Afghanistan + 2 more

UN press briefing in Islamabad 21 Jan 2002

News and Press Release
Originally published
The following is a near-verbatim transcript of today's briefing at the United Nations Information Centre in Islamabad by the United Nations offices for Pakistan and Afghanistan (excluding question and answer session).

** Eric Falt, Director, UN Information Centre

Good afternoon. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan spoke earlier today in Tokyo, Japan, at the beginning of the two-day International Conference on Reconstruction Assistance to Afghanistan. He said: "Today in Afghanistan, a window of opportunity is opening. Through it, we can see a country drawing back from the brink of devastation. For the first time in decades, Afghanistan is not being torn apart by war. For the first time in many years, the international community is united around a vision of the country's future. The tumultuous events of recent months have created hope for a new Afghanistan. They have given the Afghan people a chance to rebuild a state at peace with itself and its neighbors; a state capable of providing security and services such as shelter and schools; a state, in short, that has not 'failed', but can fulfill its responsibilities and achieve its aspirations."

The text of the Secretary-General's statement will be made available to you.

In Tokyo, the UN is also providing donor governments from around the world with the opportunity to review the "Preliminary Needs Assessment for Recovery and Reconstruction for 2002-2006." The assessment, which estimates that the reconstruction of Afghanistan will cost some $15 billion over the next decade, was prepared by the UN Development Program, the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank following intensive consultations with Afghan civil society representatives and the Interim Authority, as well as among international development partners. A press release will be made available to you in relation to that document, together with another one that Stephanie is going to present now.

** Stephanie Bunker, Spokesperson for the Office of the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Afghanistan

Aside from the document just mentioned by Eric, the Immediate and Transitional Assistance Program for Afghanistan, 2002" (ITAP), will be presented to the donor community tomorrow in Tokyo, immediately following the Tokyo Ministerial Meeting. The plan outlines the requirements for the United Nations, international organizations and NGO partners for the immediate relief, recovery and reconstruction, as well as reintegration needs of the Afghan people --including those living in neighboring countries-- for 2002. It estimates that some $1.33 billion will be required for a period covering October 2001 to December 2002.

The discussions in Tokyo were mainly focused on a comprehensive framework for reconstruction the longer term, which outlines the recovery needs of Afghanistan over the next 10 years, at a cost of some $15 billion. However, the United Nations recognizes the need for a program that will bridge the gap between the ongoing humanitarian needs while moving the country forward towards recovery and longer-term development.

The 2002 Program was developed in consultation with the Afghan Interim Authority, to identify the support it will need in the coming months to successfully carry out essential tasks covering three clusters of initiatives.

First, it outlines "quick impact" recovery activities -costing some $376 million- which can immediately improve the situation on the ground. Second, the Program covers recurrent costs and expanding budgetary needs of the Interim Authority - some $237 million -- based on discussions with the authorities in Kabul which will help stabilize government institutions and allow line ministries to deliver basic services such as health and education. And third, it also describes the critical unmet and continuing humanitarian needs of some $736 million not covered in the Needs Assessment report before donors in Tokyo. Such funds are urgently required throughout 2002 to redress the desperate plight of Afghanistan's nearly four million refugees and one million internally displaced people.

Emphasizing several humanitarian initiatives to counter the effects of three successive years of drought, the Program prescribes immediate cash for food assistance and food security strategies as well as to rehabilitate agricultural capacities and natural resources. The key objective to support the return of refugees and internally displaced persons to their homes and reintegrate them into the emerging economy will require some $319 million in 2002, and includes providing safety and security, enhancing the returnee monitoring process and promoting reconciliation between divided Afghan communities. Afghanistan has also suffered for years from the heavy presence of antipersonnel mines. To counter this problem, the Program also spells out the urgent requirement for some $47 million for mine action activities.

Another immediate priority for 2002 is rebuilding Afghanistan's education system, which has all but collapsed in recent years. Only 38% of boys and only 3% of girls were enrolled in school in 1999. Demand for education remains high nevertheless, and the program requests some $90 million, among other things, to improve access and equity in basic education, support the Interim Authority's "Back-to-School" advocacy campaign, and to identify more female teachers and provide them with training.

