Press briefing by DSRSG Toby Lanzer in Kabul

14 Feb 2019

Press briefing by DSRSG Toby Lanzer in Kabul

KABUL - The following is a transcript of a press briefing on 13 February 2019 in Kabul.


The Secretary-General’s Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan (Development)

Toby Lanzer

[near verbatim]

Kabul, 13 February 2019

* * *

DSRSG: I would open with one comment which is that I think all of you have been really seized with the issue of peace and that it is a very exciting prospect. What I want to do today is really talk a little about the human dimension. You know peace is a means to an end. Once you have peace the real war begins, the war against poverty, the war to lift the people of Afghanistan up, so they cannot only help themselves and their communities, but they can help Afghanistan move forward in the way that its potentials says it can. So that’s why peace is needed. And the challenges for the people of this country today, I think, are perhaps greater than ever before.

The people of this country are surviving, they are not living. They are surviving what is often written about as the world’s deadliest conflict. They’re surviving the consequences of the worst drought in a lifetime. They are surviving abject poverty unlike that seen in most countries of the world. Here in Afghanistan well over half, 54% of the population, is below the poverty line. A poverty line which is defined as just about one dollar a day.

So, the consequences of everything that’s happening in Afghanistan are really quite striking for the boys and the girls and the men and women across the country. I just had the opportunity to listen to a lot of them, as I’ve been traveling extensively across the north and the west.  

It is really very, very moving that yet again, people are embarking on a new year where they say it is just too difficult. With everything that is going on in the realm of politics and security vis-a-vis peace, what I want to do is really give some meaning to that, give some meaning to these efforts and the importance of them for the 35 or 36 million people who live in Afghanistan and I want to do that now, because if you think it is difficult today, wait until tomorrow. In the absence of peace, the challenges get ever greater.

I just mentioned 35 or 36 million people across Afghanistan that number is set to double in the next 20 years. Imagine an Afghanistan with 72 or 75 million people --and you don’t have to try hard to imagine it because it is right around the corner, it is 20 years away. Imagine an Afghanistan where climate change grips even harder and people in Kabul or Herat or other cities who today complain about the water table being very deep and how difficult it is to access the most basic item that every life requires. Imagine what that will be like in 20 years if there is no peace, if the population has doubled or indeed if the 4 million people from Afghanistan who are living in Pakistan and Iran return. So, the challenge today is immense, the challenge tomorrow could be even greater.

We in the UN estimate today that 13.5 million people are severely food insecure. What does that mean? Technically, it means they are in categories 3 and 4 of food insecurity, but in layman’s terms it means that these are people who are surviving on less than one meal a day. That is what it means --13.5 million people across the country. Last year, thanks to the great work of the World Food Programme, we could help the authorities reach 5.5 million people. I think that that was a considerable feat given some of the insecurity that we faced and some of the access challenges that make our work ever more challenging. This year again we will be aiming to reach at least 4.5 million people who are in need of food assistance. At the same time, we will be giving greater accent to other sectors; health, where last year, for example, emergency health care was provided to over 2 million people; agriculture, where last year 5.2 million sheep, goats and caws were vaccinated against disease. Why is that useful? It is very useful for herders and for people who depend on livestock. And we estimate that that initiative alone by the Food and Agriculture Organization saved people over 130 million dollars, because they didn’t lose their livestock to disease. 

So, we in the UN are taking the situation today very, very seriously. We will continue to reach out to as many people as we possibly can, including of course in the sector of education where in the run up to the new school year we will try even harder, with the authorities, to make sure that every girl and every boy has access to education. I would like to say access to quality education, that’s what needed. We’re working on that. There are still 3.7 million children out of school. We can celebrate that 8.5 million children have access to education, but there is a long way to go. And we should not minimize the challenge ahead. But we are here, we’re standing with the people of this country and with the institutions of the state to give every boy and girl in Afghanistan a fighting chance of a better tomorrow and a safer future, and a more prosperous life. So, with that I’m happy to take any questions that you might have.

NYT: In the context of peace talks how central is the idea of humanitarian access to some other areas where people have been for years deprived of even most basics because they live under the Taliban control; is there any progress on that idea that in this year the humanitarian efforts might reach some of those people who’ve been deprived for so long?

