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The Role of the Non-governmental Organizations in Afghanistan's Recovery

Author: Robert P. DeVecchi
January 18, 2002
Council on Foreign Relations


As military operations to rid Afghanistan of the Taliban and its Al Qaeda guests wind down and as the Interim Authority in Kabul seeks to establish its bona fides and as regional “war Lords” jockey to regain their positions of power, attention is being drawn ever closer to the massive international relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction challenges ahead. The success or failure of these efforts depend in large part on the Afghans themselves, with a determining role to be played by the international community, in particular by the United Nations, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank as well as the major donor governments—the United States, Japan, the European Union and others. However, as has been the case in all major disasters of this sort, the hands-on, field level implementing work will be done, in large part, by international, national and indigenous non-governmental organizations (NGOs).


Estimates of the resources that will be needed over the next decade to meet these challenges range from $10 billion to $15 billion, with at least $1.5 billion needed in the first year alone. Immediate emergency needs include food, shelter, clothing and health care. In addition longer-term needs include infrastructure, water, power, agriculture, primary education, restoration of the banking system and the re-establishment of basic civil administration. All have a high degree of urgency.

According to a spokesperson for the UN Special Envoy on Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, the Afghan interim administration is in danger of failing unless there is an immediate injection of $100 million to pay back salaries and salaries for the next six months for the civil services and the police.


Out of an estimated population of 16 million Afghans, there are at least 4 million who are refugees in neighboring countries and 6 million internally displaced, vulnerable persons, primarily women, children and the elderly. They have equally compelling demands for basic assistance. Along with the their fundamental survival needs—food, clothing, shelter and medical attention—they will need help to return, if and when conditions permit, to their homes. Essential to this effort will be the need for programs to clear land mines and programs of land mine awareness.

These challenges, daunting in and of themselves, are made infinitely more complex when seen against the backdrop of a devastated Afghanistan, victimized over more than 20 years of Soviet occupation, civil war, the Taliban, a 3-year drought and, most recently, a massive, if targeted, military campaign to strike at the virus of terrorism which had injected itself into Afghan body politic.


Efforts of the international community to address these issues have now begun in earnest. The most significant step since the Bonn conference, which established the Interim Administration for Afghanistan, is the Ministerial Conference on the Reconstruction of Afghanistan which was held in Tokyo on January 21 and 22. The conference brought together over 61 leaders from countries most concerned or involved, as well as the Secretary General and the heads of the major UN refugee, relief, reconstruction and development agencies—the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the United nations Development Program (UNDP), United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the World Food Program (WFP), UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), etc. Also participating were leaders of the major NGOs. The Conference was co-chaired by the United States, the European Union, Saudi Arabia and Japan.


While not billed as a pledging conference per se, the conference had before it a document entitled “Appeal 2002—Immediate and Transitional Assistance Programme for Afghanistan.” This appeal, as presented in Tokyo, calls for $15 billion over the next 10 years for basic reconstruction. This appeal is based on a needs assessment by UNDP, the World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank. It calls for $1 billion in the first year, including $270 million for security, police and land mine clearance, $260 million for governance and economic management, $260 million for health care, education and social welfare, $170 million for infrastructure, including civil aviation, water and sanitation and transportation and $70 million for agriculture. The humanitarian needs of refugees, returnees, their reintegration and IDPs, however, are not included in these amounts. The UNHCR was not prepared, as of the time the joint appeal went forward, to provide estimates of its needs. The same was true for the World Food Program which had not completed its assessment of food needs.

The Conference provided the international donor community an opportunity to express its commitment to the process of reconstruction, rehabilitation and development of Afghanistan. To make concrete this commitment, international donors pledged more than $4.5 billion over the next five years for the rebuilding of Afghanistan. Some donors made multi-year pledges and commitments of various time frames.

According to the New York Times, “Few, if any, third world countries have ever attracted as much interest as Afghanistan.” In addition to $1.3 billion pledged by the United States, the European Union and Japan, many other donors, usually not associated with international aid, like Iran ($560 million), Saudi Arabia ($220 million), Pakistan ($100 million), India ($100 million), and South Korea ( $45 million) made considerable contributions.

The next Afghan Reconstruction Steering Group (ARSG) meeting will be held by the middle of this year to review developments and progress of the reconstruction efforts.

Immediately following the Tokyo conference, the UNDP intends to launch a field based needs verification effort in collaboration with Afghan authorities to identify specific program projects for the near term and for the medium and long term. The aim of this effort is to “ensure a comprehensive approach that includes a broad alliance of the UN system and other parties, including Afghan and international NGOs.”


