not understand what is happening. It is very early days. I am not sure what the idea is. I am not sure what is happening.
  (Mr Ali) For the most part, the ministries are relying on the international assistance and that international assistance at the moment is mainly through international NGOs and the UN agencies. Take the clinic project, for example. The patch of land that the Health Ministry has put forward had been put aside for a number of months but the Ministry itself did not have the money to build a clinic. Now you have an international NGO that presents a plan and the Ministry says, "How about working this one?" Therefore, they give you the go ahead. When it comes to the financial contribution, it is still a dependence on the international assistance. At the moment, there is not sufficient money and the Ministry would not leave the land barren but just build the clinic itself.

Mr Khabra

  17. What is being done to help people return to their villages to plant their crops? What is being done to stop people using their land to grow poppy plants rather than food?
  (Mr Burch) On return, IOM is organising a nation wide transport system which will consist of trucks moving on main routes by which people can effectively get a ride from their place of displacement to their home community. IOM's plan will also include reception hubs where people will get a reintegration packet which will include some food, agricultural tools etc. There will be secondary transport to their homes and NGOs will be contracted to IOM to provide support for the communities receiving those returnees, not just the returnees themselves, but also the wider community. Less antagonism will be created. We think this is very important we think it will be our next prime focus in rural areas this summer. On the subject of the poppy, I think I will defer to Sakandar because poppy growing is a particular problem of the Kandahar/Helmand area where Islamic Relief works. From the west, it is certainly a source of income or has been in the past for young men to go to work on the poppy crop. After a period in which the Taliban did ban poppy growth, the latest news that there was this autumn widespread planting is, I understand, that possibly as much as 40 or 50,000 hectares have been planted in the Helmand/Kandahar region. UNDCP, the UN drugs control agency, report that and certainly there are funds available from the United States and elsewhere to provide alternative activities for farmers who may be tempted to grow poppy in dry conditions as a crop which will get them a much better return than wheat. The fact is that it is difficult to implement those programmes and a certain amount of compulsion is needed also as well to prevent poppy growing. It would seem at the moment that there is going to be a resurgence of the problem.


  18. Sakandar, is there anything you want to say about poppy growth?
  (Mr Ali) I would, particularly because as Oliver said in the southern region, particularly Helmand and Kandahar, statistically Afghanistan used to produce something like 45 per cent of the world's heroin and out of that 70 per cent of it used to come from the southern region, primarily Helmand, it is one of the areas that we work. At the moment, from our observations, what we have seen is that activity to recultivate the poppy has not started but I must confess the discussion has started already amongst the communities because the southern region is primarily a feudal area, so you have people who work on the land and the landlords. Often the people who work on the land take monthly loans from the landlord which they used to pay back after the sale of the poppy crop. Those debts still exist and the assistance that was expected has not been forthcoming quickly enough which has started a discussion: "Well, what is the alternative?". I listened also to a recent media report where a farmer can actually earn up to 15,000 dollars for growing poppies and that is a lucrative incentive. Poppy growing is not a local problem it is actually an international problem. The international community therefore needs to react quickly to ensure that measures are put in place to make sure that people do not go back to poppy growing because for the most part they have stopped. I think it would be a real shame if they did simply because we are not swift enough in making sure they do not go back. Can I just make a point on repatriation because it was actually a good question. There is now a global discussion for Afghan refugees to repatriate and particularly amongst the neighbouring countries, Pakistan and Iran, and His Excellency, Hamid Karzai, has been going around encouraging the Governments to start repatriation programmes. UNHCR and IOM are involved in that. I think, for the record, the Committee should be aware that the package that has been put forward as an incentive for families to return is actually insufficient and it is not going to be an encouragement. Return has to be voluntary, it cannot be coerced. If you look at the return package that has been put forward by UNHCR, it is 5,000 Pakistani rupees, 100 kg of wheat and two metres of plastic sheeting. Now a family of seven, on average, what incentive is that for them to return? Secondly, a lot of the return will be happening to the southern and the eastern region, mainly the Pashtun Belt because a lot of the refugees are actually Pashtuns and these are drought hit areas where water is not available, there is limited infrastructure even to carry water. These issues need to be addressed when we talk about repatriation, not simply just picking up people and throwing them back into Afghanistan but giving them a chance to have some kind of a life when they go back. In a situation where you get two metres of plastic sheeting and 100 kg of wheat and 5,000 rupees which will just take you to where you want to go or close by, I think it is not necessarily going to be an incentive for them.