DSRSG: This is a really important question and thank you very much Mujeeb for asking it. There is an idea out there that a lot of people across the country are stranded or stuck or can’t be accessed by non-governmental organizations or UN agencies. In some cases that is certainly true, but I want to pay tribute to the non-governmental organizations --and I could name a few: the Swedish Committee; the Norwegian Refugee Council; Catholic Relief Services and Worldvision-- who hold discussions with authorities locally and gain access to populations. For example, across Ghor, across Badghis, in rural areas of Uruzgan where the conflict is really, I think it’s fair to say, very active at the moment.

Were there to be peace, were there to be even a cessation of hostilities, there would certainly be a list of districts that we would want to get to very quickly. One example would be the district of Shakhwalikot, this is the district about which I’ve spoken before, this is the epicenter of polio in the world.

So yes, there are a few districts, but it is a few where we would want to go and go very quickly to meet the needs of people in the areas of health, in the areas of water, in the areas of agriculture. To give them the best chance at a better life.

That’s a conversation that I think is driven by NGOs and UN agencies, it’s a conversation that we have regularly, actively and were there to be another cessation of hostilities I think we’d be ready to act.

NYT: The Taliban have been demanding taxes from NGOs working in some areas of the country. How much of concern is that and how widespread is the Taliban effort to tax the aid agencies?

DSRSG: I think, when anyone in a position of power tries to tax or reduce the amount of money that an aid agency has, it’s wrong. It’s inconsistent with international humanitarian law, it’s inconsistent with, I think, the principle that we want every dollar to be used as well as it can to the benefit of the people. But let me also say, this is not a one-sided conversation. This is an issue that also arises when we are trying to import humanitarian aid into this country. And it’s not unusual, I want to underline that, in all of the countries where I’ve worked, aid agencies sometimes struggle. Not always, but sometimes struggle with the authorities on either side of any dividing line and if you put yourself in the shoes of a custom officer, for example, there can also be moments of confusion and, perhaps, other types of moments. So we’re having a conversation about this with everyone to make all officials aware and all people in position of influence aware that aid is there to the benefit of people --so don’t misuse it and don’t put pressure on us in any undue way.

Tolo News: I wanted to ask about the UN role in Afghanistan’s peace process. Does UN want to be involved in this process or not?

DSRSG: Well, The UN is by definition an organization that works for peace and we are by definition an organization that works for human rights, we are by definition an organization that convenes countries and people to work together for a better future. We did that, for example, at the end of November in Geneva when we organized the Geneva Conference on Afghanistan, the principle aim of which was to get together member states and the government of Afghanistan to talk about the development agenda and to measure progress, how are things going. And by the way, in many areas, things are going well, the reform agenda, specific issues, such as Afghanistan’s ability to budget, Afghanistan’s ability to manage public resources –there is progress in those very important domains.

But that conference in Geneva also had segments where humanitarian issues were discussed --such as people on the move. There were over 1 million people on the move inside Afghanistan last year. We also had a conversation about peace. So, it’s natural for the UN to be involved in that domain and I would certainly, from the humanitarian perspective, count on all my colleagues working in this area to work harder, faster and better because peace is what the people want most. Peace is, actually, the greatest hunger across Afghanistan.

Tolo News: Do you think that presidential election will be held on the specific time?

DSRSG: I think really it’s for the institutions of Afghanistan to decide when the elections can be best held. It’s important that presidential elections take place and take place as well as possible to try to give a clear signal to the people of this country that whoever wins has done so based on the will and the wishes of the voters. At the moment the election date is 20 July, and that’s something that I certainly consider carefully when I’m planning work with UN agencies across the country. Let’s see how the following months evolve.

1TV: In the context of peace talks, I would like to share a concern that economically Afghanistan is not ready for a sustainable peace, considering the economic situation in Afghanistan. Especially if you look at the soldier level in Afghanistan, the conflict has been the source of income for some of the people. Don’t you think it’s the time for international community to invest a little bit in environment to incentivize any political deal for those people who would like to give up conflict and see their prospects in a different way and join the society?

Taliban recently continuously complained about the situation of their prisoners when it comes to their human rights and many other things. What is the stance of UNAMA in this issue on the eve of the ongoing peace process?

DSRSG: I think, what to do with combatants and what to do with combatants in the run up to peace, or even before it if people want to put their arms down, is a really important point. One of the great frustrations for most men and women across Afghanistan is the lack of opportunity, the lack of opportunity in the economic sphere and I think it would be very important, both in the run up to a peace agreement and immediately after it, to have a very clear socio–economic growth strategy that generates work quickly so that people involved in combat, can become involved in more constructive activity.

