Afghanistan at risk of humanitarian disaster

Published: 1 February 2008

Oxfam writes to world leaders and urges support for a major change of direction in order to reduce suffering and avert a humanitarian disaster.

It is two years since the international community and Afghan government launched the 'Afghanistan Compact', in which donors pledged over $10bn of aid to the country. They resolved 'to overcome the legacy of conflict' by promoting development, security, governance, the rule of law and human rights.

It must now be acknowledged that many of the Compact’s targets are not being met, and that too many of the commitments made remain unfulfilled. There has been undoubted social and economic progress in Afghanistan, but it has been slow and is being undermined by increasing insecurity.

Oxfam, which has had operations and supported partners in Afghanistan for nearly twenty years, wants world leaders to support a major change of direction in order to reduce suffering and avert a humanitarian disaster.

We believe there are five guiding principles which should underpin this change of course.

  • First, development and security are inextricably connected. The causes of the insurgency and its aggravating factors are manifold, not least extremism, narcotics production and trafficking, criminality and corruption. But the current environment of persistent poverty provides the conditions in which the insurgency can flourish. It is inevitable that some Afghans turn to narcotics, criminality, or even militancy, if they cannot feed their families. Military action addresses symptoms, not the underlying causes or conditions. Bringing real improvements to Afghan lives, and better prospects, is not only the right thing to do, it is an essential, long-term means of reducing vulnerability to the spread of militancy.
  • Second, assistance must be prioritised according to needs and impact. The majority of Afghans live in rural areas and depend for their livelihoods upon agriculture and rural trades. Yet only a fraction of international assistance has supported agriculture, rural  development, or sub-national governance.
  • Third, half-measures or short-term fixes have not worked in the past, nor will they succeed today. After two and half decades of war, disorder and the absence of government, to meet current challenges nothing short of a substantive, comprehensive and long-term commitment will be sufficient.

To achieve peace, dialogue with a range of actors is essential but it is no substitute for sustained peace-work at local level. For centuries, communal or tribal councils of elders have been the central authorities in Afghan communities, yet little has been done to help these institutions promote peace and development.

On counter-narcotics, aggressive eradication will only drive farmers into the hands of the insurgents, and, given the limits of government authority, proposals to licence opium are unworkable and would not reduce the size of the illicit crop. A long-term, comprehensive approach is required, which prioritises rural development and licit agriculture, thus reducing the poverty which forces farmers to grow poppy.

  • Fourth, more must be done to promote Afghan ownership of development. Too much assistance is top-heavy, prescriptive and supply driven. Processes of development, and indeed peace and reconciliation, must be owned and led by Afghans. Only measures which support what Afghans want and need will be genuinely sustainable.
  • Fifth, more of the same is not good enough. Too much aid is slow, wasteful, ineffective or uncoordinated. In light of the spreading insurgency and increasing Afghan dissatisfaction with the rate of progress, urgent action is required to achieve greater donor coherence and aid effectiveness.

Oxfam Briefing Paper: Afghanistan: Development and Humanitarian Priorities (Oxfam GB website)

Contact Information

For more information, please contact:
Matt Grainger, Head of Media, Oxfam International, tel: +44 (0)1865 339128; mob: +44 (0)7730 680 837;