Avoiding Unholy Alliances

What can be achieved by aid organisations in Afghanistan?

By Oliver Müller, International Director of Caritas Germany
(First published on the website Herder Korrespondenz)

Oliver Müller, International Director of Caritas Germany

There is still hardly any positive news from Afghanistan. The security situation has deteriorated, people have little confidence in local politicians and the international commitment is entering its decisive phase. At the same time, the wretchedly poor country urgently needs humanitarian assistance. Aid organisations, such as Caritas Germany, however, can work only if they behave strictly independently and orientated by demand.

Since 2001, the Western world has been trying to fight international terrorism in Afghanistan. Since 2002, this has been accompanied by promoting the reconstruction of the country, which was largely destroyed after 30 years of war and civil war. With regard to Afghanistan’s civil reconstruction, what counted until now for the Western governments and the military was the maxim issued by NATO spokesman Richard Nuge, “We must show the Afghans that they are really better off without the Taliban.”

As long as the intervention in Afghanistan has continued, one has been discussing goals, strategies and results of the operation. This debate always proceeded controversially. Up to now the roles have been clearly defined then. While the official voices from government, diplomacy and the military tried to emphasise above all the political and humanitarian progress, the aid organisations working in Afghanistan contributed to the debate of critical nuances from the perspective of the people concerned, and pointed to shortcomings in development (see also the opinions (2) of the umbrella organisation of development non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Germany VENRO). These clear lines of discussion seem to dissolve at present.

Looking at the debate of recent weeks and months shows that something has changed in talking about Afghanistan. For the first time one discusses openly, largely regardless of the respective camp to which one belongs. There is a new sound when the outgoing UN special envoy for Afghanistan, Kai Eide, who is rather known for his diplomatic reserve notes, “We must admit that we all should and could have achieved more.” It is even more unusual when Ralf Schnurr, Head of Section II, Operations Division of the Federal Ministry of Defence says in preferable clarity, “After eight years of German commitment in Afghanistan we find that we have not achieved our goals.” This marks a new openness in the discussion, which will hopefully facilitate the struggle for the right path for Afghanistan.

Not least, many disappointments have contributed to this change in the assessment of the situation. The many recent setbacks of the ISAF mission, the devastating tanker attack by the Bundeswehr, and the disaster of the Afghan presidential elections of 2009 have to be mentioned. The election, which lastingly shattered the legitimacy of the rulers supported by the West, not least highlighted the disastrous state of the Afghan government and power structure. The result of all this is that now the situation in the country is discussed with so much disillusionment and realism as never before.

The deficiencies and shortcomings in Afghanistan are too obvious as that a simple ‘Keep it up’ would still have the desired effect in the public.

One of the realities is that Afghanistan is – despite massive military operation – still not a stable country. On the contrary, although now about 100,000 soldiers from more than 40 countries are in action the security situation has in recent years steadily deteriorated. Reports of aid agencies from Mazar-i-Sharif, where patients for fear of attacks go no longer to their clinics, show how precarious the security situation is. Statistics confirm the impression that the country became the more unstable, the more soldiers were deployed. Thus, in the year 2009, the number of attacks by the armed opposition rose from 387 in January to 1092 in August. At the same time the number of civilian casualties remains continuously high, at present more than 2000 per year. A number that induced a British commander to point out with concern that “every dead civilian means 100 new enemies.”

The fact that the country at the Hindu Kush remains one of the poorest countries in the world seems to be even more important for taking stock of the Afghanistan mission. Despite large sums of aid money, Afghanistan has for years ranked next to last in the Human Development Index (HDI) of the United Nations. The details are devastating: The life expectancy of Afghans is 43 years, two thirds of the population live below the poverty line, and have to live on less than two dollars a day. Fifty percent are chronically malnourished. No country with such alarming social indicators can build a politically stable polity.

