The suffering of the Afghan people should not be forgotten and humanitarian aid should be increased. These were some of the headlines at the ‘Waiting for Hope’ conference that focused on what works and what doesn´t in the conflict ridden country.
‘Find me 60 Afghan students, and together we will develop technology relevant for refugee camps and new settlements’.
This is the challenge that was given by Dean Martin Vigild, Danish Technical University to the 100 conference participants. DTU is already cooperating with Roskilde Festival to probe products for refugee camps and in Afghanistan, the university could be interested in contributing to the work within the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) scheme and roads and construction.
The student exchange was just one of many interesting ideas and suggestions aired at the ‘Waiting for Hope’ conference in Copenhagen on, September 12th, organised by DACAAR and Danish Refugee Council.
Moderator and journalist, Keld Broksø, who has visited Afghanistan 20 times, since 1986, welcomed the conference participants with a rhetoric question:
“Why are we here? To cut it short. We are in this room because we care. We care about the Afghan people, their safety and prosperity.”
Klaus Løkkegaard, Head of the DACAAR secretariat, added in his opening remarks: “It is important that we as donors, politicians, researchers and NGOs, create platforms where we can share experiences and openly talk about how we can improve our work in Afghanistan. This conference is an example of that.”
Minister: Part of creating hope
Despite the volatile security situation and the complicated nature of working in such a setting, Ulla Tørnæs, Minister for Development Cooperation, sees the glass as half full in Afghanistan.
She listed a lot of the progress, since 2001: School enrolment has increased from 1 million in 2002 to around 9.2 million for general education today. Attendance of girls has risen from very few to 39 percent. Access to health services has risen from 9 per cent in 2001 to 57 per cent in 2017. Millions have been given access to safe drinking water.
The Minister is convinced that Afghanistan will need international backing for many years to come in terms of humanitarian assistance, development co-operation and security support: “The international community will need to be persistent and patient in order to consolidate progress - to the benefit of the Afghan people, but also to the benefit of Denmark and Europe. Denmark is strongly committed to this,” she said. Ulla Tørnæs is aware that some people are profound pessimists as to what will become of Afghanistan.
“Others, mostly Afghan politicians, are overly optimistic and paint too rosy a picture. To me, it seems that a stark realism is the best stance to take. Conflict, poverty and fragile institutions do not translate into easy solutions. But the glass is half full. And we are not only ‘Waiting for Hope’, we are part of creating hope.”
Humanitarian aid needs to be increased
When it was his turn to speak, Secretary General of Danish Refugee Council, Christian Friis Bach stated that “Few people have endured similar hardships over decades. 45% of all Afghans have been displaced. 40% live below the poverty line. Only 35% have ever experienced to live in times of peace.”
To the Secretary General the ‘Waiting for Hope’ conference provides the opportunity to reflect on what can be done to successfully build on the hard-proven capacities that Afghans have: “As well as the ways in which we can honour their hopes and aspirations of living in peace and prosperity.”
Christian Friis Bach put forward two main messages. Firstly, humanitarian aid needs to be increased substantially and become much more predictable. Secondly, that short term humanitarian intervention and long-term development assistance must and should be better linked in Afghanistan.
He points out ways of how this could be done, for instance, he reckons that donors should reform the way they provide funding.
“When the typical timeframe for humanitarian assistance for newly displaced people consists of a two months relief, then it is very difficult to make a bridge to the three to four year development programmes in the country,” he explained.
Jakob Brix Tange, the Ambassador of Denmark to Afghanistan from September 2017 to September 2018, stressed the importance of the recent cease fire and the upcoming elections. In his opinion it could be a game changer.
“I am an optimist,“ he said and added that new opportunities will arise when peace prevails.
Irene Horejs, Head of Unit in ECHO, commended photographer Sandra Calligaro for the photo exhibition, which the European humanitarian aid provider has funded.
Her focus is on Emergency Response Mechanism (ERM), based on the needs of the displaced in Afghanistan, which is exactly what the photo exhibition portrays.
