30 years of impact: an evaluation of the Mine Action Programme of Afghanistan

Evaluation and Lessons Learned
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Due to successive waves of instability and conflict from the 1980s onwards, Afghanistan was heavily contaminated by explosive ordnance (EO). Established to improve this situation, the Mine Action Programme of Afghanistan (MAPA) commenced activities in 1988. MAPA is a platform and umbrella structure for mine action, linking coordinating bodies, donors, and implementing partners. As of August 2021, MAPA had cleared over 81% of land known to be contaminated by legacy landmines and explosive remnants of war in the country, allowing for the release of thousands of square kilometres of land for productive use.

In 2021, MAPA finds itself at a critical juncture. It is not on track to meet the targets committed to as part of the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention obligations. Funding for the mine action sector in Afghanistan has been decreasing steadily since 2011, dropping from $113 million to $32 million by 2020. The emergence of new threats, such as improvised explosive devices (IEDs), requires constant capacity building in a sector that is always at risk of brain drain. Finally, the takeover of the Taliban in the summer of 2021 threatens funding streams, as many donors are reluctant to engage with the new regime, whether directly or indirectly - even as it simultaneously opens a window of opportunity in terms of access to previously inaccessible areas, and more secure operating conditions.

In this context of challenges and transition, future actions should be data-driven and evidence-based to ensure that the funds allocated to mine action in Afghanistan make a difference. This evaluation was commissioned by the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) to take stock of three decades of mine action in Afghanistan. It maintains a focus on impact resulting from MAPA while also including criteria of relevance, efficiency, effectiveness, and sustainability. Its primary intended audience are the MAPA stakeholders themselves, ranging from UNMAS to implementing partners (IPs) and donors. It is hoped that it will also benefit and inform a wider community of actors involved in similar endeavours in other contexts.

To gather the evidence needed, a mixed-methods methodology was employed, combining different sources of quantitative and qualitative data to gain an extensive understanding of mine action results over time. Data collection took place in 24 communities across eight provinces, representing the different regions of Afghanistan. All had been sites of mine clearance in previous years, across different types of land and by different IPs. Close to 2,000 individual survey respondents were selected randomly from the communities, with an eye to guaranteeing the equal inclusion of female respondents.

Beyond the reported impact of mine action at the individual level, the evaluators also opted to assess impact at the community level via observation and interviews with community leaders. Geospatial analysis techniques were employed to better understand changes resulting from mine action at the national level, using night lights as a proxy for economic development, and studying changes in land usage after mine action. Impact is further demonstrated via case studies, showcasing growing townships, agricultural lands, cultural heritage sites, transportation hubs, and other high-profile examples.

Unique methodological challenges should be considered when reflecting on the impact of mine action in Afghanistan throughout the decades. Perhaps the most important is that demining is rarely a discreet ‘one-off’ event which leads to direct changes in its immediate aftermath. Rather, mine action tends to occur in waves, sometimes over decades. It is thus difficult to pinpoint the ‘peak' of mine action dividends across several dimensions. Furthermore, proximity to relevant demining sites is often not easily assessed - communities may well be impacted by minefields not in their immediate vicinity. These challenges were mitigated by triangulating data, posing recall questions to individuals, but also employing advanced spatial analysis to assess the impact of demining on the access to areas further afield.