Select Committee on International Development Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40 - 59)




  40. Justin?
  (Mr Forsyth) Just very briefly. On the borders, we completely agree they should be open and we should be preparing for those refugees and helping them. We do not think it is the best solution that the Talibans set a refugee camp up and others can have access in terms of supporting them. Within Afghanistan the people should be able to freely move. What we are worried about is it seems that Kandahar and other areas have become 80 per cent empty now, so where have all of those people gone to? They have either gone back to their villages, which is a possibility, which is happening a lot in parts of Afghanistan, or there are quite a lot more people on the move in Afghanistan than we know about, which also may be a possibility, but we do not know. Even if people go back to their villages they also will need support through the winter and we have not necessarily planned sufficiently for that in terms of the initial numbers. So that will add an increased burden. In terms of the three pronged strategy, you would expect us to say "We want more action on the humanitarian" and we do, but actually on the diplomatic, I think what Mr Brahimi is going to do is really important. I know there is a Security Council meeting this afternoon in New York at which he is presenting his initial thoughts. We would like him — and we are making representations to him directly — to be focussing on the immediate humanitarian, as well as looking at the political transition and reconstruction. We feel he can do a lot now in terms of talking to the Taliban and the Northern Alliance about humanitarian access and he should even go to Afghanistan to do that.

Mr Battle

  41. The impression I am getting from listening to you today and all the commentary in the last few weeks is along the lines of the link, the parallelism between the military campaign and humanitarian action. I think there may be an impression created by the leadership of the coalition forces that the two go together and that the humanitarian aid consists of food dropped from aeroplanes. None of you has mentioned that at all. It was dismissed by one of the agencies as an irrelevance. I would be tempted to suggest that from what I have seen, air drops are inappropriate forms of aid, if not a complete waste of public money. Would you be tempted to go down that road with me?
  (Mr Forsyth) We actually had a discussion about this within Oxfam the other day. We felt the original air drops were inappropriate for two reasons. One is that they were military and we believe it is wrong to combine the military and humanitarian, not for ideological reasons at all, purely practical. If we are seen as part of the military operation we cannot work on the ground because people target us. We were concerned about that. Then we were concerned also that it was taking away the need to focus or, as Mr Baldry said, the need to set a focus, on getting trucks into Afghanistan which is the main way that food needs to get in. However, if we get to a desperate situation, and the trucks are not moving, and a lot of people are going to die, the WFP have had some experience of dropping food at much lower levels with people on the ground preparing for people to receive it. It is more of a humanitarian operation than dropping it, I think, from several thousand feet without any preparation. We would not be ruling that out as a possibility if everything else failed and a lot of people were going to die.

  42. That is very fair.
  (Mr Forsyth) The emphasis should be on trucks and maybe then air lifts as a separate option before air drops.
  (Mr Jarrah) I am not wanting to get into the semantics of it here. The difference between an air drop and an air lift is whether you actually land or not, but there is a difference, as Justin said, between low level drops —

  43. That are arranged.
  (Mr Jarrah) — that are arranged with people on the ground to receive them.

  44. Rather than falling out of the sky.
  (Mr Jarrah) Yes. The danger is that if they are dropped from a very high height, not only are they being wasted but they could actually be putting people in danger because they will wander into minefields or into other militarised areas in order to get the food.

  Chairman: Can we look a little more at future needs. Tony Worthington.

Tony Worthington

  45. As Oxfam are giving evidence I ought to declare an interest in the sense that earlier this year Oxfam asked me if I would be willing to provide a systems training support for a member of staff and in reply they would do some research work for me. I declare that. There is no money involved and it is certainly not why they are here today. Can I come back to the borders issue which has been very confusing in that large numbers of people were expected to go there, then they did not go there, then they started going there and then there are the stories about the Talibans roping people back into the country and all the difficulties about Pakistani attitudes. Could you go into some detail as to how you see the situation at the present time and whether pressure should be brought to bear on Pakistan to be more clear cut in their attitudes to open borders?
  (Mr Jarrah) I think one of the problems on the Pakistani side is not only the erratic nature of the policy on open or closed borders but that there are no adequate preparations for receiving large numbers of refugees should those borders be opened. The selection of sites for new refugee camps has not been a very good process. The sites that have been nominated by the Pakistani Government have been deemed unacceptable by the UN and the sites which have been suggested by the UN have not been agreed on by the Pakistani Government. There are problems of security, there are problems of water supply and there are problems of relationships with the tribal people who occupy those areas. The policy on the opening of the borders needs to go hand in hand with a clear reception facility, not just by absorbing them to the existing refugee camps but by setting up new camps which are able to receive an influx of people across the border.

