By Nita Bhalla
NEW DELHI (AlertNet) - Charities in Afghanistan will find it harder to reach the poor and may be forced to shut down some operations due to waning donor interest and insecurity after foreign troops leave in 2014, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has warned.
NATO-led forces, which have been fighting militant groups linked to al Qaeda in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion of 2001, are set to withdraw by the end of next year. They numbered about 130,000 at their peak and are approximately 100,000 today.
But a still-resilient Taliban and concerns over the ability of the Afghan security forces to keep the militants in check have sparked fears among humanitarians that the conflict will worsen, hampering their ability to assist millions of people.
"A lot of aid organisations were protected by the international forces. Suddenly, they will find none of this protection," ICRC Director-General Yves Daccord told AlertNet in an interview on Thursday during a visit to India.
"What do you do when you have worked under the protection of troops for over a decade and then suddenly they’re gone?" he said, adding that some areas may see increased violence, making it difficult for aid workers to access those in need of help.
Afghanistan remains one of the least developed countries in the world. Only a third of Afghans have access to safe drinking water and electricity from grids, more than half of children under the age of 5 are chronically malnourished and every two hours a woman dies from pregnancy-related illness, says the World Bank.
Working on projects such as improving water and sanitation, building schools and improving the health and nutrition of mothers and children in war-ravaged villages, aid workers face opposition and danger.
Afghan militants often view them as spies for the West and they are a soft target – their offices have been blown up, they have had bombs planted under their cars and they have been kidnapped and murdered.
Daccord, a Swiss national, said security was not the only challenge facing aid agencies after 2014.
"There is also a question over the future commitment of the international community, which has poured a lot of money into the country. There is a worry that the money – at least part of it – will just vanish when the troops leave," he said.
"So it's not just soldiers leaving, but it might also be NGOs and their development programmes just disappearing. There is a real risk that some of the social services given by the state or programmes run by NGOs in some parts will just disappear."
The Geneva-based ICRC's $90 million-a-year operations in Afghanistan are the group's biggest in the world. Some 1,800 ICRC staff work on projects ranging from providing orthopedic limbs to the war wounded to visiting militants in Afghan jails.
Around $60 billion in international civilian assistance has been poured into the country since 2001. Despite pledges by donors that they will remain committed to Afghanistan after troops leave, many humanitarians are sceptical.
Daccord said some long-term development projects related to education were already being hit by funding cuts and he expected "nation-building" projects such as school building to be hit in coming years.
He said there was waning interest among international donors, partly because of economic crises in some countries, but also due to a shift in global focus towards other emergencies like Syria and Mali, leading to what is known as donor fatigue.
There was also a general public feeling of being “fed up” with the failure of the United States and its allies to bring peace and security to the country, despite vast investment of resources and the large number of deaths of foreign troops over the last 12 years of war.
However it was unlikely that "strictly humanitarian services" such as providing water and sanitation or food assistance would be hit, Daccord said.
"A lot of aid organisations will have to redesign their thinking, their sources of funding and their engagement with all stakeholders in the coming years," he added. “Afghanistan is an extraordinarily challenging environment. I understand that a lot of NGOs will just find that too much."