Protection and Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) packages are an important part of the Emergency Response Efforts.
For the EU, Afghanistan is the most important recipient of bilateral aid and there is a need to tell the public what work is being carried out.
“We must keep Afghanistan visible,” Irene Horejs stressed.
An Afghan fix in an Afghan context
DACAAR Director John Morse underlines the importance of ensuring an Afghan fix in an Afghan context. He made a clear distinction between access and security.
“We are working with the community not for them,” he said from the podium.
DACAAR’s national field staff is able to get close to the community at their region of origin, understanding local policies and the dynamics of local security providers.
“Community led interventions support DACAAR's access and helps us to get to where we need to be,” he explained.
For John Morse longer term solutions is key, not to cause a protracted displacement problem:
“The Afghan people are one of the most resilient people in the world. We need to be careful, we support that resilience, not undermine it. Linking the support we give in crisis to helping them with long term opportunities does that. With humanitarian actions we have to be very careful not to cause long term humanitarian problems.”
For DACAAR, helping locally is the best way, but access to insecure areas is needed for this.
Combating corruption through technology
Tahmina Salik, who fled the country in 2000, and is now part of the Afghan Diaspora in Denmark, stresses that technology is a driver for development in Afghanistan: “In 2003, less than 100, 000 Afghans had access to a phone. Today, more than 90% of Afghans have access to a mobile phone,” she said.
Tahmina Salik and other speakers highlight corruption as one of the main challenges in Afghanistan.
“I believe that the best way to combat corruption is to use more mobile based technology, which is already available and widely used in the country.“
She mentions the problem of the so-called ghost field workers, where salaries are paid to employees that do not in fact exist. A major international aid agency faced problems with this and fixed it through technology.
“We know that ghost teachers, ghost soldiers and ghost police officers remain a huge problem which is feeding corruption.”
Tahmina Salik sees technology as the way forward: “Denmark and other donors should partner with technology companies and telecom operators to disburse aid, monitor projects and increase transparency. There is more technology in Afghanistan than people know and we can use this technology, especially mobile based technology, to ensure our tax payers’ money is reaching those who need them the most. “
12 journalists killed in 2018
Other organisations also gave their input at the ‘waiting for Hope’ conference.
Susanna Inkinen from International Media Support (IMS) said that the security situation for journalists is deteriorating in Afghanistan. 12 journalists were killed in 2018 already. To do critical, independent journalism is hard and self censorship is common, but online media offer new and interesting platforms. However, the risk of propaganda is also increasing. IMS is working on nationwide safety mechanisms, but protection against spontaneous attacks is very difficult.
Mission Eastis focusing on basic services like water and food security in Afghanistan. Director Kim Hartzner adds from the floor that respect and appreciation of local culture is central to the efforts and that it is very important to buy locally.
Danish People’s Aid builds schools in government controlled areas to reduce the risk of armed opposition burning down the buildings. Programme Coordinator, Lars Bru Jørgensen points out that female access to education is in focus. One of the challenges is that local entrepreneurs see the NGO as a competitor and that permission by the government is needed to do the work.
Lene Ingvartsen, chairperson of the Danish Afghan Committee, shared her experiences with the difficulties of getting proper funding and how a major application for funds did not get approved due to very unclear procedures.
Look beyond Kabul
During the debates at the conference, several ideas and suggestions were put forward.
• E-learning for teachers and students could be a way of improving education in Afghanistan.
• The importance of investing in the Afghan private sector.
• It is very difficult to export Afghan produce, there might be potential in export of ingredients, but not finished products.
• Basic skills training is needed to boost the Afghan economy.
• It is important to look beyond Kabul when working in Afghanistan.
Advocacy in an Afghan context is touched upon by several speakers at the conference. DACAAR Director John Morse framed it this way:
“NGOs in general are not confrontational and they including ourselves are doing advocacy on many issues, but the dynamics and bureaucracy within Afghanistan put us in a very vulnerable position. We need help with that advocacy.”
In this respect donors could play an important part.
The 'Waiting for hope' conference was co-financed by ECHO, European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations.