Probably not so many of us know, but on 19 August, we celebrated the World Humanitarian Day. On that day, AAN’s Sari Kouvo and Naheed Esar Malikzay stumbled into a small ceremony in Kabul celebrating humanitarian work* and were inspired to explore the situation of Afghan humanitarian and development workers.** The stories Sari and Naheed received were stories about extreme needs, in a context where security threats, fear and lack of trust is making humanitarian and development work increasingly difficult.
A situation does not only become insecure because of security threats or violence, insecurity is also intimately linked to fear and the absence of trust. As one of the Afghan humanitarian workers we spoke to said, ‘fear creates violence’. A consistent message from our discussions was that the security situation had radically deteriorated over the past two years. This has complicated the already difficult task of building trust with local communities, and in some instances it has further eroded the trust of the local populations.
The accounts about when and how the security situation had deteriorated varied depending on where the people we talked to or their organizations were active. Generally 2002-04 were described as the years when, ‘we could go anywhere, not only to the provincial and district capitals, but also to the remotest communities’, and the years from 2008 onwards and particularly the past two years were identified as the years when security has been ‘really bad’. It was noted that while there may not be conflict everywhere in Afghanistan, ‘the conflict affects the situation all over Afghanistan’. Everyone we spoke to provided examples of security incidents that they themselves or others in their organization had faced. The security incidents ranged from threats, IEDs and rockets to being caught in the fighting between Taleban and international forces, kidnappings and killings.
The worry that ‘anything can happen’ was felt as a constant pressure. Those who worked in organization that had negotiated access to specific areas with the Taleban or other local power-holders emphasized that they were all the time aware that promises could be broken and that this could have dire consequences for both staff and beneficiaries. It was also stressed that assurances from communities now meant little, as the community control over the security situation could be very limited. When discussing the consequences of security incidents, the emphasis was put: On the one hand, on the trauma experienced by the staff involved in the security incidents. Examples were given where staff who had suffered security incidents decided not to continue threir work and to leave their position. On the other hand, emphasis was put on the consequences of the security incidents for the organizations and for their service delivery. As one person noted, ‘the needs are greatest in the most insecure areas’ and therefore decisions to pull out from an area are difficult to make.
The lack of reliable statistics makes figures problematic in Afghanistan. Indicative figures nevertheless give an idea of the situation of humanitarian workers and humanitarian needs. According to the Humanitarian Policy Group, Afghanistan was already 2006 to 2009 the country with the second most security incidents against humanitarian workers, topped only by Somalia (see here). The 2011 UN Consolidated Appeal described the situation in Afghanistan as a complex humanitarian crisis with around eight million Afghans expected to need food aid and more than two thirds lacking access to safe water and sanitation (see here). The report of the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDCM) reported that 730,000 persons have been displaced due to conflict in Afghanistan between 2006 and 2011 (seehere). According to UNAMA’s mid-year report on civilian casualties released in July 2011, there was also an increase of 15% in conflict-related civilian deaths during the first six months of 2011. In May alone 368 civilian casualties were documented(see here).
The changing security situation was especially affecting women’s ability to work. One person noted that ‘in 2002 and 2003, men and women could go together to the field, but where we work it is no longer possible, we now need to give a more conservative appearance’. Another stressed that ‘today our staff needs to dress more conservatively, if they don’t, the local people will speak against them’. Several also stressed that it was becoming increasingly difficult to reach women beneficiaries of aid and development projects. One person emphasized that ‘mullahs turn especially young men against women’s rights, and then they won’t let their mothers or sisters come to trainings’. Another one noted that ‘Taliban propaganda affects communities; they do no longer want to let their women work or participate in trainings’. Yet another noted that ‘women should be the main beneficiaries of our programs, but because of unwanted traditions they do not want to participate in our trainings anymore’. The media campaign against women’s shelters and the efforts by the government to take control over NGO-run shelters was used as an example of an attack that would stay in the publics’ mind and that would hamper the work of shelter providers for years to come (for AAN’s reporting about women’s shelters, see here).
For all of those we spoke ability to work in a specific area or community was intimately linked not only to security, but also to trust. However, a comment repeated was that ‘trust is gone’. Several reasons were given for the lack of trust: The failure of the government to ensure rule of law and security has affected the peoples’ trust non only on government but on all actors, including on non-governmental actors, the blurred lines between the international military presence and aid providers and, of course, corruption and the general sense that there should have been more results of ten years of development work.
The increasingly restrictive work environment affected both the quantity and the quality of the work. Several of the people we spoke to expressed frustration that the work that they did had gradually shifted from being field-based to becoming work done from an office in a provincial capital. There had been a shift of focus: ‘in the early years we were only thinking about the work we were doing, now we spend most of the time worrying about what security threats we might face’. The lack of access meant that little control over the work done, ‘if we do not have access, we cannot do field visits and then we cannot monitor our projects’.
In conclusion, while few of us might have known about World Humanitarian Day, we better take seriously the stories about the radically changing security situation and its effects on the possibilities to deliver humanitarian aid and development, as well as the messages about the public’s doubts about aid and development. The message that fear has taken the place of trust is not one to ignore.
** Since International Humanitarian Day, we have spoken to ten Afghans – eight men and two women – who for the past decade, or much longer, have been working for Afghan or international non-governmental organizations providing humanitarian aid, basic service delivery (especially health) or aid to children, disabled and women in Afghanistan. Half of the persons we spoke to were Kabul-based, but the organizations that they were working for had programming in different regions in Afghanistan. Of those who were not Kabul-based, two were based on Mazar-e Sharif, one in Gardez, one in Kandahar and one in Herat.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020