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Security concerns complicate development

Like many humanitarian aid agencies in Afghanistan, Catholic Relief Services is moving away from emergency relief to projects that promote rebuilding civil society.

These days, aid workers in Kabul talk about “capacity building” rather than distributing tents or blankets. While the shift in focus reflects an expectation of political stability, security concerns remain a complicating factor for those trying to alleviate human suffering.

“Operationally for us, security is the most important consideration,” said Paul Butler, emergency coordinator for the Pakistan Program of Catholic Relief Services.

Catholic Relief Services has three offices in Pakistan where it has worked extensively with Afghan refugees. Last April, the agency opened an office in Kabul prompted by the return of refugees to their homeland.

Even without war, Afghanistan presents an enormous challenge for international humanitarian aid organizations. The country has one doctor for every 50,000 people. Only 23 percent of the population has access to safe drinking water, and 7 percent of Afghanistan’s primary school age children attend school. War and five years of drought have exacerbated the staggering poverty, relegating aid workers to crisis management and emergency relief.

Last winter and spring, Catholic Relief Services spent $4 million distributing essential and nonessential food items to 350,000 households. But now the agency is subsidizing the renovation of two schools in Kabul and working with other nongovernmental organizations and the University of Massachusetts Center for International Education to provide an accelerated curriculum for the 2 million Afghan youth who have missed years of schooling because of war.

Seventy percent of the Afghan population is malnourished, according to the World Food Program. Catholic Relief Services hopes to introduce an agricultural project that would give farmers a $50 voucher to purchase agricultural supplies from local merchants.

“Getting people back to work is the best way to achieve food security,” said Butler who pointed out that the voucher program would aid farmers while revitalizing the local economy.

Because foreign sponsors fueled Afghanistan’s recent wars, international aid, though much requested, is a politically sensitive issue here. The Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief screens most internationally funded projects, requiring that they promote local autonomy and strong input from Afghan nongovernmental organizations. Butler said the agricultural voucher program is exactly the kind of project the government of Afghanistan endorses.

Although Catholic Relief Services has projects for the central, southern and western sections of the country, the agency is avoiding the northern region near the city of Mazar-e-Sharif where rivalry between two factions of the Northern Alliance has created a security vacuum, leading to an increase in attacks on Afghan civilian and humanitarian aid workers.

In June, one international staff member was gang-raped, two offices of nongovernmental organizations were robbed and a vehicle operated by a nongovernmental organization was fired upon, according to reports from Human Rights Watch and a U.N. news agency. The growing insecurity has threatened the delivery of humanitarian aid and resettlement assistance, the reports said.

Mazar-e-Sharif “is the most insecure area at the moment in Afghanistan,” said Butler. “Donors are staying away from there at the moment. Without security, we cannot do long-term development work. We will continue to provide emergency assistance, which is appropriate in a highly insecure area, but you must have stability to do a longer term development project.”

-- Claire Schaeffer-Duffy

National Catholic Reporter, July 19, 2002