The ‘quick impact’ projects (QIPs), which in the first years were mainly propagated by the military and were designed to be able to show quick results but was pursued without evaluations, has failed by and large. There is specific progress in some areas, as e.g. health care, education and infrastructure, but the country is far away from a major breakthrough. A key reason for this is inter alia the imbalance in spending on civilian and military tasks, which is 1:4 for Germany and at the international level even more clearly to the disadvantage of the civil area.

No Appendage of the ISAF Troops

In view of the deteriorating security situation and the unsatisfactory economic and social development of the country, the question time and again arises also for aid organisations as e.g. Caritas Germany (International aid), the aid agency of the German Caritas, of whether and under what conditions the work in Afghanistan is still possible, meaningful and justifiable. The focus is then especially on the safety of its employees. After all, in 2009 alone in Afghanistan no fewer than 172 attacks on aid agencies took place, including the spectacular attack on the UN guest house late October 2009.

In total, sixteen people were killed in these attacks. Given these dismal figures, also the question is repeatedly put as to whether the project work is possible without military protection. It is an understandable question, but it is misleading. For already the basic assumption that soldiers were able to protect aid workers and their work is wrong. Equally incorrect is the assertion that without military protection the work of civilian aid organisations (NGOs) was impossible. Many projects of German NGOs show that also in Afghanistan “humanitarian areas” still exist, where the work of aid organisations is possible. This is proved by the relief projects of Caritas Germany (International aid) in Hazarajat, more precisely in the province of Daikundi, where up to now no regular ISAF troops exist.

But there are aid organisations also in Herat, like the Green Helmets e.g. which build schools there, without ever coming in contact with ISAF troops. It rather applies that in the past after deadly incidents major German aid organisations withdrew from deployment areas of the Bundeswehr, in order to emphasise their independence and to avoid the reputation of being an appendage of the ISAF troops.

The possible consequences of the loss of independence of humanitarian agencies became evident in winter 2006/2007 in the provinces of Helmand and Kandahar. According to media reports, hundreds of people died there, because due to the tense security situation it was impossible to supply them with food. Aid agencies were denied access to disaster areas because the Islamist Taliban militia regarded them as part of the Western troops. This example shows that military protection is no answer to general security problems.

None of the ten VENRO organisations working in Afghanistan therefore cooperates with the military or under the protection of the military. This would, incidentally, be contrary to the Geneva Red Cross Convention and would only encourage the already observable blurring of boundaries between civil humanitarian assistance and military operations. A close look at the facts even shows that the survival of aid workers is only secured by distance to the military.

Thus, a safety analysis revealed recently that 18 of 42 attacks in Kabul took place in the vicinity of the ISAF camp. The avoidance of these military zones significantly reduces the risk to their employees, without impairing the quality of their projects. The safety analysis also showed a total of eleven attacks on aid agencies in January 2010 in Afghanistan. Seven of these attacks, however, hit a certain aid agency, which uses armed guards, works under the protection of the military, and implements major infrastructure projects with money from the U.S. government.

These and other examples reinforce the view of Caritas Germany that on the one hand the distance from the military is indispensable for the work of aid organisations, and on the other hand the arms race with the Taliban makes no sense. In fact, it would be easy for Taliban and other terrorist groups to hit Caritas in such a way that its work in the country would be impossible. Aid agencies are a classic example of what experts call ‘soft target’. Those in Kabul who want to know how and where Caritas Germany is working can find it out.

For Caritas Germany follows from it: NGOs can only work if they act independently and strictly demand-oriented and thus their importance for the development of the country becomes evident. Relief organisations are primarily protected by the acceptance of aid projects among the local population. The confidence of the people at whom the help is directed is the most important life insurance for the employees of Caritas in Afghanistan.

Religion Plays no Role in the Practical Work

However, as experience shows, no specific hazard comes from the fact that Caritas is working as a Catholic relief organisation in Muslim surroundings. This has certainly also to do with the fact that the aid is delivered independently and strictly as required. But on the spot we practise an honest communication about our values and the Christian motivation of our work. As representatives of a recognized ‘religion of the book’ we have a clear status. The motivation of the assistance is transparent and comprehensible for Muslims, but religion plays no role in the actual delivery of assistance, and the local population is also aware of it. The question which our employees always hear on the spot is even more important for people, “Are you coming with burning hearts, or because it is your job?”

