LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Aid to Afghanistan has been falling sharply as foreign governments prepare to withdraw their troops by the end of 2014, threatening to derail more than a decade of progress in education, health care and women's development, aid experts have warned.
As Afghans go to the polls on Saturday to elect a new president, millions are grappling with food shortages, malnutrition, lack of health care and poverty, challenges that will be all the harder to address if aid keeps declining.
Aid fell to $508 million in 2013 from $894 million in 2011, according to U.N. data. This year so far less than a fifth of a $406 million United Nations' humanitarian plan for Afghanistan has been funded.
The contribution of Britain, one of Afghanistan's largest donors, has dropped to a pledged $178 million a year from 2012 to 2017 from $296 million per year between 2009 and 2011, official data shows.
"The end of international military operations in Afghanistan is the time to redouble humanitarian efforts, not scale them back,” David Miliband, head of the International Rescue Committee said in a statement this week. "What we need now is urgent and sustainable investment to support the Afghans in securing their own future."
International aid has played a significant part in improving the lives of Afghans, in particular in education and health care, since U.S.-backed Afghan forces toppled a hardline Taliban regime in 2001.
School enrollment has increased from 1.1 million in 2001 to 7.7 million in 2013, with more than 40 percent of those being girls, U.N. data shows.
In 2001 only 8 percent of the population was estimated to have access to basic health care, but now 57 percent live within one hour’s walk of a basic health care facility.
Infant mortality fell by nearly 40 percent between 2002 and 2012, while childhood immunisation rates climbed from 12 percent in 2005 to 37 percent in 2008.
"The achievements made through aid are enormous," Ahmad Shaheer Shahriar, a senior independent consultant working with the Afghan government told Thomson Reuters Foundation at a recent Afghanistan gender conference organised by the British and Irish Agencies Afghanistan Group (BAAG).
"This is a success story and the speed of the decline in aid should be slowed down to allow Afghanistan to build an independent future," he added.
Afghanistan is still Asia's poorest country, and life expectancy is just 50 years. Around 8.7 million people do not produce enough food or earn enough income to feed themselves adequately. About 10 percent of children do not live to their fifth birthday.
More than 3 million Afghans are living as refugees in neighbouring countries or in camps for people displaced within the country.
With less international attention and less aid, the chances of successfully tackling Afghanistan’s humanitarian problems are dwindling, experts warn.
WOMEN TO LOSE OUT AGAIN
The biggest losers from a slowdown in aid will be Afghan women, who have enjoyed growing freedoms, albeit at an uneven pace, improved education and legal rights enshrined in the constitution, women’s rights campaigners say.
"All the gains are fragile, and it is a concern that aid is declining," Belquis Ahmadi, women's rights campaigner and Afghanistan programme coordinator at the International Human Rights Law Group told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"We don't want to go back to the 80s when the Russians withdrew their troops and then the international community thought 'mission accomplished', packed up and left as well," she said, adding that this had played a big part in the rise of the Taliban.
Quantity of aid is not everything, however. Large amounts have been wasted on expensive foreign consultancies, and aid focused on stabilisation in conflict-affected provinces has often become a source of patronage and political power.
Shariar said that Afghanistan needs to improve how aid is used by minimising corruption through better evaluation processes and a larger involvement of local organisations.
"Most donors only want to deal with the central government," he said. "Local resources in our civil society are not being used in the best possible way, partly because we have not established good monitoring and evaluation processes."
Islamic Relief, a UK-based aid agency, said in a new report that donors should focus on relieving poverty by investing in agriculture, supporting health and education, tackling drug addiction and protection women's rights.
"Afghanistan is at a crossroads, facing an uncertain future,” said Farzana Balooch, child welfare coordinator at Islamic Relief Afghanistan. “...large cuts in aid threaten to cripple health, education and other services and sentence another generation to a life of poverty."