Select Committee on International Development First Report



As early as June 2001, a severe drought and a lack of food were causing a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and large numbers of people were displaced. Many more were stranded in their homes, too weak to seek food and water elsewhere. The attacks of September 11 set in train a series of events that hampered the delivery of humanitarian assistance. International aid agencies withdrew their staff. The bombing of Taliban positions from 7 October brought a further displacement of people. The ground offensive by the Northern Alliance and the rapid collapse of the Taliban forces allowed greater access to much of the country, but created further fear and insecurity. Rising levels of factional tension and fighting, looting by armed gangs and general banditry hampered relief efforts. Such insecurity remains the most significant obstacle to the humanitarian relief effort.

The UN agencies and NGOs issued a collective call for funds as a Donor Alert. Donors have pledged funding, but have been slow to turn pledges into cash payments. The humanitarian operation remains underfunded. DFID has responded well, being the first donor to make contributions against the Donor Alert and in providing important technical assistance.

The predicted exodus of refugees never occurred as closed borders resulted in fewer refugees fleeing. A lack of food and water for the internally displaced and internally stranded populations in Afghanistan remains the principal concern. Although food could not be shipped into Afghanistan for ten days after the September 11 attacks, primary distribution, the delivery of food into warehouses inside the country, has been a success. While UN agencies have been flexible in their approach, problems with onward distribution to the vulnerable continues to give rise to concern.

Security, stability and the protection of humanitarian aid workers are vital for the continued delivery of assistance. The relief effort is relatively well co­ordinated and the Joint Logistics Operation should prove a useful model for the future. The successful co­ordination may be in part due to the existence of established mechanisms to build on.

Further ahead, the focus will need to be on involving the Afghan people, particularly women, in rebuilding their country. Reconstruction will require stability and security. The repatriation of the large Afghan refugee populations in neighbouring countries must be addressed. Difficult times lie ahead - in rebuilding basic services, ensuring food security, developing agriculture, and demobilising tribal factions. The donor governments will have to make, and hold to, a long­term commitment to help Afghanistan.

Three key findings emerge from this enquiry:

  • there is an ongoing humanitarian concern stemming from problems in secondary distribution largely as a consequence of insecurity over large parts of Afghanistan;

  • a lack of funding in certain areas and a tardiness in turning pledges into cash is resulting in gaps in the provision of humanitarian assistance;

  • the courage and dedication of local Afghans (NGO staff), particularly Afghan women, played a crucial part in maintaining humanitarian and other development assistance during the crisis. The Afghan people have demonstrated that they should be central to the future development of Afghanistan.


1. This is a crisis about a lack of food. The conflict and events of September 11 have made the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan more complex but the root cause of the problem remains starvation. The situation in Afghanistan after three years of drought and twenty years of evolving conflict is extremely fragile[1]. The Afghans have lived with poverty for a long time and many are barely able to survive. They face a grave humanitarian situation for the foreseeable future.

2. The Afghanistan UN 2001 Consolidated Appeal indicated that about twelve million people had been affected by a three-year drought, three to four million of them seriously, with one million thought to be at risk of immediate famine[2]. Christian Aid and Islamic Relief told us that as early as June 2001 the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) had warned of widespread famine, a collapse of purchasing power, soaring grain prices and increasing population displacement[3]. Sakandar Ali of Islamic Relief told us "¼the 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"[4]. The difficulties of delivering large quantities of aid in a country with poor infrastructure and limitations on access to the most vulnerable communities imposed by the Taliban[5] meant Afghanistan was a country in crisis long before the events of September 11. The insecurity caused by the conflict has, at times, prevented the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

3. This report begins with an overview of the humanitarian crisis in chapter 1 before going on to look at the direct impact of September 11 on the humanitarian relief effort in chapter 2. Chapter 3 considers the different elements of humanitarian crisis before examining the context in which the humanitarian assistance is being delivered in chapter 4. The report also looks, in chapter 5, at some of the issues that will have to be considered in the longer-term reconstruction of Afghanistan. In chapter 6 we draw our final conclusions.

Future Inquiry

4. The Committee intends to return to the subject of Afghanistan and the surrounding area. A shift from immediate food aid assistance to practical strategies for long-term sustainable development will be necessary to ensure Afghanistan is lifted from its position as the poorest country in the world. That shift in policy will need to be monitored closely.

1  Ev 1 Back

2  UN Consolidated Appeal, Back

3  Ev 21 Back

4  Q115 Back

5  Ev 1 Back

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Prepared 20 December 2001