Don’t Abandon Afghanistan Again – Its Poorest People Need and Deserve Our Support
Originally published on the Huffington Post UK
As foreign troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, Uzra Lali symbolises how far some Afghans have come in the past decade – and how much they stand to lose if their country descends into deeper conflict and poverty. Her story is told in Afghanistan in Limbo – a new report with accompanying videos from Islamic Relief that highlight a worrying decline in foreign aid to a country that remains the poorest in Asia.
Afghanistan has a special place in my heart – I have fond and vivid memories of my time there as Islamic Relief’s Deputy Country Director. Uzra lives in the ancient city of Bamyan in the Hindu Kush mountains, a magnet in more peaceful times for tourists drawn to the towering Great Buddha statues set into the sandstone cliffs. But the Great Buddhas were smashed to pieces by the Taliban in 2001, and the people of Bamyan struggle to make ends meet in one of the country’s most deprived provinces.
Like many in Afghanistan, 32-year-old Uzra has had to overcome considerable obstacles. Barely a decade ago she and her husband Hamid were living as refugees in Pakistan, fearful for the future in Afghanistan after Hamid had been imprisoned by the authorities for eight months and subjected to daily beatings. They chose Bamyan as a place to settle when they returned but their long-term prospects looked bleak – Uzra could not read and write, and Hamid was unable to do hard physical work because of his injuries.
Then Uzra enrolled in Islamic Relief’s inaugural women’s education programme in 2011. In nine months of intensive classes, she not only learned to read and write but also acquired a range of business skills that have enabled her to establish a thriving embroidery business employing 48 village women.
Now Uzra is hopeful about her family’s future. All her children are in school, she is free to move around Bamyan and she has become an active member of her local community health committee. But her hope is fragile because there are three dark clouds of uncertainty on the horizon.
First, there are question marks over the country’s future political direction: the president for the past decade, Hamid Karzai, is barred from standing for a third term in the elections on April 5. Then there are the fears about future security and stability as foreign troops prepare to pull out. And last but not least there are the doubts raised by a sharp drop in aid in the past two years.
Aid fell from $894 million in 2011 to just $508 million in 2013, and so far less than a quarter of the UN’s humanitarian budget for Afghanistan in 2014 has been covered by governments and other donors. This is a worrying sign that the international community may be preparing to turn its back on Afghanistan, much as it did after the end of the Soviet occupation in 1989.
Despite all the challenges Afghanistan presents, international aid has helped achieved important successes in the past decade. Over 11 million children are in school, compared to barely a million in 2001.Nearly half of the country’s girls are getting an education, compared to a tiny 3% 13 years ago. Child immunisation rates have tripled, and the number of children dying in infancy has been cut by 40%.
Islamic Relief believes that aid donors should be looking to build on this progress, not to undermine it. Donor governments should be maintaining levels of aid at this moment of transition and uncertainty. They should also be working hard to improve the quality of aid. This is the message we want to get across through our campaign petition to the Prime Minister, David Cameron, as he prepares to host a crucial global donor conference for Afghanistan in the UK this autumn.
There has been much emphasis in the past on ‘winning hearts and minds’, focusing aid spending on the areas of greatest insecurity where foreign troops are stationed. Now is the time to look beyond the ‘War on Terror’ to what really matters: the people. Having travelled throughout the country in both pre- and post-Taliban days, I do not want to see the dreams of Afghanistan’s beautiful children dashed, with empty promises of hope left unfulfilled.
We need to focus as never before on the poorest and most vulnerable communities across the country, investing above all in the infrastructure of basic health and education services that will help lift people out of poverty. Afghanistan needs more schools, more health clinics and more trained teachers and health professionals to staff them.
More funding should be channelled through local and international aid agencies that have a track record in delivering aid transparently and cost-effectively. And attention needs to be paid to strengthening the Afghan government to deliver services into the future – including measures to cut bureaucracy, tackle corruption and devolve power to the provinces.
Inevitably questions will be asked about what Islamic Relief is proposing. Can we really afford to maintain aid to Afghanistan in a world still struggling to bounce back from global recession, and grappling with the worst humanitarian crisis for a generation in Syria?
For me one statistic above all others in our report speaks volumes. It costs £1.3 million to station a single US serviceman in Afghanistan for a year. That means that the savings from withdrawing just a thousand troops would be enough to quadruple the UN’s humanitarian budget for 2014. Please sign our petition, and urge the international community not to abandon Afghanistan again.