Caritas Germany supports aid projects since the eighties in Afghanistan. From 1996 to 2001 in the days of Taliban rule, it was above all about school projects in the mosques, since education has been seriously neglected because of the restrictive laws of the Taliban. After the regime change as a result of 11 September 2001 Caritas Germany opened in early 2002 in Kabul an office in which currently up to three international and ten Afghan employees work. The office closely co-operates with international sister organisations as e.g. Caritas Netherlands (Cordaid), Caritas Ireland (Trocaire), Caritas USA (CRS) and Caritas Italy. In Afghanistan Caritas Germany is concentrating its work on two project areas: the capital Kabul and Hazarajat (central Afghanistan).

Geographic focus in Hazarajat is the province Daikundi in the central highlands, one of the poorest regions of Afghanistan. Besides the reconstruction of rural infrastructure (construction of schools, hospitals and roads by the local population), the Caritas partners deal with the supply of drinking water and provide drought assistance. Every year in the winter also the survival of mountain people in the Hindu Kush is secured by medical aid and food supplies.

The Caritas projects in Hazarajat play symbolically and in concrete terms – a not to be underestimated role for the whole region. Showcase projects e.g. the hospital opened in the small provincial town Sanghdat, act as a beacon of hope to the entire region. In view of such assistance projects, people of the region speak of the “golden opportunity”. Not least because there are in the region, apart from Caritas, hardly any international aid organisations and no military.

The second field of activity is psychosocial counselling. Since the end of 2004, Caritas Germany supports individuals and families that suffer from traumas, depression, domestic violence or other psychological problems. For this purpose, an Afghan relief organisation with the name “Window for life” was founded. According to official statistics, 60 to 80 percent of the Afghan population have psychological problems, some are severely depressed. Tormented by years of war, many Afghans must experience the loss of family members and often also of their homeland.

The vulnerability and the traumatic suffering require psychosocial support, which in Afghanistan does so far not exist. There is a lack of trained professionals in the field of psychology (estimates assume less than 100 Afghan psychologists and psychiatrists in the country). The aim of the project is next to the concrete assistance for traumatised people the training of qualified psycho-social counselors who, after successful completion, will run counselling centers in Kabul. There, group and individual therapy for people with depression, anxiety disorder, traumas and family problems is offered. The project has recently been extended and adapted to the regions of Bamyan, Herat and Balkh. An important success of the lobbying was that the psychosocial counselling on the orders of the Ministry is now an integral part of health care.

The operating principle of Caritas Germany is characterised by the promotion of projects of Afghan aid organisations. Behind it is the conviction that at all levels more Afghan responsibility and leadership is needed in order to increase the acceptance in the country. The Western aid should only be understood as a (culturally empathic) help for self-help. The reconstruction has to take into consideration the social, political and historical context.

This “Afghanisation” is done as consistently as possible, whereas our own staff and administrative apparatus is kept as lean as possible. The projects pursue realistic goals and avoid over-complexity. The village communities are the crucial point of assistance. Projects are promoted in close consultation with local responsible officials.

With a minimum of German personnel Caritas Germany takes on, in accordance with the partner principle, the role of the “trigger” and leaves – after previous training – as far as possible the decision-making, execution and implementation of projects to the Afghans (project staff, population and local office-holders). Thus, the maximum acceptance of the population is obtained. This path is often rockier and more timeconsuming, but in the long run it promises more success than working over the heads of the Afghans. The projects are financed by donations made towards Caritas and money from public donors, such as the German Government and the European Union.