Immediate injections of cash at the community level through labor-intensive projects will allow the Afghan people to see the peace dividend for themselves. We must also ensure that Afghanistan's women, who have for so long suffered exclusion, abuse and the loss of their rights, are now supported to play a full role in the country's reconstruction.

I now want to give news from southern Afghanistan. The situation there has improved, but security is still not normal in all areas of the south, especially in rural areas. The clean up operation/de-weaponization campaign continues in the entire region.

The region is accessible from Pakistan as well as from Iran through all key-crossing points. However, security problems on the highway from Kandahar to Herat continue. The road between Kandahar and Kabul is also not completely secure.

Various relief activities are underway in the south. UNHCR is currently assessing the IDP and returnee situation to allow increased emergency assistance operation.

In the health sector, the Kandahar nursing school has resumed operation with 105 female and 90 male students. All equipment and materials are in place. The school has, contrary to many other institutions, not been looted. All health centers are functional.

The UN measles vaccination campaign is ongoing in the south and is aiming to reach over 900,000 children. UNICEF funded vaccination for children under the age of one year and for women is also going on.

Both the UN and NGOs are supporting supplementary feeding for children and pregnant women in Spin Boldak district of Kandahar province, for displaced children and pregnant women in Panjwai district and in other districts of both Kandahar and Uruzgan provinces.

Acute respiratory diseases are currently the most visible (and seasonal) illness in the region. While recent rains have helped, the region still needs more water. The UN continues to work in increasing water availability in the south through installing more hand pumps, and laying water pipes.

UNICEF has met with the Head of Education Department in Kandahar and surveyed schools in Kandahar. There are 91 schools for boys and girls from grade 1-12. Most of the schools are primary with 120,000 students. In addition, there are 4 boys and girls' high schools and 3 boys and girls intermediate schools. 14,000 students (2,435 girls and 11,565 boys) have enrolled since 15 January 2002 in 10 schools.

Efforts are underway to support the education sector since a large number of students, including girls, have enrolled and female teachers have returned. UNICEF has so far distributed 85-tarpaulins/plastic sheets to 5 schools in Kandahar City and is due, within short, to distribute 2,000 tarpaulins. UNICEF intends to launch a back-to-school campaign soon and will distribute student kits, teacher kits and school kits.

Zarghona Ana High School has started after being closed for the last 12 years. 800 female students are enrolled. In addition, 92 schools for girls/women are operational in Kandahar City and surrounding districts. All schools are in need of chairs, tables and educational materials.

In Kabul, the first UN flight took place on 17 January after the airport was repaired. A total of 2,600 meters is now usable. Further repairs are needed to make the full length of over 3,000 meters usable.

Displaced persons are now returning from Kabul-where they were housed in the ex-Soviet compound since 1999-to the Shomali Valley. In the first two weeks of January, over 1,800 families were helped to return. They will receive assistance to reconstruct their homes, or, if their homes were totally destroyed, they will receive winterized tents.

** George Somerwill, Spokesperson for UNICEF

UNICEF Pakistan's interventions are specifically designed to prepare Afghan refugee children in the camps for reintegration into the Afghan education system. We will also be making interventions in the old refugee camps, where the children will not be returning to Afghanistan. All interventions are based on advice and consultation with the Afghan refugee community.

As you will have heard the interim President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai said this morning from Tokyo that the key issue, as far as his government is concerned, is education.

The activities of UNICEF Pakistan (and Afghanistan) are very much in line with that statement. Our activities are based entirely on consultation with and advice from the Afghan refugee community. This is a multi-agency initiative - we are working with local and international NGO's, with UNHCR and with the Afghan refugee communities themselves.

It is clear that the communities have certain expectations - one of which is that whatever is taught in the refugee camp schools will be compatible with what they eventually learn in their schools when they return home.

I have spoken with UNICEF Pakistan's education specialists - based in Peshawar and Quetta. Last week in both areas - groups of refugees who are professional teachers were selected. In Kotkai camp, 47 Afghan men, 9 Afghan women and 36 Pakistani male teachers were chosen.

