Select Committee on International Development Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 131 - 139)




  Can I on behalf of the Committee say how very grateful we are to the representatives of the UN family of organisations for coming and helping us with our understanding of what is happening in the humanitarian relief situation in Afghanistan and the surrounding region. As I said to Catherine Bertini of the World Food Programme and Carol Bellamy of UNICEF, and other colleagues, we are very appreciative. We recognise that at this time you must have enormous pressures on you and requests from every parliament and government around the globe, so we are grateful. We are conscious that time is at a premium and it is a privilege to have you with us. We will do, I hope, what is a very self-disciplined tour de table that way and maybe another one back this way, where the first person will introduce the first topic, and other colleagues may have supplementary questions on that topic and catch my eye. Having exhausted that topic we will then move on to the next colleague and in that way hopefully we will cover all the issues we wish to cover. It requires a bit of self-denying ordinance on our part to be short with the questions because we want to hear information from you. Chris, would you like to ask the first question?

Chris McCafferty

  131. Given the fragility of the economy in Afghanistan before 11 September, could you tell the Committee what in your view has been the impact of the air strikes and the fighting in Afghanistan and has that made a difference? Secondly, given the amazing changes that have taken place in the last week, in particular the last couple of days, what do you think is the likely impact of the Northern Alliance now being in control of huge parts of Afghanistan? Is that going to make a difference to the delivery of food and aid in all of Afghanistan or in particular parts? Clearly the north is an area where there would have been lots of problems anyway in the high mountains. Can you give us your impressions of both those things.
  (Ms Bertini) I am Catherine Bertini from the World Food Programme and I think my colleague Carol Bellamy from UNICEF has a couple of comments on this topic and then we will go presumably in other directions as you go further round the table in the interest of brevity. You are right that pre 11 September Afghanistan was a very bad place to live. People had lived in poverty for a long time, they had lived amidst civil war, they had lived under the Taliban and then they lived in a drought for three years. Because of that the UN was already very involved before 11 September. Since 11 September there was initially a slow down of the delivery because all the international staff first were pulled out by the UN and the NGOs and then were asked to leave by the Taliban authorities. It is only now that we are even in the process of going back into the country. In fact, the first international staff are back in formally today. The impact of what has been going on during the month of October and now in November as far as the aid distribution is concerned has been not as dramatic as some people might think. Unfortunately, our aid workers have had a lot of experience in Kosovo and Angola and Bosnia and elsewhere in getting other goods through very difficult times. Nonetheless, I think we can see even by the television images of the people in the streets that there is at this point a fair amount of happiness, at least by many people, and this will put more pressure in a positive sense on the aid distribution because up until now the aid distribution has had to be with very brave people who are operating trying to avoid not only bombs but also most importantly the dissatisfaction on the part of the Taliban. But we had gotten aid through and we had reached even in this last month the target that we had for food, and that I think has gone extremely well under the circumstances.


  132. Could I be really boring and ask if you could speak up because there are people sitting behind as well.
  (Ms Bellamy) We are not usually asked to speak louder than we always speak! Building on that, just a reminder again that this is a country that had been in 20-plus years of war, a country of three years of drought, and bad winters. Of the 20 countries in the world—I am speaking a bit on the UNICEF mandate—with the worst under-5 child mortality, 19 are in sub-Saharan Africa and the other one is Afghanistan, and it probably has the worst maternal mortality record in the world. You are asking about the economy in part. I do not think we know at this point. Clearly it has been disrupted. The potential might be that women will be able to participate again. They have not been able to participate except in a very modest degree in some health clinics and what we were starting to see (because women were not able to participate and because it is a country of many widows) was an increase in child labour. I am talking about maybe a couple of good things that can come from this. I also wanted to say not all the activity stopped. The UN had not left Afghanistan. Our local staff—World Food, WHO, OCHA, UNICEF—were still there and in fact last week there was a polio immunisation campaign that went on that reached quite broadly. Clearly the economy will be affected. The jobs that women used to hold are now held by men and now they will potentially be available. But I want to emphasise that not everything stopped. There are now opportunities to get some things that had stopped started again with international staff in there but security is still going to be an issue.

Chris McCafferty

  133. Can I just take you back to the point about aid. You have said quite clearly that you are reaching your targets, in fact exceeding them now I understand, but at what date did you finally achieve your target, because back at the beginning of October clearly the targets were not achieved, in fact, not enough aid was going in, I think that was very clear. So at what point did you manage to achieve your target?
  (Ms Bertini) Last week essentially. We stopped on 12 September and on 21 September we started again. We have been using only commercial truckers obviously since the 11 September and we expanded the routes not only from Pakistan but other countries in the region. There is a map in the distribution we gave you to show you this. Then we were able to open additional routes and also DFID has an arrangement with EMERCOM, which is the Russian emergency agency, and they are providing trucks to come in. We have been able through a variety of mostly commercial trucks, plus the Russian trucks, plus additional trucks we have bought into the region, to increase. As of last week in the month before we had reached over the target of 52,000 tonnes.

