As President Obama pushes forward with his military strategy for Afghanistan, ordinary Afghans are undeniably worse off. More and more Afghans are forced from their homes by violence, especially as the military offensive in the south pushes insecurity north. Meanwhile, the Afghan government remains too weak, and humanitarian organizations are unprepared to meet even the most basic needs of the population. As the U.S. proceeds into its 10th and most challenging year yet in Afghanistan, it must recognize and address the growing humanitarian needs and ensure that the most vulnerable Afghans do not fall through the cracks.
In November, Refugees International traveled to Afghanistan to look at the capacity of the United Nations and the various aid agencies to provide Afghans with the basics for survival. In short, the current aid system is broken.
The health toll
Health workers told us that Afghanistan's national health system is falling apart. Doctors, paid about $200 a month, are not coming to work because of fighting and the proliferation of improvised explosive devices. As a result, the International Committee of the Red Cross, which runs the only hospital in Kandahar, says it is seeing more basic health problems such as diarrhea. Meanwhile, a third of Afghans do not have enough to eat, more than half of all children are malnourished, and the aid community has no system to accurately monitor nutrition.
Compounding these problems, at least 120,000 Afghans have been displaced in the past year — a 50% increase. Many of these people have settled in cities, which are seen as havens from conflict. Urban slums are growing, where people are living in crude shelters and drinking out of filthy ditches. The slums, or "informal settlements," house over 13,000 people in 30 sites in the capital city of Kabul alone.
Yet while the humanitarian needs continue to grow, organizations have not built up the capabilities to meet them. More than 1,000 non-governmental organizations are registered in Afghanistan, but the vast majority are focused on longer-term projects that are not designed to provide solutions in an escalating conflict. They must take some responsibility for the deteriorating situation and put in place the resources and experienced humanitarian staff to turn the tide around.
This is not a problem of scarce funding. This is a problem of priorities. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) continues to push money toward longer-term development goals. Massive contracts, some more than $300 million, lack oversight and are often targeted for highly insecure areas, where proper monitoring is impossible.
In one case in Helmand, for example, where there are no water shortages, a contractor purchased 16,000 water pumps from a local drug trafficker at twice the market rate. Political pressure to show quick results often translates into a focus on quantifying how much aid money has been spent, rather than the quality of programming.
The international community has worked to improve electricity and roads but has not ensured that the most vulnerable Afghans can access food, water, housing and health care. In a country mired in poverty with a government plagued by corruption, meeting the immediate needs of the Afghan people must be a higher priority.
Michel Gabaudan is president of Refugees International.
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