Vital to the success—or failure—of these efforts will be the role played by the major implementing partners of the UN and of major donors who will actually implement these programs projects in the field—the NGOs. In this regard, it is important to note that many of the leading NGOs have been operational in Afghanistan and/or with Afghan refugees for over 20 years. Funded by the UN, governments or by privately raised resources, NGOs have played a pivotal role in administering refugee camps, assisting the internally displaced, providing health care, public health and sanitation programs, primary education, skills training, agricultural development, land mine clearance and infrastructure projects.

A significant by-product of NGO operations in Afghanistan has been the development of large and loyal cadre of local staff, numbering in the thousands. When expatriate NGO staff were evacuated from Afghanistan for security reasons, many NGO programs continued to function and continue to do so today—under the direction of local staff. They are highly valued by the NGOs and occupy highly desirable positions in Afghanistan today.

While the international community begins to organize relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction programs, the immediate needs of the Afghan people can not go unattended. In spite of the prevailing insecurity and constant threats of banditry, the NGOs operating today in Afghanistan or on its borders continue to provide life saving services. For example, one NGO, unable to lease a helicopter, recently rented 400 donkeys to carry food over snow covered passes to an estimated 10,000 families who had been barely surviving on bread made from grass, barley seeds, wood and vegetable roots. These and other such efforts will continue through the long and harsh Afghan winter.


As the international relief effort gets underway, there will appear to be a surfeit of NGOs on the scene, causing a certain amount of confusion and hand wringing. But, it is worth noting that this latest humanitarian crisis is at least the seventeenth over the past 20 years (the Thai-Cambodia border, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Ethiopia, the Sudan, Somalia, Mozambique, Angola, Rwanda, the Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Northern Iraq, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, East Timor, for example). The major international NGOs (CARE, Doctors without Borders, Save the Children, Mercy Corps, Oxfam, the International Rescue Committee, the American Refugee Committee, Action Against Hunger, Concern, Doctors of the World, International Medical Corps) have been involved in most of, if not all of them. A significant body of knowledge, accrued wisdom and experienced staff has developed within the NGO community and within the UN system and donors.

There is increasing consensus that, while anxious to maintain their independence, operational NGOs and the UN system benefit from coordination, or, better stated, cooperation, especially on the field level. The major US NGOs, for example, have agreed upon a set of “Principles for the Reconstruction and Development of Afghanistan.” Included in these principles is a commitment to a code of conduct for operating in the field, the “broad participation of women in peace-building and post-conflict reconstruction”, the “deployment throughout insecure parts of the country of impartial security forces” and assuring that “special attention should be paid to the needs of women heads of households, widows, and victims of war.”


The NGO community recognizes that responding to the Afghan emergency will present extraordinary challenges. Chief among them are security concerns. The breakdown of civil order, the absence of a functioning police, the huge number of weapons which flood the country, the banditry and the re-emergence in some areas of local war lords and private armies are objective realities which those who would provide humanitarian relief must contend with. The consensus in the NGO community would favor the rapid development and deployment of an Afghan police force sufficient to provide for their security. However, recognizing that this is an unrealistic hope, at least in the near term, an extension of the UN protective force beyond Kabul is increasingly viewed as an absolute necessity. Otherwise, NGOs may have to resort to hiring armed guards—which poses its own set of problems and dangers.

Enhanced coordination— or cooperation—among the NGOs and the various UN agencies and the fledging Afghan ministries is also recognized as being not only desirable but essential. More than 15 years ago, the NGOs established the Agency Coordination Body for Afghanistan Relief (ACBAR) based in Peshawar and later in Kabul. This body is still in existence, although in considerable weakened form. An effort to re-build ACBAR or create a similar sort of body would seem to be of considerable utility. Donors should be aware of this and include appropriate funding to launch such an effort. In time, it would be self-sustaining as members paid annual dues, and contribute to special activities. UN and Afghan agencies as well as donor country representatives should be encouraged to participate. The model for this kind of body is the Coordinating Committee for the Services to Displaced Persons in Thailand (CCSDPT) formed in the late 1970’s at the height of the Vietnamese, Khmer and Lao influx and funded initially by the Ford Foundation.

Vital to success or failure, as well as the security of NGOs will be how their relationships develop with Afghan central authorities but, perhaps of greater importance, to regional provincial authorities. This will require a high degree of sophistication in the NGO community, as well as a certain adroitness and flexibility, as they seek to navigate between centralization and de-centralization.

These are but a few of the major concerns and considerations of the NGOs as they gear up to face what well may be as difficult, complex and dangerous a challenge as they have ever faced.

Robert P. DeVecchi, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Refugees and the Displaced

Denise R. Gomes, Research Associate for Refugees and the Displaced.

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