  134. Just to press you on this point, do you feel then that in that interim Afghani families were at risk any more than they had been previously? That is the question I am trying to get at because we have heard a lot of evidence and we are trying to weigh up very carefully whether it did make a difference or not.
  (Ms Bertini) I believe that only one of our warehouses was ever empty. In other words, when the international staff left on the 12 September and left some brave national staff, there was still food in all but one of the warehouses (one of the warehouses was looted actually after the fact) so we were able to continue distribution. The NGOs are the real champions in this country. It is their national staff who took the food from the WFP warehouses and distributed it. There was food there. That does not mean that the systems were all perfect because a lot of staff—local staff and NGOs and WFP—were not able to work, but to the extent there were people working there was food there to distribute.
  (Ms Bellamy) There was at least some risk, though, with people moving out of the cities. Clearly there are issues of exposure and some of the diseases. It had an impact but I think if everybody thinks that nothing was going on and nothing was reaching that is incorrect—clearly aid was reaching—but there was risk.

  135. Just finally to go back to the second point, how do you see the Northern Alliance now being in control of a huge swathe of Afghanistan? Do you think that that will help you to get more aid into Afghanistan or is that in itself going to be a problem? Is that going to bring problems with it?
  (Ms Bertini) Carol's point about insecurity, because of the changing situation, who is leaving and who is coming, is the major issue right now. I am not aware, I do not know about my colleagues, of any particular concern we have about the Northern Alliance but it is just—
  (Ms Bellamy) There is still some question about what has happened to part of one of our convoys in Mazar. It was either the coming or going but it was again a problem with one of the convoys.

  136. Do you see a role for a peace-keeping force?
  (Ms Bertini) I am going to defer to Mr Mountain.
  (Mr Mountain) Indeed, if I may take up your previous question which related to difficulties in terms of security. We are concerned that the component parts of the Northern Alliance are not always in accord and so the security that Carol mentioned remains a very major concern for us. For example, Mazar is still a difficult area for us to access at the present time. Jalalabad has changed hands but those that have taken it over, for example, are not linked to the Northern Alliance and we are concerned about the possible breakdown into tribal warlordism that existed and has existed before and the impact that will have on the security of deliveries.


  137. Nigel wanted to make a comment and Ann would like to ask a supplementary question.
  (Mr Fisher) Can I just say in our informal contacts with CENTCOM we do understand that they are planning a multi-national military mission which will help stabilise the situation, safeguard the routes, safeguard the airport, and intercede with the various factions within the Northern Alliance to stop them squabbling. That is what we understand. Overall, just showing some proof of how many international staff are now going back in to review the situation, in Herat and Mazar, for example, it is becoming easier for us to go back in to monitor and oversee the situation. The one concern we might have about the Northern Alliance, besides their past human rights' record, is that they are no more sympathetic to the role of women in the future governance in Afghanistan than the Taliban were. It is very useful to have international pressure on them to ensure that women are included in the discussion of governance, the future constitution and institutional structures.

Ann Clwyd

  138. In all past conflicts in Afghanistan, of course, women have come off very badly indeed and I do not think the international community has so far, it appears to us (and we have been following it quite closely) paid sufficient attention to the vulnerability of women and children and the protection of them in a conflict which is not going to be as easily resolved as we might have hoped—what happened today in Mazar-e-Sharif sounds particularly bloody—and the fact that women are going to caught up in all of this does concern me. How can we push this to the front of the agenda to make sure they get that kind of protection which is so necessary in this situation?
  (Ms Bellamy) It has been for us in country already before a high priority. The World Food Programme uses a good number of women in their bakeries. We have been supporting the informal schools so that girls can go to school. One of the things we would hope to get working on as quickly as possible is to try and get some schooling going again and hopefully girls as well as boys will get to school. But women have to be seen not just a victims, women have to be part of the peace-making process. We have all talked to Mr Brahimi about the fact of involving women in the peace-making process. As the Council is put together and then the government is put together, women really have to be part of that.

  Mr Robathan: Can I just ask—

Ann Clwyd

  139. Can we just finish this point because somebody else was going to answer.
  (Ms Bertini) He was going to ask me a question so I will answer both of them.

  Ann Clwyd: Were you asking a question on women?

  Mr Robathan: Nothing to do with women.

  Ann Clwyd: I would like to pursue this. At the moment they are going to be the victims, are they not?

  Chairman: I thought it was a fairly comprehensive answer you got there, Ann, and if we are not careful and everyone answers every question—if we have got more time, it is an important issue, we will come back to it. Andrew?

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