As Afghanistan struggles to stand on its feet after 20 years of bitter conflict, the fragile democratic system is weighed down by corruption, human rights abuses and high levels of unemployment. Afghanistan is among the five poorest countries in the world - on a par with sub-Saharan Africa. Only 13 per cent of the population has access to clean drinking water and seven million children still do not attend school. Yet essential frontline services are being cut as a result of shortage of funds and changing donor policies, exacerbated by growing instability in the southern part of the country.
Afghanistan has received less aid per capita than any other recent post-conflict state undergoing reconstruction. And evidence indicates that the delivery of aid is being increasingly distorted by donor's domestic political agendas. Emphasis on state building and political demands for rapid results means that a disproportionately high level of aid is being directed towards opium intensive or insecure areas, leaving a significant service gap in sectors and areas beyond the central government's reach.
As the Afghan government prepares to review its progress and reveal its future plans for development at the forthcoming Afghanistan Development Forum, a survey by the British and Irish Agencies Afghanistan Group (BAAG), carried out with international NGOs, has found that current aid policy is having a hugely detrimental impact on funding support for a range of vital programmes traditionally delivered by NGOs - including alternative and rural livelihoods, water and sanitation, employment generating schemes, TB control and child protection. In many provinces, frontline services are being closed due to lack of support from major donors including USAID, the UK government, the EC and the World Bank.
Half of the organisations surveyed by BAAG said that their budgets for frontline development work had been reduced over the previous year - some had been slashed by as much as 50 per cent. Some organisations had been forced to make staff redundant - one organisation reported an 80 per cent reduction in staffing on its medical, relief and rehabilitation programmes. Half of all the organisations surveyed said that a number of their frontline projects will end this year as a result of funding cuts, with little prospect for continued support.
For example, the discontinuation of the UK Department for International Development (DFID) funding for the Badakhshan Development Forum - a consortium of four NGOs involved in alternative livelihoods programmes in Badakhshan Province - has had an adverse impact on 120,000 people and will seriously damage the progress made in attracting those communities away from opium farming, unless alternative sources of funding are found.
Funding for British NGOs from the UK's Department for International Development (DFID) -the second largest donor to Afghanistan - dropped from £22.5 million in 2001-2002 to £4.7 million in 2005-2006(1). And while some donors reserve funding for NGOs, the majority of DFID grant money - 70 per cent - goes directly to the government programmes. In the absence of viable alternatives, some of the poorest communities will bear the brunt of the closure of NGO programmes, with serious consequences for security and stability. As Afghan communities become increasingly disillusioned with the pace of change and the level of services they receive, there is a real danger that instability will increase and the reconstruction and development plans of the Afghan government will be jeopardised.
Growing insecurity has been slowly encroaching upon previously stable and peaceful areas beyond the South and East of the country, which have remained largely out of the control of the Kabul government. And there has been a steep rise in attacks against aid workers (28 NGO workers were killed from January to August 2006 compared with 31 NGO workers killed during the whole of 2005). 4 staff members from one agency were murdered last year: two in Ghor and two in Badghis. Whilst this increase in targeting of NGOs is impacting on the quantity and quality of projects, no major international NGO has withdrawn completely in recent years (except Médecins Sans Frontières in 2004). Instead NGOs are trying to adapt to the adverse situation through strategic means such as restricting work to secure areas, and using low profile approaches. A consequence of this current reality is that the most insecure and needy areas are now those with the least support from aid agencies. This has triggered a vicious circle: the insecurity is preventing reconstruction and this in turn is fuelling the population's distrust of both the international community and the government.
These disturbing trends have become more marked over the last six months and NGOs working in Afghanistan have been raising the matter urgently with the international community. BAAG believes that existing aid policies are leading to a crisis which, if not dealt with urgently, will further exacerbate an already fragile situation. There is a pervasive feeling that 'there is no time to lose', especially if the aid effort is to contribute to sustainable change in Afghanistan.