- The Washington Times - Friday, March 18, 2005

Despite continued political instability and inadequate infrastructure in Afghanistan, international aid groups maintain a strong presence in the country.

A decade of Soviet occupation followed by the Taliban regime has impoverished the country. Worsening the effects of 20 years of conflict was a three-year drought that started in late 1998. At the time of the U.S.-led invasion, the average life expectancy was 43 years for both men and women, and it has not changed much since then.

Damaged infrastructure and the presence of millions of land mines are further obstacles hampering the ability of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to deliver humanitarian assistance.

But the NGOs persevere. “Despite the noted problems, we have seen significant progress in many areas,” said Paul Barker, country director of CARE, in an e-mail from Afghanistan. “The number of children — especially girls — in school has dramatically increased. Economic opportunities for women have broadened greatly.

“In rural areas women are now taking part in the election of development committees. … In one village a woman was even elected to be the chairperson of the community development committee. This is a more dramatic cultural revolution than might appear from the outside.”

The health of vulnerable Afghans is a special concern for many NGOs. Afghan children are particularly susceptible to diarrhea, pneumonia and worms, according to Kelly Darnell of Direct Relief International, a group based in Santa Barbara, Calif., that provides requested supplies to hospitals in Afghanistan.

Many of the problems children face are directly linked to malnutrition and water shortages, and can be treated with children’s vitamins and nutritional supplements. Immunization is also a key goal of humanitarian organizations. According to UNICEF, about 80 percent of Afghan children have been immunized for measles, and polio coverage is now above 80 percent.

Returning Afghan refugees are another part of the population requiring special attention.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) has worked with Afghan refugees since 1980, helping with reintegration, health and education. Last year, it began training midwives to reduce childbirth death rates that are among the world’s highest.

Most returning Afghans settle in the cities, which strains their already degraded infrastructure and rising poverty and unemployment. Urban sanitation is a focus of groups like CARE, which provides potable water to cities and works to improve sanitation.

Steps are being taken to foster economic self-sufficiency. The average monthly income for an Afghan family is about $6. Michael Bowers, country director for Mercy Corps, said in an e-mail from Afghanistan that the organization believes “creation of economic opportunities is critical to achieving long-term stability within Afghanistan. Helping Afghans develop a stronger economy is the logical next step.”

Women for Women focuses on encouraging women to develop skills to increase their earning power. Working in and around Kabul, the group provides vocational training, credit- and business-management courses for “socially excluded women survivors of war.”

Sumana Chatterjee, deputy director of communications for the Washington, D.C., group, said: “the training helped at least one woman decide not to sell her voter-registration card to tribal warlords, despite a lucrative monetary offer.”

A first step toward helping women is to educate Afghan girls as well as boys. CARE has four projects under way, including one for girls in Kabul and Parwan that telescopes two grades of school in preparation for the education mainstream.

A survey published last September by the Human Rights Research and Advocacy Consortium, found that the dominant concern of Afghans is lack of security.

“Afghans demonstrated a strong desire to express their decision for stability by voting in large numbers,” said Mr. Bowers of Mercy Corps. “Yet the political situation in the provinces and rural areas remains dominated by the rule of the gun.”

In fact, the influence of the central government is weak in many parts of the country. In the mountainous northeast, rural southeast and isolated central areas, most power is wielded by warlords and security depends on the presence of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

Ashraf Haidari, spokesman for the Afghan Embassy in Washington, said the government in Kabul, with the help of ISAF and the provincial reconstruction teams, has been maintaining “general security” to facilitate the work of the NGOs.

He said NGOs have been trying to expand into the southeast as security improves. Those with a history in the area have an advantage.

In his e-mail, Mr. Bowers of Mercy Corps wrote that its “ability to work in instable areas where rule of law is weak during this time has always depended upon our strong relationship with communities and the traditional leadership structures. Mercy Corps’ committed Afghan staff is instrumental in maintaining these relationships, which can help to mitigate the influence of the powerful commanders and warlords.”

Sid Balman Jr., director of communications at InterAction, a Washington umbrella group of NGOs, told of the preference of humanitarian groups for “operational independence.”

“This goes to the heart of how we do our work,” he said. “When this independence is impinged upon, that’s when the lines become blurred between humanitarians and, for example, the military.

“I think it’s fair to say that we prefer that humanitarian development groups do humanitarian and development work, and that the military does military work,” he said.

Despite concerns at some NGOs, the outpouring of donations after the Dec. 26 tsunami disaster did not reduce funds for Afghanistan’s reconstruction efforts. Rather, the intense media coverage seems to have made people more aware of the work NGOs do.

However, some of the groups express disappointment that not all the promises of aid for Afghanistan, such as those made at the conferences in Bonn and Berlin, have been fulfilled.

Still, Mr. Balman said: “The good news is, I think, the U.S. government and its partners are continuing to focus on the rehabilitation of Afghanistan, and the country is making positive steps toward lifting itself to a level that would be something close to self-sufficiency.”

It remains to be seen how quickly and with how much success the new Afghan government will be able to address such problems as warlords, the slow pace of disarmament and resumption of the opium trade.

“Clearly there is enough progress to warrant continued hope and investment in Afghanistan,” said Mr. Barker of CARE Afghanistan. “But we are embarked on a journey of a decade or more, not a year or two. I do hope that the international community and donor public will be partners with the people of Afghanistan for the duration.”

NON-GOVERNMENTAL ORGANIZATIONS ACTIVE IN AFGHANISTAN

The following are among the many NGOs providing health care, food and basic supplies, education services and economic training to the Afghan people:

Northern:

Action Against Hunger

Christian Children’s Fund

Church World Service

Food for the Hungry Inc.

International Committee of the Red Cross

International Rescue Committee

Mercy Corps

Northwest Medical Teams International

Relief International

Save the Children

Northeastern:

Concern Worldwide

Relief International

Shelter for Life

UNICEF

East Central:

ActionAid Afghanistan

American Jewish World Service

CARE International

Catholic Relief Services

HOPE Worldwide

International Committee of the Red Cross

International Rescue Committee

Relief International

Save the Children

UNICEF

Central:

Action Against Hunger

CARE International

Catholic Relief Services

Church World Service

HOPE Worldwide

International Committee of the Red Cross

Relief International

UNICEF

Eastern:

Action Against Hunger

CARE International

Catholic Relief Services

HOPE Worldwide

International Committee of the Red Cross

International Rescue Committee

Life for Relief and Development

Relief International

UNICEF

Southern:

CARE International

Catholic Relief Services

International Committee of the Red Cross

Mercy Corps

Relief International

UNICEF

Western:

Action Against Hunger

American Jewish World Service

CARE International

Catholic Relief Services

International Committee of the Red Cross

International Rescue Committee

Relief International

Data from the Afghanistan Information Management Service Web site

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