Select Committee on International Development Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100 - 119)



  100. It is still not clear. They are not performing as well as they would like to themselves, are they, because of the problems about distribution, the problems of security and so on? What I am asking is whether it is feasible to ask the World Food Programme to be doing more at the present time to distribute within Afghanistan?
  (Mr Ali) I think generally the aid community as a whole has been caught by surprise. The air strikes happened, the evacuation took place and whatever mechanisms were in place have been disrupted and now we have to look at alternative mechanisms. I can, again, go back to the scenario we have in Helmand where on 22 September we were due to distribute 870 tonnes of food. 1,600 tonnes of food is already in a Kandahar warehouse of the World Food Programme. The problem is that it is not World Food Programme individuals on the ground, the UN system as a whole has its own security rules and mechanisms and, practically, I am asking the people in the World Food Programme—because we all have common objectives and work together—"Can we get a release order to be sent to the warehouse in Kandahar and have that 870 tonnes from the 1,600 tonnes released to take it to the people?". Their problem is that the UN is not giving its staff the security clearance to go back into Afghanistan to places where the warehouses do exist to physically release whatever food is available inside the country. We need to address that issue.

  101. Is that due prudence about the safety of people or is it bureaucratic?
  (Mr Ali) I can give an example. Amongst the UN staff there are local staff. Some Afghan staff, for example, in UNICEF have turned around and said "This is our country, these are our people, irrespective of the security clearance or not we are going to go back in and resume our activities". Now the expatriate UN staff cannot do that because the security risk is very high and difficult for them but those are local staff. As an agency, you cannot impose or encourage people to risk their lives. So it has to be a systematic policy decision which the World Food Programme or the UN as a whole has to address. Now this does not mean that the World Food Programme is not performing because in return what we are doing is, along with the NGOs and the World Food Programme, we are finding alternatives. One alternative is to take food directly from Pakistan to the actual distribution sites so there is no stop over, there is no storage and the food can go in the commercial trucks and NGOs can receive it at the other end and distribute it. Because I think the community has been caught by surprise, as a whole, to develop these alternative mechanisms and make them effective quickly, it is that time which is running out.

  102. Would it be possible for both of you to give us a paper on this particular issue so we get this absolutely clear?[2] Before this I was getting the impression compared with other catastrophes in the past that the co-ordination by the UN was rather better than it had been in the past. Whereas in, say, Rwanda or particularly in Kosovo we would meet NGOs and they were constantly complaining about a lack of co-ordination by UN bodies and a lack of leadership, we have not experienced that in this case. Am I reading this wrongly?

  (Mr Ali) I think the co-ordination is not the problem, it is very effective and it is actually very good. The problem is the alternative mechanisms that need to be developed have to be developed quickly because the facts are the UN staff are not allowed to go back inside Afghanistan for the moment and if they are not allowed to go back inside Afghanistan practically it is difficult to release the food which exists. So, the alternative is to take the food directly from Pakistan to the distribution points. Now to take that food to the distribution points you have the threat of air strikes, you have local threats, these are the things which I think have to be addressed in its entirety, not singling out any one particular agency. I think it is just trying to develop alternatives quickly. One of them could well be the pause in the air strikes which would allow people to say "Well, if there is a pause we can get the necessary security clearances to go back, stock up the food that we need and let the NGOs then distribute it from their own". The other one could be "Well, let us create a safe haven, get the food in there or let us create some kind of a corridor and get the food in there". Or, as WFP is doing at the moment, getting in as much as it can under the circumstances to wherever it is possible and then secondary distribution will continue from there on.

  103. I do think it would be helpful, it is an interesting area and if you could expand upon it, it would help our report. In terms of leadership, if, for example, you have got a problem with the Pakistani Government, you said the Government has been pretty good but say you have got a problem in a camp there or a border issue, are you absolutely clear who you would go to in order to negotiate for the Pakistan Government?
  (Mr Walker) I think it is very clear. Clearly we are working, in terms of refugee camps, with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. First and foremost they have a key role in working and negotiating with the Government of Pakistan although clearly we are involved together on that. There are joint fora for actually raising issues and trying to look at solutions to the very real problems that exist. Overall I think we are all very clear that it is the United Nations that has a key role in leading, co-ordinating and managing the whole humanitarian assistance effort. With regard to that, I think we all welcome the appointment of Lakhdar Brahimi as the new special representative. I think the issue is to what extent he and his colleagues are going to be properly resourced to manage what is going to be an extremely complex role here, not just the humanitarian but also the longer term political and the future of the situation there. Yes, just to sum up, the United Nations has a clear role at the forefront in leading and co-ordinating this humanitarian programme and a key role also in the discussions and the negotiations and the agreements with securing the safe access for agencies and the UN to actually do their work. It is the only agency that can move towards ensuring proper impartiality.

