Don’t turn your backs on Afghanistan

Despite Afghanistan’s growing needs, international support for the country has declined.

The London conference was President Ghani's first meeting in his current guise with the world community [Reuters]

It’s an unusual trip to Pakistan when the talk of the town – positive, not negative – is the visit of an Afghan president. But that was the atmosphere I experienced recently in the country. The buzz around the newly elected President Ashraf Ghani and his team when they arrived was palpable.The meetings with high-level government officials were said to be professional, optimistic, and all pointed toward enhanced cooperation between the two countries.

After decades of finger pointing and mistrust between the two countries, that is not just remarkable. It is a vital opportunity in the midst of various danger signals on the economic and security front – and one that must be carried forward, as President Ghani had his first dialogue with international supporters at this week’s London Conference on Afghanistan.

It was President Ghani’s first meeting in his current guise with the world community, discussing Afghanistan’s future now that the NATO combat mission is at an end. On the agenda will be security, economic and governance issues. But of critical importance is the fate of around 7.4 million Afghans, almost one quarter of the population, who are still in desperate need of lifesaving aid.

In the past year alone, 140,000 Afghans have been displaced by the country’s ongoing conflict, and severe flooding affected 150,000, many of them left without a home. The civilian death toll has risen again this year, up 24 percent from the same period in 2013 – the highest levels since 2001. While threats to aid workers seeking to address these problems remain – just last week an NGO compound was targeted and three were tragically killed in an attack.

International aid declining

Yet despite the overwhelming economic and social needs, international support for Afghanistan’s future has declined. The United States, by far Afghanistan’s biggest aid donor, set the tone by slashing its assistance budget by half in the 2011 fiscal year. And the 2014 UN-led humanitarian appeal still needs $146m to be fully funded. Afghans need this assistance not only to survive, but also to help them return to their homes, rebuild their lives, and strengthen their community’s ability to withstand anything the future may hold.

Delegates from 70 nations gather at a donors’ conference in London

The international commitments to financially support Afghanistan’s security forces are very significant, totalling higher than the country’s GDP. The humanitarian commitments are no less important. In fact, if military withdrawal is matched by humanitarian divorce then we are inviting disaster.

In April the IRC published a report calling for an improvement in the delivery of aid – from education to health care to other essential community-based services. But beyond just asking for more aid, we argued for supporting initiatives that we know already work: community-led assistance defined by the Afghan people we are trying to help.

Drawing upon evidence established through over 30 years of experience and work with local partners in more than 4,000 villages, we have seen a dramatic increase in school enrollment, an increase in life expectancy and a reduction in the risk faced by mothers giving birth. Much of this success has only been possible because of a community-based, long-term approach to building credibility, trust and local capacity within the country. We need programmes that are flexible enough to combine urgent, lifesaving assistance with longer-term development work, partnering with informal structures, as well as local government, to meet local need.

As world leaders meet to discuss Afghanistan’s future, it is important to acknowledge that a long-term vision for Afghanistan must also include Pakistan – a key partner in generating momentum for recovery from decades of war in South Asia. But Afghanistan is more than war. Pakistan is more than a nuclear tinderbox. The fate of the people above all resides in the hands of those living day-to-day in the region. Those in power must ensure that aid is being allocated to the most vulnerable in ways we know we can make a difference.