High Dependence on Public Aid

Development projects of independent aid organizations exist in Afghanistan in addition to military aid projects. At first glance, some projects of the military so-called Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), which are implemented under NATO’s conception of civil-military cooperation, are similar to those of a relief organization. But they pursue ultimately not only humanitarian goals, but sought to influence the population and to gain information. Thus, they are basically focused rather on counterinsurgency than on poverty reduction. The strategic interests of the donor countries are crucial for aid, and not necessarily the misery and needs of the Afghan population. One consequence of this orientation is that very poor regions cannot be developed if they are not of military-strategic interest.

General principles of development cooperation as e.g. participation and contributions of the party involved are disregarded in many cases. From the viewpoint of the German aid organisations such projects are therefore no fundamental contribution to the social development of Afghanistan, even though individual measures may occasionally make sense. The military’s task should rather be to establish safety and to protect the Afghan civilian population.

The help in Afghanistan cannot be financed solely through donations by most of the German aid agencies working there. To a far greater extent than in other regions it is dependent on public funding. This is due to the fact that there is rather a low readiness of the German people to donate for the victims of wars and civil wars, and particularly for Afghanistan. In general not even a tenth of the donations given after natural disasters arrives for the victims of armed conflicts.

Against this background, the very overt threat by Development Aid Minister Dirk Niebel in the run up of the London Conference on Afghanistan is particularly alarming: without cooperation with the Bundeswehr no funding for projects of aid agencies by the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development is to be expected. That’s why the announcement that the German development aid will be quite concentrated on areas “where we are also militarily responsible” and thus the aid is possibly not primarily demand-oriented is met with sharp criticism by German aid organiations. It would be a fatal error, if the distribution of state development funds was no longer oriented towards humanitarian needs but subordinated to strategic military targets.

Most aid agencies working in Afghanistan feel obliged to the country not only since 2001, but in many cases – as in the case of Caritas – since decades ago. Even under difficult conditions e.g. during the reign of the Taliban, it has proved possible to bring humanitarian aid to the people. As a representative survey of the ARD of January 2010 shows, in which three out of four Afghans want a strong commitment of international aid agencies, the population appreciates these stable relief efforts that are independent of the turmoil of the times.

From the experience of decades of work in Afghanistan the certainty results that humanitarian assistance will be necessary even after the announced withdrawal of Western troops, which will begin in 2011. As always in such difficult contexts, expertise, courage and heart are required in order to cope successfully with such a relief effort. In particular, we must learn from the mistakes of the past. These include that the reconstruction was initially tackled with too much short-winded activism and too little knowledge of the country.

Especially in the early years too many actors saw Afghanistan as “re-education camps of the West”, as the Afghanistan expert Conrad Schetter has once called it, without understanding and respect for the traditions of the country. One of the most serious mistakes was to deal with warlords, drug traffickers and militias, who up to this day partly hold the highest offices. In the eyes of the Afghan people, the ISAF mission in the name of Western values was very early discredited by this course of action.

The civilian reconstruction in Afghanistan, that’s another lesson from the past, has until now failed also because of a wrong use of state aid funds. The “how” of the help is ultimately more important than the “how much”. One has often placed too little emphasis on the sustainability of the projects.

In order to turn over as much money as possible, unholy alliances with dubious rulers were formed. In many cases, the commitment was too politicised and not demand-oriented enough. But the improvement of the living conditions plays a central role for the pacification of the country.

According to a recent survey in Afghanistan by a British nongovernmental organisation, 70 percent of the respondents declare poverty and unemployment as the main cause of the armed conflict in the country. Second comes the corruption in the country (only Somalia ranks lower), and the hardly trusted Afghan government. The Taliban are mentioned (only!) in third place. This underlines the need for a civil conflict resolution in Afghanistan, which aims more at social and economic development with the involvement of the general public than at the selective fight against the insurgents.

The political scientist and theologian, Oliver Müller, has been in charge of Caritas Germany (International aid), the relief organisation of the German Caritas since 2006.

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Filed under AFghanistan, Asia, Conflicts and Disasters, Emergencies, Peacebuilding

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