In Mohamad Khail and Roghani camps in Balochistan (Quetta) a total of 32 teachers have so far been identified for work with the children (there are more to come.) Those 32 teachers by the way have between them a total of nearly 400 years teaching experience I am told.

This is a very small number - given that the population of Mohamad Khail alone is over 80,000. There will be more identified -and no doubt some will come from the local Pakistan community.

UNICEF Pakistan is working with its partners to support education initiatives in the camps. These initiatives include education start-up kits - called "School in a Box" (150 each in NWFP and in Balochistan) and tents suitable for use as classrooms (hold 20-30).

In the Mohamad Khail Camp in Balochistan, as the schools build up in numbers, we will supply larger tents. In the NWFP camps - the tents are smaller.

In the Balochistan camps we expect by the middle of this week to have an "educational screening" completed. This looks at the educational level of refugee children. The first will be in Mohamad Khail camp, then Roghani and others. Once the assessment is complete we shall be able to work out how many classes are required and the level of each class.

The "School in a Box" is a large box containing supplies for 80 kids and one teacher for three months. The lid of the box is used as a blackboard. It contains coloring pencils, regular pencils, chalk, notebooks, rulers, teaching aids (E.g. geometric shapes, compass, a block, painted blocks for younger kids, slate and blackboard paints.)

Classes will be doubled up - that is a morning and an afternoon session.

I know you will want to know about the curriculum. What are the subjects that will be taught?

Well, as you can imagine given all the years of conflict in Afghanistan, there has not been a coherent education policy in Afghanistan for a long time. There are really no existing books left.

I am told that there are some old books available in the market place - particularly in Quetta - but I understand that these are hardly appropriate. Therefore we are relying on learning materials which have been put together over the years by GTZ the German government aid agency, and we are also using materials - particularly teacher training material - which has been developed by our partners in the Save the Children Fund (SCF -UK).

This will be primarily a basic education for the Afghan refugees and it must be compatible with what these children will receive when they return to their own country.

** Lori Hieber-Girardet, Spokesperson for WHO

The World Health Organization has sent a high-level delegation to Tokyo to advocate for investment in the health sector of Afghanistan during the current donors conference. The WHO believes that health is the core of long-term investment. A mentally and physically healthy population is the most essential component for the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Yet, health is one of the most devastated sectors in the country, and for this reason, must rank at the top of the agenda during the donor conference in Tokyo.

Although we have cited these figures before, they are worth repeating: six million Afghans have very little or no access to medical care. Other statistics are just as disturbing: every day 45 women die of pregnancy related causes, resulting in more than 16,000 deaths a year. One-fourth of Afghan children do not live to celebrate their fifth birthday and half have stunted growth due to chronic malnutrition.

Afghanistan is also facing a staggering mental health crisis: almost half the population is striving to cope with psychological distress caused by living though more than two decades of violence, human rights abuses, and displacement. Psychological and psychiatric care, however, is practically non-existent in the country.

The main objective of the World Health Organization is to support the newly formed Afghan Ministry of Health as it seeks to respond to the needs of the Afghan population. This means providing technical expertise, and helping to coordinate the assistance offered to the health sector by other UN agencies and NGOs.

The challenge is great. Large numbers of medical staff have left Afghanistan. Immediate training, especially for female medical personnel, is urgently required.

The World Health Organization is calling for an immediate $60 million to assist the Afghan Ministry of Health to design and implement key public health programs including immunizations, diarrheal disease, tuberculosis, malaria control and safe motherhood. Establishment of management support systems will feature among the priorities in the immediate and long term. An estimated $2.2 billion investment over the next decade is needed to develop a functioning health system in the country, capable of delivering comprehensive primary health care services.

Substantial investment in health is more than just a humanitarian gesture, it makes good business sense. Studies carried out by Jeffrey Sachs of Harvard University indicate that for every dollar invested in health, there is a far greater financial return through increased productivity.

The World Health Organization stresses that as long as Afghans continue to die from preventable diseases, and even minimal health care remains out of the reach of millions, a stable and productive future of the country cannot be guaranteed. Unless the health sector is properly supported, the entire recovery of Afghanistan could be undermined.

