Afghanistan Humanitarian Bulletin Issue 74 | 1 March – 31 March 2018
After one year on the job, the Humanitarian Coordinator Toby Lanzer speaks about the huge disparities he sees, aid worker security and his personal commitment to Afghanistan.
While the number of mine casualties is on the rise, funding for mine action in Afghanistan dropped by 65 per cent over the past five years.
ACBAR’s Twinning Program successfully teams up international and national NGOs to build capacities to the benefit of both counterparts.
Lack of basic services in three informal settlements in Nangarhar is exacerbated with new conflict displacements and arrivals from Pakistan
“It is a very tough place for aid agencies”
The Humanitarian Coordinator for Afghanistan, Toby Lanzer, took up his function one year ago. Now, the top humanitarian official talks about his first 12 months in country, discussions in donor capitals, changes in the security environment, Twitter and what UN and NGOs can expect from him in the future. The interview was edited for length and clarity.
OCHA: What stands out about Afghanistan to you after one year?
Toby Lanzer: One striking issue are the disparities between life in Kabul, a few other urban centres and the rest of the country. Sitting in the heart of Kabul, working closely with senior Government officials, the international and NGO community, I am exposed to the vision and plan to create a more peaceful, stable and prosperous Afghanistan. But there is a gap between that and what the average citizen of the country lives every day. And there is an even greater gap between this vision and the plan and what people feel who were struck by violence, displaced by conflict or forced to return to this country.
That is why humanitarian action remains so necessary, so relevant and yet amongst senior officials, including myself, often understated. We are all so focused on the future – peace, stability and prosperity – that sometimes not enough attention is paid to the suffering of today. It has taken me a long time to understand that because I sit in the middle of the green zone. In my first year here, I managed to visit almost 20 provinces, increasingly by road, to connect with the girls and the women, the boys and the men of this country. And what they tell me is “Yes, slowly things are getting better, but we are suffering”
What has been your main challenge as Humanitarian Coordinator?
Amongst my different interlocutors [including from the development and political portfolio] much of the conversation is about the search for a political resolution – peace – and nothing is more important for the tomorrow of this country. The thing is that today, there are people going hungry. The hardest thing for me was to understand the scale and the depth of suffering because much of my time was focused on the development agenda, on peace, on elections. But the humanitarian agenda in Afghanistan is as important and will benefit from more of my attention in my second year here.
With all the strategic plans and frameworks that you are involved in that aim at improving the situation in Afghanistan, what do you want to achieve personally? How far do you want to go with and for the people of Afghanistan?
Far! I will always try my hardest in settings where I think there is hope and where I think there is a national capacity to manage situations. And clearly there is [in Afghanistan] and there is a plan to put in place a system that will enable the government to meet its responsibility. And so, I am willing to invest a lot of my energy, my time and to use my networks to draw attention to the good things that are happening in Afghanistan.
The past year was marked by a record high number of civilian casualties, several high-profile attacks including one on a NGO compound in Jalalabad. In your view, what has changed for the humanitarian community – for UN and NGOs?
I am not sure I would separate the two. It is important to remember that as terrible as the 31 May explosion was, and as awful as the January attacks were, these are just three incidents in a long list of tragedies that have befallen the people of this country, including the NGOs. Look at what happened to MSF in 2015 [when the hospital in Kunduz was bombed] or what happened to ICRC in February 2017 [when 6 staff members were killed and 2 abducted]. The security environment has become more complex with more players. This evolution complicates the setting and the extent to which we are safe. And every time we are less safe, we lose contact with communities. And every time we lose contact with communities and elders, we become less safe. [Afghanistan] is a very tough place for aid agencies to work. One of the hardest in which I have been.
What do you do to help the UN Agencies and NGOs to stay and deliver?
The humanitarian imperative demands that NGOs and UN Agencies are as close to suffering communities as possible. To enable that, we need to have conversations with all parties to the conflict. Those conversations are a major component of what I do. Managing risk as opposed to avoiding risk is a major part of what I do. Enabling UN Agencies to drive along roads as opposed to travelling by helicopter is something I promote to connect us to communities and reduce costs. Both of which I hope to enable us to provide more assistance to the people who need it most.
You toured the European capitals, meeting politicians and donors at the highest levels. Is Afghanistan on their radar? Are you rattling at a closed door?
I knocked on the door, it is open and I will be walking through it more frequently. That said, everyone in Afghanistan needs to recognize that Afghanistan is one of a dozen countries where humanitarian needs are high. Donor capitals are stretched. The case we make must be compassionate, yet compelling and concerted. Our messaging is getting better, but we are not there yet.
I never have worked in a country before where there is so much development financing in the absence of peace. That is a good thing, but we need to leverage the interest of development donors to gain at the same time a bit more compassion for the suffering today.
You are active on Twitter. Why do you tweet and what message do you want to share with your more than 20,000 Followers? I mix Tweets on humanitarian, development and cultural issues. I am really into positive messaging, to show a side of Afghanistan that is not only negative. I tweet pictures of people I meet, children, mountains or jewelry – things that lets people identify themselves with Afghanistan. I use two hashtags that I came up with: #AfghanistanCan and #BeautifulAFG.
I do not know exactly what it is, but I am picking up more followers and getting lots of interaction in the past few weeks.
You are active on Twitter. Why do you tweet and what message do you want to share with your more than 20,000 Followers?
I mix Tweets on humanitarian, development and cultural issues. I am really into positive messaging, to show a side of Afghanistan that is not only negative. I tweet pictures of people I meet, children, mountains or jewelry – things that lets people identify themselves with Afghanistan. I use two hashtags that I came up with: #AfghanistanCan and #BeautifulAFG. I do not know exactly what it is, but I am picking up more followers and getting lots of interaction in the past few weeks.
You have said that for the first year, you will listen and learn. What can we expect for your second year? And what will you tell the humanitarian partners?
I will continue listening more than I talk. One cannot learn enough about this country in one year and my commitment is multi-year, like the Humanitarian Response Plan. I will keep listening but I will be saying a few more things, too.
What will you be telling the humanitarian community?
A handful of NGOs here deserve enormous credit for being close to communities in rural areas and saving lives. I will do everything I can to help them to stay, protect and deliver and to enable a few more NGOs to replicate that very good practice.
Anything else you want to add and share with the readers?
I never liked the word resilience and I don’t use it here [in Afghanistan]. I have no place to talk about resilience where everyone is more resilient than I could ever hope to be. I admire the strength, the pride, the commitment of the people of Afghanistan to survive the 40th year of violence. Amid this misery, listening to a father who says “I want my girl to go to school” proves to me that there is real hope for this country and this hope lies within the strength of its people.