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Afghan Transition Threatens Disruptions in International Aid

By Colin BarracloughSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 21, 1992



PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN

REBELS in Afghanistan may be trying to work out their differences, but friction is increasing among foreign aid agencies in Peshawar and between Kabul- and Peshawar-based relief groups.

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After the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1988, the communist government in Kabul controlled the major towns across Afghanistan, but left the rest of the country to the mujahideen. Such territoriality has affected the dispersal of aid, with aid workers in Peshawar squabbling over who has given the best care to the Afghan people.

Agencies based in Kabul, mainly affiliated with the United Nations, say they helped Afghans who suffered most, those in battle zones. Peshawar-based groups counter that they have helped more people, with 3 million refugees in Peshawar and more in rebel-controlled areas.

Kabul-based agencies were seen by Peshawar-based aid groups as recognizing the communist government. Those in Peshawar regarded the mujahideen as the true representatives of the Afghan people.

Meanwhile, aid distribution has been disrupted. Twenty of the 23 UN staff members were evacuated from Kabul before the mujahideen takeover of Kabul April 27, a UNICEF worker says. Projects such as UNICEF's food distribution program in Kabul have been abandoned until staff can return.

Oxfam and other aid agencies in Kabul such as Halo Trust, a de-mining group, continue to offer services. But hospital workers in Jalalabad, the country's second largest city, complain about a desperate need for medicines and aid workers say feeble efforts at coordinating aid threaten to stall current and future projects.

The Peshawar-based Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Refugees (ACBAR) is expected to approach the Kabul government within the next few weeks to arrange work visas for aid agencies.

Jon Bennett, director of ACBAR, says that with a $107 million annual budget, the private agencies held considerably more financial power than the UN with its $20 million to $25 million annual budget and considerably more sway with the new Kabul government. "Here we have long-established programs in the countryside, programs which the new government could not possibly build up," Mr. Bennett says. "We will go to the government and say, 'We are now part of your country.' "

Beneath the aid workers' sniping is a more serious issue, that of recognition of the former communist government in Kabul.

MANY observers expect the incoming Islamic government in Kabul to take revenge on those who held sway in Kabul under the communist regime. They may extend this to the aid agencies who worked under the ousted government.

Aid committees who make it to Kabul are likely to disagree on the methods of working there, Peshawar-based workers say.

"All the agencies are basically territorial," says Stuart Worsley, project officer with British-run Afghanaid, based in Peshawar. "One agency will distribute grain for free, while another agency up the road is selling theirs at full price." A coordinating body has been set up but at the moment operates only in Khost Province.

Aid workers are certain that they will not stay in Peshawar for long. Aid money, once directed solely to Peshawar in order to avoid the communist government, will flow increasingly to Kabul, aid workers say. Some donors are already changing their restrictions to favor agencies operating from Kabul.

Dependent on these contributions, the Peshawar groups are already trying to move to Afghanistan. French-run Avicen agency, which runs immunization programs at Ghazni inside Afghanistan, is trying to set up a base in Kabul. Afghanaid is looking for suitable premises in Kabul.

The Pakistan government is putting severe pressure on the agencies to leave, aid workers say. It is refusing to extend visas and is removing agencies' certification.

"The government in Islamabad will try to get us out of here soon," says an aid worker from Avicen. "They never really liked having so many foreigners in this area, so near a sensitive border."

But for the millions of refugees who cannot yet return home, these changes may spell more misery; the Peshawar groups' money may dry up in the coming months, some aid workers say.

Even though the UN is offering cash and sacks of wheat to encourage refugees in Pakistan to go home, not many will return soon; few houses remain in the countryside after 14 years of war.

"They cannot even rent a home," a UN High Commissioner on Refugees spokesman says. "There are no homes left."