** Yusuf Hassan, Spokesperson for UNHCR

Afghans who have been stuck in the waiting area at the Chaman border crossing now are in the Killi Faizo transit or shifted to a new refugee camp. Since 16 January, when the authorities gave the go ahead to UNHCR to move them, we have registered nearly 12,000 Afghans, of whom 8,500 have been re-located to a new camp and more than 3,400 are hosted in the Killi Faizo transit centre. We shall be moving these refugees to a proper refugee camp in due course. All the refugees were medically screened and the children vaccinated.

UNHCR and its partners have made considerably progress in efforts to move Afghan refugees from the miserable Jalozai squatter settlement to new better-equipped camps in the tribal areas near the border.

Since the beginning of the relocation operation, a total of 41, 748 refugees were shifted in 53 convoys from Jalozai to new six camps in Kurram, Khyber and Bajaur agencies in north west Pakistan. UN and its partners provide shelter, food, medical care and education and other material support to help the refugees begin afresh in their new surroundings with dignity.

** Khaled Mansour, Spokesperson for WFP

Though security is generally improving in Afghanistan, WFP is still facing isolated incidents that threaten our efforts in various parts of the country.

On Thursday, armed gunmen in Qaiser, Faryab province, stole up to 40 tons of food aid intended for the drought affected population in this area. Armed gunmen in this area have been harassing aid workers over the past couple of weeks. Finally on Thursday last week, a group of armed Afghan Uzbeks looted the food warehouse after severely beating the staff and smashing some vehicles.

WFP and its partner NGO have distributed more than 700 tons of food in this predominantly Pashtun area in the few days prior to this attack. The NGO workers had to leave the area after the attack.

WFP has been working in Afghanistan for about thirty years and all Afghans who came in contact with this UN agency know very well, that the food aid is provided to the people solely on the basis of need. There are no ethnic strings attached to our food aid. We requested the local authorities to investigate the incident, have the food returned, and protect all aid workers and aid operations.

Last week, WFP reported another incident in Samangan province where 40 tons of wheat were taken by armed soldiers. The local authorities have established that there was a misunderstanding by the soldiers who were expecting their own food convoy. They have assured WFP that they will make arrangements to return an equivalent amount of food. We appreciate the cooperation and help extended to WFP staff by the local authorities in Samanagan and Balkh provinces.

Finally, I would like to make some clarifications regarding media reports yesterday about a food donation from India to WFP operations in Afghanistan.

The Government of India, late last year, expressed the intention to donate to WFP one million tons of wheat to support our operations in Afghanistan. This is a large quantity of wheat, which can only be absorbed over a number of years. We are negotiating with the Indian government the operational modalities. It should be noted that according to WFP financial rules, in-kind contributions have to be accompanied by enough cash to cover transport, distribution and management cost.

Whilst these negotiations are ongoing WFP suggested that within the present Indian fiscal year (ending March 31) some 50,000 metric tons could be released. The Government of India is still considering WFP's proposal.

The obvious way to transport the Indian food grant - if it materializes - is through Pakistan using the railway system until the borders and then moving the food onto Pakistani trucks to WFP warehouse in Peshawar, from where it can be sent to Afghanistan. Alternatively, this food could get to Afghanistan via Iran but this would entail additional costs and longer shipping and transport time.

The WFP is aware of the concerns both Iran and Pakistan have that the wheat grain may originate from areas in India where the presence of a fungus known as Karnal Bunt in the seeds has been observed before. To address these concerns: the Indian government has agreed that WFP surveys the stocks and takes delivery of wheat grain meeting WFP specifications for international tenders (i.e. zero percent Karnal Bunt). Secondly we suggested to the Indian government, that for the first tranche, to release wheat flour enriched with micro-nutrients instead of wheat grain. This eliminates the risk of Karnal Bunt contamination.

** Eric Falt, Director, UN Information Centre

Before going to questions and answers, I wanted to let you know that we will now reduce the frequency of these briefings. The next one is scheduled for Wednesday at 4:15 pm - a few hours before the arrival of the Secretary-General in Islamabad.