If you look at the communique from the Geneva Conference on Afghanistan, paragraph 15, speaks to this point. And it was inserted very deliberately by the UN, the government of Afghanistan and key member states. It refers to the growth strategy that the Minister of Finance is spearheading to try to create employment and opportunity.

Now, of course, there is one thing that’s hindering the type of economic growth which is possible. And that’s the absence of peace. It’s an environment across Afghanistan which diminishes investors, in particular investors of Afghanistan, to invest in Afghanistan. So yes, there are ideas, they are being discussed, dealing with anybody who wishes to put his –and it is he, I’m yet to see a woman in Afghanistan with a gun– weapon down.

On the second point, the prisoners, I would say that the UN human rights team here has a robust ongoing conversation with all relevant parties to the conflict regarding prisoners, where they are, their treatment by the different parties to the conflict. This is obviously a key point also in a run up to any peace.

RFI: Do you confirm that some UN agencies will close next year because President Ghani is not satisfied with their work? The second question, what will be the impact on the way UN is delivering, providing, humanitarian assistance?

DSRSG: During the month of February the UN agencies here are conducting what we call a portfolio review, each UN agency is having its portfolio of work reviewed by the Ministry of Finance. We think this is a very positive development, it’s an exciting opportunity and I’ll tell you why – the Ministry of Finance here is the custodian of the National Priority Programmes, that Afghanistan is rolling out to move forward and eventually reach the SDGs by 2030. We think that the best place for the UN agencies to have a robust conversation with the government of Afghanistan about strategy and how we can help Afghanistan meet some of the key priority programmes, such as the empowerment of women, the best place for that is the Ministry of Finance.

I’m not in a position to confirm anything along the lines of the question you asked. What I can say, is that over the past two years there’s been a very careful review of the UN agencies’ work here, all of the UN agencies’ work comes together under six thematic areas: education, food security, health, the reintegration of returnees, rule of law, and advancing the normative framework and standards of the international community in helping Afghanistan’s institutions meet those.

We have a robust presence here, I think it’s very important to review it regularly, and to make sure that what we do is aligned to the vision and the plans of the institutions of Afghanistan and that’s what we’re doing at the moment.

Just to give you an idea of a couple of those areas, where, I think, our contributions are not to be underestimated. When it comes to vaccinating children across the country, against very common diseases such as, measles or mumps, or rubella, or tuberculosis --there are five basic vaccines that all children should receive-- all of those are procured and the quality is controlled by UNICEF and WHO. That’s a very substantial contribution to the welfare of children throughout Afghanistan. I think, if I were to speak about another area I referred to the Geneva Conference, one of the main achievements in Geneva, was reaching an agreement between international donors on the one hand and the government of Afghanistan on the other on a mutual accountability framework. And again, this is a public document, it took a lot of work. It talks to issues such as civil service reform, how to increase the proportion of women in positions of different government offices. It talks to how the government is refining and improving its procurement of everything. And so, I think the UN contribution to some of these rather key topics has been noted and I would hope that it would continue. Certainly, amongst the line ministers and with others the conversation continues to be very positive.

Zan TV: (inaudible) What are the plans for women?

DSRSG: If I could have all of the UN working in just three areas, it would be: education, food security and women’s health. I think the future of Afghanistan rests on not only empowering women but helping women to stay healthy and to take control of their bodies. And this is a conversation that I’ve had with many, many focus groups across the country. I just did it in Kunduz the other day. I sat with a group of women whose plight was heartbreaking. I listened to one woman, she was 19, at the age of 12 she was sold by her family to get married. She’s had six children, her husband has now left, she is all alone. This happens, or this is just one example that I heard in Kunduz.  It becomes so painfully clear to me that, perhaps, one of the reasons Afghanistan has been struggling is that you are trying to move forward but you are only using the first and the second gear of your car that’s driving your country forward. You need to use the third and the fourth gear as well. So, you are using 50% of your capacity, that’s men. You need to use a 100% of the capacity. So, anything and everything we can do to make sure girls get to school, that women are healthy, that women are literate and able to participate in the political life of Afghanistan, in the economic sphere, and not only sit at the table but actually speak and be listened to by the men. I think, this is absolutely crucial. And we at the UN we’ll continue to do everything we can in this domain. But honestly, it really does hinge on two things, I think one is having a few men across Afghanistan who champion women’s rights and women’s participation and who are willing to take that courageous step to break with the past and to counter culture and to say really if we going to move forward, we need to use all of the capacities available to us and we are missing 50% of them. But it will take a second thing, which is women being ever more assertive. I think it’s the Secretary General who said, don’t wait for anyone ever to give you power, you have to take it. Now, do that in a non-violent way. But certainly, I think, every girl and every woman across Afghanistan, can count on the UN to be with you, beside you on this journey.