  104. Mr Brahimi was my next question. When we were talking last week to Oxfam and CARE they said they hoped Mr Brahimi would have a humanitarian role.
  (Mr Walker) Yes.

  105. Chris's words were that we are "a week later". Is it clear what his role will be on the ground?
  (Mr Walker) I think there is a need for further clarity. It is possibly a little clearer than it was last week. Our understanding is that he is fully charged with bringing to the forefront, humanitarian aspects of the UN's role along with the human rights and also with the political incredibly complex and difficult role. I think there is a danger obviously that we have seen declining expectations of what Mr Brahimi can achieve and I think the question there is the need for proper commitment from the international community to make sure that he has the full backing—the full backing—politically as well as in terms of resources to effectively carry out that role.

  106. I was noticing earlier that the warehouse in Kandahar of the World Food Programme was occupied by the Taliban. Who would negotiate with them? Who would be talking to the Taliban? If your wishes are going to come true there has to be co-operation with the Taliban. Who is doing that on the ground?
  (Mr Ali) I think the lead role for inside Afghanistan lies with OCHA so in any policy discussion, any governmental role, the lead is taken by OCHA and the other agencies come under that umbrella.

  107. There is clarity about that and that role is being fulfilled as well as it could be?
  (Mr Walker) Sorry to butt in, there is an issue as well with the new special representative Lakhdar Brahimi, a need for clarity about this role regionally, how he relates with those key UN posts amongst OCHA, UNICEF, UNHCR, WFP. Certainly, from Save the Children's point of view, I think that is not as clear as it could be and does need some further work.


  108. I have got a couple of quick questions and then what I will do is a tour de table starting with Mr Robathan. So any colleagues, though they are not obliged to, if they have any final questions they can ask them and then I am going to ask you if you have anything you would like to say which you do not think has been covered. You have asked for a pause in the bombing, how long?
  (Dr Mukarji) For as long as the international community can give it because we need, with the UN leadership and the International Red Cross and others, to be able to work not just on a pause but with secure mechanisms to get the adequate supplies of food in. We have to work on two fronts. On the one hand we need to get the pause and on the other hand we need to get the mechanisms for which we can get the food and the other supplies in. If we could dream dreams here, enough of a pause so that we can respond to the humanitarian crisis in the immediate future.

  109. Since we agreed that winter is in 15 days' time or the snow will start in 15 days' time, if there was a pause for the next 15 days how much food aid could you get into Afghanistan during that period?
  (Dr Mukarji) Sir, you have already heard from my colleague, there are more logistic problems than just the actual pause.

  110. No, no. If between now and winter, 15 days, if there is a pause, how much food aid could you get into Afghanistan during that time?
  (Mr Ali) At the complementary side of food and distribution, for NGOs, most of us, we complement the bigger food agencies.

  111. Right.
  (Mr Ali) We take care of mainly the distribution side. So how much food can we take in? I think we will have to ask WFP because they are the food agency and they would have the best estimate.

  112. From your knowledge of what has happened on the ground, if there was a respite for the next fortnight, how much food aid do you think the World Food Programme would get in?
  (Mr Ali) I cannot give you an answer on the whole of Afghanistan but we know the needs of Qandahar and we know what used to come, we know the needs of Qandahar, Helmand, Nimroz, Zabul, the southern part of Afghanistan, and we know the needs of the Central Highlands. I think WFP used to have the capacity to be able to meet those needs regularly. Every month there was a food allocation for these areas and that monthly food allocation would come. If the situation of security, and there is a pause and all that, is taken care of I do not see why that need could not be met again. However, the added problem is that there is actually a gap. Food has not been distributed for September, we are at the end of October, so you are looking at perhaps two months of existing needs and then enough stocks to take people through the winter. So, these are the facts, how long the pause should be, we should base it on the facts we have.

  Chairman: Andrew?