  46. There are also stories about only those with identity papers are able to pay bribes and be allowed to pass, those papers being recycled and brought across again and so on and so forth. Are we to believe any of that?
  (Mr Jarrah) We have heard stories of corruption, which I think is the word which is being used, and financial ways of lubricating your way across the border for people who can afford that. We can corroborate that.

  47. Can I raise something which has intrigued me. We have been talking about Afghanistan having a three year drought and yet no-one has been talking about water. We have been talking about food but not about water. I wonder just what the experience is? I obtained some material from the Red Cross and it says UNHCR will be in charge of all bore holes. Survey and drilling will be contracted to the Ministry of Agriculture, the only organisation with heavy duty drilling rigs capable of drilling 400 metres in granite. That is some challenge. How on earth is water being supplied? I hear about tankers but if we talk about very large numbers of people getting access to bore holes, how is this being coped with?
  (Ms Cocking) At the moment, we have direct experience of this around Quetta because of being asked by UNHCR to take this up. Undoubtedly the sites are not in an ideal position and it is simply a straight matter of the basic practice of international humanitarian law. The Government of Pakistan should, as should the Government of Iran and all the northern countries, open their borders to allow people to pass freely and should respect good practice in terms of UNHCR's role in the registration of arrivals, etc.. Like CARE we have got corroborative evidence to the fact that is not happening. In terms of direct provision of water we have engineers around Quetta at the moment who are telling us that there are, again, sufficient locally available drilling rigs, that is not the problem, the problem is the length of time that it will take, as you say, to drill 300, 400 metres on some occasions. What is happening, for example, and we again are doing this as part of an overall co-ordinated exercise, is we have water tanks in Islamabad which will be put up as a temporary solution and water tankered in while that drilling operation takes place. Again, that is something that we have done elsewhere, particularly South Sudan and Angola where we have had big drilling operations but, you are absolutely right, it is a tall order.


  48. Can I be slightly devil's advocate in relation to open borders. Again, I think the Committee in the last Parliament visited the North West Frontier Province, went to Peshawar, and for a long time now, a decade or more, there have been huge Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan for which the Government of Pakistan have been asking the international community for years for further help to feed and support those communities; to which no answer has really come. Is it not unreasonable to suspect that the Governments of Pakistan and Islamabad are concerned that if they open their borders they will have a huge influx of refugees and once the television cameras disappear the international community will lose interest and they alone will have to bear the responsibility of feeding and looking after these communities?
  (Mr Forsyth) I think that is a very fair point. The Pakistani Government are obviously in a very difficult situation but when it comes to the crunch they, like all governments, have international obligations. I think we need to be pressing our governments in the north as well as pressing the Pakistani Government to be supporting this in the long haul and, in terms of the Pakistani Government, opening its borders. I do not think the Afghani refugees should suffer because there is a chance of what you say happening. I think we have to redouble our efforts to make sure what you just suggested does not happen and that the international community helps refugees go home into Afghanistan, helps with the political transition and then helps with the reconstruction. You can understand, as you say, why the Pakistani Government does not necessarily feel that will happen because there were lots of precedents in the past where people left governments in the lurch, like Tanzania and many other places.

Tony Worthington

  49. I want to come back to the international co-ordination issue because I am not clear about that and I am not sure that having a diagram will help us all that much. Does Mr Brahimi, who is obviously a key figure, have a role which is humanitarian as well as political? Where does he come into this field at all?
  (Ms Cocking) I think we would say that we require some clarification on that as well and it is a discussion which we had within Oxfam the other day, where does Mr Brahimi sit in relation to the United Nations' Development Programme and so on?
  (Mr Forsyth) And OCHA, the Office of the Co-ordinator for Humanitarian Assistance.

  50. We seem to be getting quite complicated: what is the role of UNHCR; what is the role of OCHA; what is the role of Mr Brahimi; what is the role of the Red Cross; what is the role of the Red Crescent? Who is doing what?
  (Ms Cocking) Our current understanding is that Mr Brahimi will have overall leadership of the political and representational aspects. Where individual operational UN agencies sit is generally more straight forward. It is quite clear what UNHCR's responsibilities are under the 1951 Refugee Conventions, and they are very clear about their mandate. The role of OCHA, the Office of the Co-ordinator for Humanitarian Assistance, is to facilitate and to oil the wheels to make sure everybody does talk to each other. They chair co-ordination meetings, they will make sure that information flow is happening properly amongst the NGOs and also the UN agencies. That is our understanding but we feel there is need for greater clarity and we are hoping that the Security Council meeting this afternoon will point in that direction.

