The Unspoken in Kabul: What does the future hold for humanitarian actors?

On the day that the UN announced the number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan has fallen for the first time in six years, NCHS hosted a lively and interesting panel debate on the contemporary and future state of humanitarianism in the country (19th February). Based on a recently published report from the Feinstein Center, Afghanistan: Humanitarianism in Uncertain Times, the event took stock of the current humanitarian challenges in Afghanistan as well as how humanitarian actors can prepare for the forthcoming 2014 withdrawal of ISAF forces.  Panelists included Antonio Donini from the Feinstein Center and co-author of the report, academics from SOAS and CMI, and senior representatives from the Norwegian MFA, the Norwegian Red Cross and the Norwegian Refugee Council.

In a packed room at PRIO composed of Afghans, practitioners and policy-makers, Antonio Donini outlined the legacy of decades of international involvement in Afghanistan. Remarking on the similarities with the Soviet withdrawal from the country in 1989, Donini asked, what has been achieved? He noted that the human development indicators make somber reading after a decade of international engagement since the fall of the Taliban and millions of dollars of aid.  He observed that a unique feature of the Afghan situation is that all major donors are also belligerents, including Norway.

Having been invited to discuss possible scenarios for Afghanistan come 2014 and the need to engage in serious contingency planning, there was general agreement among panelists concerning a set of key issues: the re-categorization of the Afghan situation from “post-conflict” to “humanitarian crisis” around 2008 was very belated and had important implications for humanitarian strategies and policy.  The (marginalized) role of UN agencies and accessibility to various parts of the country remains a challenge. The withdrawal of ISAF forces is seen for some humanitarian actors as a positive development but perceived by panelists with varying degrees of apprehension. There was widespread agreement that there is also an acute need to address Afghanistan’s youth bulge.

Despite some agreement across the six panelists, there were strikingly different perspectives on what has and hasn’t been achieved in Afghanistan and what will come next for both ordinary Afghans and humanitarian organizations.  Some panelists suggested that it was not all doom and gloom, while others were more cautious.

Donini reflected on the fact that humanitarian response had not been overly successful in Afghanistan. The Norwegian Refugee Council described humanitarians as having achieved “remarkably little progress”. However, pointing to the successful work of local organizations in the more stable regions of the country, CMI argued that there were distinctly positive aspects to build on for the country’s future.

The lack of open discussions about contingency planning at the UN level was described by one participant as “the unspoken in Kabul, the elephant in the room”. There is a continuing bunkerization mentality within Kabul and agencies were reluctant to admit that their access is limited. On the positive side, 2014 will offer opportunities for looking more carefully at what negotiated access will mean and broader acceptance of the Taliban as a partner around the table. There is also the possibility that the ISAF withdrawal will undermine the Taliban’s main message of fighting a foreign force. Increasingly, the group will have to ask themselves what they now offer the population beyond attacking foreign troops. Humanitarians will also have to ask themselves difficult questions. As pointed out by a member of the audience, there cannot be an assumption that humanitarian actors (especially international) are actually welcome across the country. For many Afghans, they have already overstayed their welcome and humanitarians need to think carefully about what their future contribution to Afghan society can be.

As other countries scale down their funding, the Norwegian MFA repeated its commitment to maintain its funding for humanitarian aid to Afghanistan.  The MFA emphasized that it saw humanitarian aid as distinct from the Norwegian participation in ISAF. The focus of the Norwegian efforts would be on generating resilience through local capacity building.

In a comment, the SOAS participant, who is also an Afghan national, questioned why pour funding into capacity building now?   He also wondered why none of the other speakers had mentioned the role of the Afghan state which strongly asserts – at least rhetorically – its sovereignty and desire to actively participate in relieving poverty and suffering across the country.  He also described the humanitarian debate about a lack of access as slightly naïve: Afghani politics is about deal making and leveraging resources; humanitarian, drug related or otherwise.

He expressed concern at the militarization of rural Afghanistan as villages and communities are being armed as part of the ISAF withdrawal strategy.  Yet, he suggested that doom and gloom humanitarians also need to question their own contribution to the military Armageddon narrative: “As soon as we pull out, everything will go to hell. But while we were there, things held together”.

Somewhat surprisingly, there was no generally shared apprehension about insecurity.  The Norwegian Red Cross expressed concern about a decreased capacity to deliver as security deteriorates and international contributions to Afghanistan are reduced.  According to CMI, local Afghan NGOs will probably continue to work quite effectively with local populations. It was suggested that only certain kinds of humanitarians – those with foreign funding, dual citizenship or who financially benefit from disseminating a ‘worst-case scenario’ narrative – engaged in doomsday scenarios.  Local staff, particularly in the northern part of the country, focused on getting their job done with quality and politeness as keywords. While there had been a radical under-investment in peaceful areas with the bulk of funding going to Afghanistan’s conflict zones, there was eagerness in Afghan society to move forward.

A final point of discussion brought up by panelists and by young Afghans in the audience was the potential role of the emergent generation of young Afghans.  Afghani society has irrevocably changed and social media has become an integrated part of everyday life. What kind of space for leveraging social changed can be carved out between the traditional political elite, the warlords and the “NGOized” groups of privileged civil society actors?