  19. Nick, I have got two colleagues who want to ask questions, John and Ann. What I suggest you do is answer their questions and then we will do a tour de table down the table starting with you responding to any points and if you wish to add anything, if there is anything you feel between us all we have not covered today which you think it is important that we should raise in Thursday's debate on this matter.

   Mr Battle: When we met at the beginning of the crisis there was criticism of the ability of the World Food Programme to cope. There have been also a lot of international eyes on the World Food Programme. Have they learnt from the experience? Have they changed their systems of communications and logistics? If so, the World Food Programme did tell us, for example, that the snow would not create a problem, they would get in snow ploughs from Sweden, Russia and elsewhere, why is the snow a problem or is it just that the snow has overwhelmed even the World Food Programme's best attempts at logistics?

  Ann Clwyd: I do not know if the Agencies have been involved at all with the welfare of those taken prisoner in Afghanistan? Some of the horror stories which we have heard are about conditions at the prisons, not enough food, etc., etc. I wonder if you can give us an estimate of the prison population now and their situation?

   Chairman: Nick, any comments on either of those two points or anything in addition that you feel we should take on board which has not been raised yet?
  (Mr Roseveare) Yes. On WFP, the World Food Programme, there were lots of criticisms, lots of anxieties that they may not be able to perform or were not performing in an adequate way. I think, as Sakandar said, a lot of that was taken on board. The stops were pulled out and there were changes in approach and tactics which enabled, for the most part, a much better job than if one had extended the trend in the early part of the crisis, a much better job to be executed than would have been predicted. I think that of course problems remain and of course there are logistical difficulties and so forth but for the most part I think that people felt that after a while, and with the maintenance of some pretty acute pressure, changes have been made which have delivered an adequate operation, for the most part. Whether there are particular difficulties relating to snow at the moment, I can only specify one location that we have difficulty accessing as of last week, this is because of very deep and very heavy snowfalls which one would have difficulty getting through by any practical means. Oxfam and most agencies have a continuing dialogue with WFP. We continue to be an implemented partner for many of the operations we have been describing now. There is a mutual recognition of the constraints which are upon all of us and a desire to work through those and solve them for the delivery of programmes. I think there was change and there continues to be a good dialogue, that is not to say there are not problems. On the issue of prisoners in Afghanistan, just to say I do not think I am qualified to answer that. Obviously the International Committee of the Red Cross would have a detailed view that they may or may not want to discuss in public. Other colleagues may be in a position to answer on that. Just a couple of other issues briefly. It is perhaps worth nothing that the ASG, the Afghan Support Group meets next week, I think in Geneva. We would want to see, I guess, clearly articulated in that forum the continuing need for pledges to be converted into delivery of assistance for Afghanistan and that the levels of interest and commitment should be maintained by the international community and by donors and that anything which looks like a slowness to do so should be quite assertively nipped in the bud by the international community and in particular by the British Government if it can exercise influence to do that. We are all too familiar with the difficulties in the past of intense interest in Afghanistan being followed quite swiftly by a period of disinterest and anything which looks as if it might be fading I think needs to be dealt with quite swiftly. The current conversion rate of pledges, which has been fairly good I think to date, must be maintained. Also, something that comes out of our discussions earlier, briefly, simply to say that just as on the issue of poppy cultivation there is a need for the international community to engage and to provide the alternatives and the resources to deliver them and to regard it as being a problem of international interest, it is not one that the Afghan authorities should miraculously suddenly be expected to take total responsibility for and to act against. The issue of security also that we talked about at the beginning of this meeting needs the close and attentive continued scrutiny by the international community of how different regions and their local leaderships are behaving and whether or not this is felt to be consistent with continuing to nation built and deliver something of a leadership structure that is supportive of a central authoritative government. If that attention begins to waiver or to wain or be diverted to elsewhere, there is a worry, a concern that the trend may be to revert to some of the more fragmented and fractured power structures in Afghanistan that have existed in the past and that would be a strong concern of ours. So for the international community continued very, very close attention to some of these issues.