  51. One of the other issues that seems to me important is I mentioned the Red Crescent there and it would seem to be very, very important indeed that Islamic organisations are seen in the front line and seen as key players in this. Is that your perception of what is happening in Afghanistan?
  (Mr Forsyth) Yes. The Red Crescent as the national society have a very clear role in leadership and, again, the very specific role of the International Committee of the Red Cross is crucial and we will be very supportive of that. It is a very complex picture. I would not wish to say it always works wonderfully because everybody knows what their role is, but I think it is important to stress that it is perhaps a little clearer than it looks from the outside because the ICRC will always be very clear about where their roles and responsibilities rest. They will always respect the role of the national Red Cross or Red Crescent society and there are very clear mandates for individual UN agencies. What is incumbent upon all players in the field is that everybody understands what everybody has responsibility for.
  (Mr Forsyth) In Islamabad there are a number of UN agencies — UNHCR, WFP and others — and then there are a number of non-government organisations and there is a humanitarian co-ordinator that we fit under which is usually someone from OCHA, the Office for Humanitarian Affairs, or the resident UNDP representative who then becomes that humanitarian co-ordinator. At a global level there is also a head of OCHA, Mr Oshima, and he is meant to be pulling all of that together in New York and linking to that. Our experience of this in the past working has been very mixed and I was asking Jane before we came in here do we think it is working any better this time or not. Some of the co-ordination in Islamabad and the information seems to be working relatively well but at a global level we are not 100 per cent clear who is responsible for looking at the political, humanitarian and diplomatic efforts together. We are not sure if that is Mr Brahimi's role, to look at the whole. We hope it would be and for him to be the person that the rest pivots around because we think it would be good to look at this in an integrated way.

  52. In terms of, say, food, a basic issue, the World Food Programme says there is enough food if only it could be got to the people and there was an appeal for $584 million by the United Nations for assistance. Is the money there and the food there, if it could be delivered?
  (Mr Jarrah) We think it is. There has been a substantial response to that WFP appeal and the part of it that has not yet been met we think will be met in the fullness of time if WFP and the NGOs can demonstrate that they can use what is available now.

Mr Khabra

  53. I do sympathise with you, you have been flooded with lots of very difficult questions. I know you are not used to answering political questions because you are mostly used to issues of a humanitarian nature, however I am going to ask you a few questions on the current and future needs of the situation. Initially it was thought that the threat of military action by the United States could lead to a further 1.5 million refugees fleeing Afghanistan. However, there have been few reports of mass crossings of refugees. There are some reports that people have fled urban areas to surrounding villages within Afghanistan. The few refugees that have crossed the border have headed for well established camps. Only passport holders with valid visas were allowed to leave the country although Pakistan and Iran both agreed that no refugees would be returned. UNHCR reported that many of the people in Afghanistan are already too weak or lack the resources to flee — they are too weak even to become displaced. The major movements of people do not seem to have materialised, at least that is what has been reported. Why have there been fewer refugees fleeing the country than expected? To what extent is this due to the closure of borders? Are we now beginning to see a major exodus or will the numbers remain limited? Should aid agencies continue to stockpile items in and around refugee camps or should the focus shift to moving food into Afghanistan? That is a big question for you to answer.
  (Mr Forsyth) I think the point that we have always emphasised throughout this crisis is that we need to help people in Afghanistan. That is where both our agencies mainly work rather than with refugees in Pakistan. However, I think it is fair to say, and it was fair for the United Nations to say, that we need to prepare for the possible outflow of refugees. Even if it is small numbers of refugees, which it is at the moment, we should treat them well and allow them into Pakistan and prepare for them. What we know, though, is that within Afghanistan there is a silent humanitarian crisis going on which will not be on our television screens. People will die slowly and in lonely ways in small villages and mountains and it will not grab the headlines of the news. The people will slowly become ill, they will die of diseases, they will get a cold and it will lead to something else. One of my emergency colleagues said the other day, " Imagine someone living for several months on one piece of toast per day and now it is down to half a piece of toast and it will be down to nothing very soon." That is the level of food intake that they are taking in on top of years of drought and conflict. It will be the very old and the young and the ill who will die first and it will not be very public. That is why we have tried to emphasise that we need to get into them. We need to have access—and this is where Clare Short is right. What we had before was a distribution network to reach many of those people and now that distribution network is either beginning to collapse because of the insecurity or because the food is not flowing through to allow it to work effectively, and that is what we have become particularly worried about. We should address the refugee issue but what we are emphasising is we need to address the needs in Afghanistan.
  (Mr Jarrah) To answer directly one of your questions I do not know why there has not been a massive flow up to now. One of the perceptions is that there has been a low flow of population because they have not crossed borders which is where they get counted. Within Afghanistan all indications are that there have been colossal flows of population away from their homes but they are invisible, as Justin has just said. We believe that if there is no increased humanitarian access to Afghanistan in the lead-up to winter we will see massively increased cross-border flows and it will generally be not the most vulnerable who do make it.

  54. Can I ask you another question because we have been talking about food and water but we have not talked about medicine. People who are refugees and running away from the situation are likely to become victims of disease. It has already been reported in the press. What is being done to help people with regard to medicine?
  (Mr Jarrah) The word "food" is often used in shorthand to mean food and non-food items, relief supplies. Very little humanitarian aid is given simply in the form of pure food. It comes with a package of complementary inputs, sometimes including medicine. The greatest threat to health for the refugee population comes from poor sanitation rather than directly from drug-treatable diseases. A lot of the health control in refugee populations is to do with mitigation measures around the conditions they live in rather than the area of pure medical support in hospital centres.
  (Ms Cocking) That is absolutely right, I totally agree.

  55. Can I bore you with some of the figures which I have got with me. On 22 September DFID reported that ICRC, WFP and NGOs had food stocks in a number of cities across Afghanistan totalling 30,000 tonnes and had an active programme feeding vulnerable populations in a number of areas. They were also engaged in feeding refugees in camps and villages in Pakistan and Iran. The original World Food Programme estimate put the total regional requirement at 493,801 tonnes of food. It estimated that about 160,887 tonnes was available in the region leaving a net requirement for 306,826 tonnes of food. The WFP has an agreement with the Government of Pakistan to borrow up to 300,000 tonnes of wheat for urgent operations. The WFP says that it needs to ship 52,000 tonnes per month into Afghanistan. Currently convoys are getting into Afghanistan but current capacity can only deliver 15,000 to 20,000 tonnes per month. On 19 October a WFP spokesman said that while they would welcome a pause in the bombing campaign they have been able to continue working in one way or another. Responding to this yourself you were quoted as saying, "We do not believe them. What we have on the ground is no food and we know from figures the WFP have given us in Pakistan that they are delivering less than half the food that is needed." That is what you said. Therefore I am going to ask you a few questions. What is the trade-off between getting aid in place quickly and effectively and getting it where it is needed most? Is the aid getting to the areas where it is needed and to the people that need it the most? How do the NGO networks on the ground prevent aid leaking out of the system away from those who need it the most?
  (Mr Forsyth) Just on the figures—which is the crux, it seems, of this debate about food—we think, and we have given you figures to say the World Food Programme needs to get 52,000 tonnes in in the next month, over 100,000 in the next two months. We calculated in September they were moving 653 metric tonnes a day. To get up to the figures that they are talking about we need to get between 1,500 and 1,700. In September we calculated in the last month it was about 65 tonnes. We have been told by the World Food Programme they are now shipping 1,300 to 1,500 tonnes a day. What we have seen from figures on the ground in Islamabad is that they are only distributing in the last few weeks 406 tonnes a day. So there is a massive inconsistency between what they are aspiring to do and what we understand from their figures. Either we have got our numbers wrong or they keep saying what they want to do rather than what they are doing. That is what I was saying. We work really closely with the WFP and we respect them. Maybe my words are a little unfortunate in saying we do not believe them. We would like to believe them but the figures we have show that they are not shipping what they are saying they need to ship to get the 52,000 tonnes in in time.

  Chairman: I think we have probably covered 8(a), 8(b), 9(a) and 9(b). I wonder if we could go to question 10. I will then have a tour de table to see if anyone else has got any final questions they want to ask and then I am going to ask Justin and Raja if there are any final points they want to make.

Mr Khabra

  56. Before I ask you the last question because of time restrictions, could you tell me what has happened since you raised this question with them? Has there been any progress so far as the supply of food is concerned, any movement?
  (Mr Forsyth) We have been told there is an upward trend but our figures do not indicate it. We are willing to be convinced and if there was an upward trend we would be the first to applaud it. We think there is a lot less than half of what is needed based on the figures that we have. If we were wrong it would be great. It would be really good to be wrong.

  57. If we have enough money and enough food, what else is missing? Are all the resources where they need to be? If not, what is preventing the positioning of resources in the right place?
  (Ms Cocking) The crucial thing is humanitarian access. The way we have described it throughout this afternoon, clearly without consent we cannot be as efficient as we would like. And to come back to perhaps your efficiency question, undoubtedly distributing free food is not as effective in the longer term as the work we were able to do on asset creation using food for work before the current crisis really bit in, and I think that is a point we have to make and make very strongly.

Hugh Bayley

  58. When you prepare the note which Tony Colman was asking you to do could you quantify the situation. Some of us on this Committee are relatively new members. Can I ask you to address absolutely basic questions of how much food you need to get per day for somebody to survive.
  (Mr Forsyth) We have done a little note.

  Chairman: Maybe you could share that with the Clerk and distribute it to the Committee.

Hugh Bayley

  59. I mean in terms of nutritional requirement. I have seen your note. If 400 metric tonnes are getting in a day, that is 400,000 kilos which would feed half a million people, or would it?
  (Ms Cocking) We estimate that an average family requires about 18 kilos of mixed rations food per month.

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