With attack on UN, Afghanistan aid presence shrinks further
The UN's decision to withdraw 200 workers after an attack at a Kabul guesthouse could prompt other aid groups to rethink their presence.
Mohammad Rafi Hamdard, a food importer in Kabul, puts the following prices on the United Nations decision to withdraw staff from Afghanistan: $15 more for a ton of flour, $5 more for 50 kilograms of sugar and $3 more for a carton of cooking oil.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
That it became almost immediately harder for Afghans to put food on the table is just one of many consequences of a staff drawdown that the UN says is temporary.
Food prices have been rising since the beginning of the fraud-marred presidential election as political uncertainty led to hoarding and disrupted distribution.
But Kabul residents had anticipated that prices would fall with last week's announcement that President Hamid Karzai had won. Instead, says Mr. Hamdard and an official in the Ministry of Economy, the UN has injected new doubts and price shocks with its decision Thursday to temporarily pull out some of its foreign staff.
"The biggest trading companies are worrying that here there is no good security, so they aren't importing the same amount as before," says Hamdard. "If there is less material being imported, the prices go up."
UN as safety gauge
The UN retreat has sent a signal of concern not just to markets but to other nonprofit groups helping rebuild the country and Afghans who have staked their hopes on the NGOs projects.
"Whenever a UN unit is active in one part of Afghanistan, people in that place are thinking there is peace. If they pull out, for sure the people are thinking negatively," says M. Qasim Ahmadzai, a Ministry of Economy official in charge of registering nongovernmental organizations. "So far, no NGOs have decided yet to leave, but they may."
Currently, 1,530 national NGOs and 341 international NGOs are registered with the government.
The UN announced Thursday it would temporarily withdraw some 200 workers from Afghanistan and withdraw a further 400 foreign workers from the field to safer urban locations after gunmen stormed a guesthouse in Kabul late last month. The five UN workers killed were elections staff involved in hurriedly preparing for a second round runoff vote which was later canceled.
So far, the NGO community here has largely interpreted the incident narrowly as an attack against the elections, not against NGOs generally, says a security expert in Kabul whose organization prefers to keep a low profile.
"Long experience and a solid relationship of confidence and mutual respect with local population and elders have been the decisive elements when deciding whether to continue or withdraw. But even that mutual trust is becoming less and less reliable, simply because the population is under increasing pressure, both from the foreign armies and the 'Taliban,' " says an international NGO worker.
NGO presence shrivels
Aid experts describe a retreat that started several years ago from the rural parts of districts to the district centers. Then, in the past year, a pull back from the district centers to the provincial capitals. Now, organizations are withdrawing to Kabul. Those projects still outside Kabul are increasingly reached only by airplane; but development, to be cost-effective and widely useful, requires roads.