For Afghans, aid can save lives with disaster prevention

Afghanistan needs long-term investment in disaster prevention in order to promote sustainable development.

For someone who doesn't know Afghanistan well, it would be shocking to learn that some eight million Afghans remain in acute need of humanitarian aid.

Because of the past three decades of war and destruction, it is no wonder that the population includes vulnerable groups. They are destitute peasants needing alternative livelihoods to poppy cultivation; refugees and internally displaced persons who need aid to rebuild their lives; war victims in need of welfare to escape psycho-social degradation; youths needing jobs to avoid resorting to crime and violence; and women and children needing health-care services to survive.

Although instability has impeded Afghanistan's development, the country is landlocked, and also has an extremely rough and inaccessible terrain. This is compounded by its pre-war status as one of the least developed countries, meaning that even during peaceful times, Afghanistan suffered from recurrent humanitarian crises due to frequent natural disasters: droughts, floods, earthquakes, avalanches, pandemic diseases and so forth.

To prevent such disasters from taking their toll on the country's poorest, humanitarian access is best ensured through long-term investment in the country's sustainable development. The primary focus should be on institutional capacity building, so that Afghans increasingly own and lead their country's reconstruction.

Of course, this does not mean that availability of resources, institutional capacity, and higher levels of development can always ensure humanitarian access or negate the need for it in the first place. But such measures make a substantial difference in saving millions of lives when disaster hits.

We know this from the recent cases of Haiti and Chile, both of which experienced destructive earthquakes last year. Haiti is an under-developed country that is ill-equipped to take preventive measures to manage disaster and to coordinate aid efforts. By contrast, Chile is a developing country better prepared institutionally to handle a humanitarian crisis and to help those in need.

Developing societies such as Chile tend to have higher degrees of civic participation, stronger social coping mechanisms, functioning markets and a constructive civil society - all of which help to reduce the impact of natural or man-made disasters. These mechanisms help to ensure better humanitarian access in times of crisis.

Hence, the strategic solution to humanitarian access in Afghanistan is not more of the same: a multitude of competing foreign aid organisations who bypass the Afghan government and try to find more trucks and safer routes to deliver food rations or drinking water to destitute people. Rather, the strategic solution to humanitarian access is investing in prevention measures by building institutions and diverting more foreign aid towards the socio-economic development of Afghanistan.

Through many international conferences on Afghanistan, from the Tokyo Conference in 2002 to the Kabul Conference last July, the Afghan government has appealed to the donor community to comply with the objectives of its own need-based development strategy.

An integral part of this strategy is properly sequenced development and humanitarian aid to ensure prevention and effective management of disasters when they occur. The country continues to call on its partners to deliver on their pledges at the Kabul Conference, which were to channel at least 50 per cent of their aid resources through the Afghan state, while ensuring that their independent aid efforts comply with the priorities of Afghanistan's national development strategy.

While present obstacles must be overcome, durable solutions based on the Afghan development strategy must be assessed and be given top attention. In other words, helping the Afghan government to design reconstruction and development projects geared towards disaster prevention and management will go a long way in lifting eight million Afghans out of abject poverty.

One prime example of success is Afghanistan's national solidarity programme, which the government has effectively implemented with the direct participation of people. Through block grants, people in more than 20,000 villages across Afghanistan have organised community development councils to identify their own local needs and to work with non-governmental organisations, local or international, to address those needs.

This process has helped to build the capacity of poor Afghan villagers, ensure greater gender equality in decision-making, and allow humanitarian access to communities where instability often denies international aid organisations easy access. Assisted Afghanisation of aid delivery must be the way forward to end the country's ongoing humanitarian crisis.

M Ashraf Haidari is an analyst of refugee and humanitarian emergencies. He is currently working with the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs