- The Washington Times - Friday, December 24, 2004

KABUL, Afghanistan — Aid and development organizations will announce a self-regulating code of conduct next month following sweeping criticism of their work by a controversial government minister.

Ramazan Bashardost, forced to resign Dec. 13 as planning minister, had threatened to disband 1,935 Afghan and foreign charities, otherwise known as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), for what he described as “economic terrorism.”

His proposal to shut down all but 420 of the NGOs active in the country came without any investigation of suspected malfeasance by any of the organizations. The government announced an investigation only after he quit, partly to offset the political fallout from his resignation, but has not yet drafted the long-promised law to govern NGO activities.

“We are tired of waiting for the legal framework to be put in place, so we’ve formulated a code of conduct especially adapted for Afghanistan that will help NGOs set standards of behavior and become more accountable,” said Paul Barker, country director of CARE International.

ACBAR, the umbrella organization for Afghan and foreign charities, will make the code of conduct public Jan. 18. Since the fall of the radical Islamist Taliban government three years ago, aid groups have helped revive the country’s war-ravaged agriculture, education, health services and especially its news organizations.

At the same time, aid workers have been a prominent target of criminal militia commanders. Last year, 13 were killed, including two foreign volunteers. This year’s tally is 24, including three foreigners with Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), prompting the medical-aid group to leave the country.

Nick Downie, head of the Afghanistan NGO Security Office, said that in the MSF case, “the government has failed to apprehend the killers, even though their identities are known.”

But Mr. Bashardost’s antipathy toward NGOs struck a chord among Afghans, especially in Kabul, where several foreign groups occupy prime property, use ostentatious four-wheel-drive vehicles and pay salaries many times higher than the government’s standard $50 a month.

“Mr. Bashardost is right. If the foreign NGOs leave, rents will fall, aid money won’t get wasted,” said one Kabul resident, disregarding that another reason rents have soared is because hundreds of thousands of refugees have returned to a capital severely damaged by war.

“The NGO community is quite diverse — some are well-off, but others live and work in very, very difficult circumstances,” said Mr. Downie. “But when Afghans look at what they themselves don’t have, it’s not surprising they get somewhat prejudiced.”

“NGOs have not done enough to market themselves and what they are doing,” he added.

Mr. Barker pointed out that CARE spends just 10 percent of its annual $20 million budget for Afghanistan on administrative expenses. He estimates that 15 percent is the limit for many other NGOs.

NGOs in Afghanistan are now in a transition phase, according to U.S. Agency for International Development Afghanistan Director Patrick C. Fine.

“In 2002 and 2003, the situation really demanded emergency relief and humanitarian aid,” he said. “Now with a legitimate government in place, instead of delivering services, NGOs will have to increasingly focus on supporting the government’s development programs.”

Several NGOs already are helping the government implement its ambitious, $300 million National Solidarity Program to revive the rural economy.

Nevertheless, foreign NGOs acknowledge that Mr. Bashardost had a point. Several private companies have passed themselves off as NGOs to win lucrative contracts in Afghanistan. This is said to be a legacy from a time when the United Nations insisted on giving civil contracts only to NGOs.

“The answer to the problem is to have a legal framework with a good definition of what an NGO is,” said Mr. Fine. “Foreign NGOs need to be accountable not just to their home governments, but also to the Afghan government.”

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