  Chairman: Sakandar?
  (Mr Ali) I just want to slightly elaborate on what Nick said about WFP. I concur with Nick, we also work very closely, particularly in Kabul and the southern region and I must say that the concerns which were raised in October have seriously been taken on board. It has been shown in the field that WFP is trying any means possible to ensure that food does get to people who need it. I think the international community also must be recognised in giving the support to WFP to ensure that assistance is given. The planes which were donated, the hundreds of trucks which were put forward and have arrived, and recently the six helicopters which have been put forward will allow WFP to reach even the most difficult areas, to make the assessments through the helicopters etc and we look forward to that. I think the quicker those helicopters etc arrive the better because the winter, as Elizabeth has said already, is coming and we do need to reach people. That is a very good alternative. WFP has even said if need be they will take food through the helicopter to these pockets, so it is a good initiative. In terms of prisoners, I think although we are not involved in that sector but what is important and what we hear from the communities is a concern for the families actually left behind by the prisoners because a lot of the prisoners who were there and a lot of them who were foreigners who were there have wives and children who have been left behind within the communities and they have been exposed and become vulnerable in that. I think the Committee needs to be aware that there is a certain human rights element towards the families to prisoners which we should not overlook because in their situation in an environment like that I think they would probably be most at risk. Some people even said we feel sorry for them because they have had to scatter their families to different villages for protection for some reason. Now the points that I would like to make for the Committee are four but these are often the silent points which we oversee in delivering international assistance. I think we need to bear them in mind because they can have far reaching consequences unless we tackle them now. There are four general points. The first one is on Afghan refugees. Because I have got them written down I think it will be quicker so I will just read them to you. The Afghan Government has recently opened the dialogue with the Governments of Iran and Pakistan for the repatriation of Afghan refugees. UN agencies are also talking about repatriation. The remedy suggested is to give some items and money to the returnees and make repatriation attractive to the people. However, there are still some geographic areas, particularly in the southern Afghanistan where water is hardly found, the ecosystem is fragile and even lacks the carrying capacity necessary for human settlements. Encouraging people to return to such areas would not only make them vulnerable but would also destroy the delicate ecosystem of the area. We suggest that the Afghan Government must have a comprehensive repatriation plan before actual arrival of the people from Pakistan and Iran and the plan must also be based on environmental assessment and should consider the well being of local ecosystems. Secondly, and here it is a point that the industry would most like to highlight, is the rehabilitation of the health system. There are a number of agencies coming forward with plans to rehabilitate the health system and health schemes. What we would not like to see is Afghanistan being used as a dumping ground for pharmaceutical companies because although WHO has an approved list of medicine there is actually no mechanism as yet to check what comes in and what goes out of the country. The only mechanism that exists at the moment is in the neighbouring countries, SAFRON in Pakistan but SAFRON is concerned about what is transiting through Pakistan, it does not actually have the ability to control. If we encourage agencies and donors to ensure that we bear this in mind, that it should not be used as a ground for pharmaceuticals and if medicines do arrive that are not suitable then the donors must be willing to pay for them to be returned back as opposed to just being left in the country. The added point is the support to the national curriculum. There is a discussion now at the central and provincial level to come up with a unified curriculum for the country and the focus is still for the main part remaining and training the teachers to be able to teach. Also I think in line we need to capacitate the education directorates and the ministries to take care of the supervisory and monitoring roles to deliver good quality education. Finally, since the planting season is coming up, we would see as every year a lot of seed programmes and agricultural programmes taking place. I must point out to the Committee that FAO, the Food and Agricultural authority, does not actually have a seed verification system in place so we need to ensure that whatever seeds come to Afghanistan are genetically modified. If these seeds are going to, yes, give better crops, what are the social consequences of that crop? Will women have to spend more time in the field because these seeds take extra time? Will it affect the social impact? Our suggestion is that at the moment there are seed verification centres in Baluchistan, in Chitral, which are near to the border with Afghanistan. If as a point of reconciliation perhaps these verification centres through FAO could be used to certify seeds which go into Afghanistan it would be a great encouragement because otherwise we may end up with a situation where we have lots of agriculture but the social consequences of that are actually much more dire than they are now because there is no verification system.