Mr Robathan

  113. I was not going to ask a question but I would just say as humanitarian organisations presumably your work will always be badly affected by any warfare assault. So basically you would like the war to stop full stop, would you, and the bombing? Let us be honest, is that not inevitable? I do not blame you, I entirely see your point.
  (Mr Ali) For Islamic Relief, I think we have worked in operations where there have been bombs falling around us, be it Kosovo, be it Bosnia, be it other places.

  114. In Afghanistan where they have been fighting a civil war for 18 years.
  (Mr Ali) Yes. So agencies are used to war. The point here is I do not think any of the agencies are getting into the political discussion of whether the war should continue or should stop. The agencies want to put forward the fact that there are over five million odd people who need essential supplies in the near future and that it is what we want to happen.

Mr Battle

  115. There is an immediate crisis now in Afghanistan and the media and the world's attention is on Afghanistan. Do you think that the people of Afghanistan in terms of the crisis are the people at this moment in the most need in the whole world?
  (Mr Ali) Could you repeat the question?

  116. Is this the only crisis? Are there others in more need who have not been noticed in your view?
  (Mr Ali) Well, the UN Secretary-General in June declared Afghanistan as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. So if we are basing it on that then at the moment, according to the UN's own Secretary-General, it is the worst crisis, I believe.

Hugh Bayley

  117. I read a report a few days ago that the World Food Programme was buying snowploughs. Now there will be parts, I suspect, quite large parts of Afghanistan where the roads will remain open or could be kept open. Should the World Food Programme, therefore, be spending the next, whatever it is, two, three, four weeks concentrating solely on getting food to the most remote areas which will be cut off and maybe even transshipping food which is already in bigger cities to smaller centres, to which it would be difficult to get through to in the winter? I mean, trucks will be able to get to Kabul, Kandahar, Jalalabad right through the winter, maybe with great difficulty, maybe the journeys will be longer. Is concentrating now on the most inaccessible areas something which ought to happen?
  (Mr Ali) This map, which is by the World Food Programme, mapped out very clearly the urgent areas that need immediate supplies. Yes, what you are saying is quite true that in the next few weeks we need at least to get the urgent supplies in. Then there are secondary urgencies which could be the second round of distribution.

  118. Is that what is happening as far as you are aware?
  (Mr Ali) This is a priority at the moment, yes.

Tony Worthington

  119. If you look at the list that is linked with something you said earlier. If you look at the list of OCHA's partner organisations on the ground, there are something like 25 of them and you look and see there are six from Britain, six or seven from France, the usual clutch of Scandinavian ones and so on and so forth. What does it look like on the ground in terms of the distribution of aid? Does it look like a lot of white Christian Europeans giving out aid? You mentioned good Afghani NGOs, are they being used fully? What do you feel about that issue? Are there enough Islamic organisations and are they there and are they being given the resources to do a job? Does it matter?
  (Mr Ali) I think to clarify what does it look like on the ground in terms of who is giving out the assistance, most agencies work through local staff so most of the time the face that you see in front of the beneficiary is often local staff. There is the management which consists of expatriates from Europe or other places and that management is often concerned with the needs assessment, the monitoring and the evaluation, the impact of the assistance. In terms of local NGOs, we know that there are a lot of good NGOs that are being approached because for areas which we find difficult at the moment to access directly, we have gone to some of the world credible NGOs and they have said "We have got so much on right now from requests like yourselves, from international NGOs, that we are not in a position to assist you". We know that they are being utilised and they are being used. In terms of Islamic NGOs, Islamic Relief is the only European or Western, so to speak, NGO that has a significant presence inside Afghanistan. I would say it is the only British NGO that has a significant presence inside Afghanistan. I think more importantly, what we have found important is to ensure that we collect to a co-ordinating mechanism. Islamic Relief would not promote working in isolation, working outside of a plan that is put forward by the international community. I think that is something which Islamic Relief is making a key effort to do. I do not see a lot of other Islamic NGOs on that table.
  (Ms Kelly) I would just add, speaking on behalf of the local agencies, local partner organisations with whom we work, they have felt actually very well consulted and included in many of the discussions with WFP and the UN which have been going on in Pakistan. Many of them, of course, have been responsible for large scale distribution prior to this. They have indicated to us that it has been a fairly positive experience for them.

2   Ev 49-56. Back

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