  Chairman: Elizabeth?
  (Ms Winter) On the question of prison population, as has already been said, it is obviously an ICRC responsibility but it is a major human rights' issue, no question about it. We estimate that the population is around 5,000 and as Nick or Sakandar have already said, there are a lot of families involved too so it is not just the 5,000 prisoners themselves. We do not have any great details although we assume that in most of these prisons conditions are pretty awful. There is particular concern about the one in Shibergan and if you would like more information we can perhaps supply that to you at a later date. Turning to other things, what we have not discussed really, except in passing, is the question of the diaspora and the return of technically qualified Afghans. This is a very complicated issue. There are a lot of Afghans who are waiting to go back, waiting for the conditions to be right for them to do so. One of the major constraints on them returning, although some have done so already under their own steam, one of the major constraints is concern that they will lose their asylum status. So, for example, if hostilities broke out again or it was simply impossible to work there they might not be able to return to their families who are in Europe or wherever. We understand that the refugee organisations here are looking at these issues and the Home Office is also addressing them. We wonder whether some concern could be given to this and whether or not a situation like in Kosovo could be sorted out so that, in fact, people do have the ability to go back and assess the situation, perhaps give temporary consultancy assistance before they return permanently. Databases are being drawn up, various ones, so that prospective employers and prospective employees can be put in touch with each other. As I say, it is a complicated issue and requires more thought. You raised in your report the question of the media coverage. Just to let you know that BAAG has organised a couple of workshops since then including the representatives of the media. We are supporting a photographer to go out and come back with more accurate images that can then be used and we hope the coverage will be improving from now on. Finally, in terms of the last thing I would like to say, I think you have it right in your report talking about Afghan led reconstruction and so on, and I think just to reiterate it is important to build on the expertise and knowledge that exists already. That is largely in the NGO community, particularly with the Afghan members of staff who have requested at various meetings that we all be given time to reflect, that we do not just rush around and there is one quote that has remained with me at the World Bank/UNDP Asian Development Bank meeting in November that we attended: "Please stop sending us these hyper active and non productive expatriates". We have all met them and we would rather do without them.

  Chairman: Oliver?
  (Mr Burch) For Christian Aid, I would agree that WFP did rise to the occasion there with more funds provided to it. We were all lucky with the late winter, just to repeat that again. With the assets they have in place now—transport aircraft on standby, helicopters have been mentioned, we have the Swedish Rescue Service Agency with three snowploughs who are now on the Chagcheran Road and have guaranteed to keep that open for the rest of the winter—it does seem that the problems are very well addressed. I am sorry I cannot add anything on prisoners. I would only refer to ICRC or whatever it is Elizabeth has told us about. There are a lot of human rights' issues coming out of what has happened recently beyond the fact of people being imprisoned. Reprisals against civilian populations occurred on both sides actually during some of last autumn's conflict. Villages were burned and some of those people are still homeless and need help to rebuild. Just one further comment on the issue of return, and to separate the return of IDPs from these big camps which in the west at any rate we really think should be happening quite fast and there is no reason why those people cannot be supported much more efficiently at home than they could be in camps in the desert. Of course we have the issue also of return of refugees from abroad. Just to sound a note of concern about any possibility that neighbouring states may use the situation now as an excuse for forced repatriation. There are some signs that Iran may get a little bit aggressive in this way. They have two million refugees at the moment who are not particularly wanted. Most of them have been in Iran for a long time and are more or less economic migrants. There are some signs that there may be a big push now by the Iranian authorities to get those people back to Afghanistan as fast as can be done. Sakandar has said that there is a limit to what their communities can absorb in the short term. Thank you.

  Chairman: Thank you all for having come and given evidence today. I hope that in the debate on Thursday we can reflect some of those concerns. Thank you for helping ensure that we get what we say into the proper kilter. As you know, as a Committee we are wanting to do a further inquiry into reconstruction of things in Afghanistan. I think we will need to work out when best we can do that. We hope it will not be too far away. Thank you very much indeed.

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