NYT: You spoke earlier about the difficulty of reaching people in need in Taliban controlled areas, I wanted you to go into more detail about UNAMA’s strategy in those situations in having to deal with local commanders and any examples of how you may have answered those problems.

DSRSG: We have different ways of approaching this. It happens at different levels. It could be a conversation that takes place locally, where by a group of elders would help message whoever is in control a particular area or community, that we need to access that community for a particular reason from this date to that date. That would be one approach. Another approach would be using some of the contacts that are available with shadow authorities, as they’re known. By the way, this is nothing exceptional, this is something that the departments of the government do very regularly. I could pay tribute to the agriculture department across many, many provinces including the ones I have just been in where there are regular conversations between technocrats in government and shadow authorities to enable things such as locust control to take place. Even continuing education or the provision of health care, these are the things that often are part of a conversation between the authorities of the country and the shadow authorities. Then there’s a third part which are conversations that do take place outside the country. And often we will use not only one of those mechanisms but we may resort to two or all three of them.

Concrete example, I think it was in May 2017 just after my arrival here, there were two polio cases just south of Kunduz and we had not had access to a group of villages for some time and we needed to vaccinate about 300,000 in the greater Kunduz area and it was simply very, very difficult to gain access. In that case, we had conversations on the second track, if you will, which is with shadow authorities, we had conversations with elders and we had conversations outside the country. It is difficult to know which part of that clinched what was required, but within about a week our polio vaccination teams, our frontline health workers, had full access and we prevented what could have been polio spreading like wildfire.

NYT: When you say contacts outside the country what do you mean?

DSRSG:  Well, I think you can put two and two together, I mean they are places where we can go, there is one particular place which you have been writing about a lot recently. You know that is a recognized office where one can go and meet the Taliban and have a conversation as and when is required. We do that in full transparency. It is also a very standard approach as a Humanitarian Coordinator, you know, I do need to talk with and listen to anyone with influence over any territory and, in particular, any people. Because our job is to stand with people and to be as close to the populations in distress as possible.

DPA: Do you find that over past months it has been easier in conversation with the Taliban side to gain access and to get through with what you are trying to do?

DSRSG:  No, I have never found it difficult. I want to underline that. I have worked in many places, and I have worked in places where access has been much more complicated. I have worked in places where governments absolutely did not want aid agencies going into certain parts of the country. I have to say, I had never come across that here. The stated policy of the government of Afghanistan is that anybody in distress or in a need of assistance --you can go. They need to know about it obviously, we work in full transparency. The complication here when it comes to access is ongoing conflict, it is not a policy statement by side A, B, C or D, or however many sides there might be, that you are not welcome, or you should not go. If we struggle to gain access it is almost always because of violence, the threat of violence, not against us, but parties engaging in combat. Or some of our own contacts tell us now is not a good time because something might be about to happen. But I can tell you that this week I was in Balkh and from Balkh we have had teams go west a long way, east a long way, southwest, southeast, northeast and northwest all by road. That is just one example of road movements this week --UN staff, non-governmental organizations reaching communities and providing either assistance or listening to communities about how they see things and what they think they need to help themselves more, than just giving them a handout.

Tolo: I want to ask about Afghanistan government involvement in peace process, do you think it is important that Afghan government must be involved in the peace process?

DSRSG:  I think you know the answer to that question. I think it would be unusual for a peace process to be successful without the full involvement of any government of any country. So, you know, let me just underline again why peace is so vital: it’s an enabler. I think a lot of people are talking about the mechanics of peace, a lot of people are writing that peace means the end of war. Actually, peace is a means to an end, the end being a prosperous Afghanistan where the conversation with the UN is not about aid but trade, where the conversation with your neighbours is not about influence or violence, it is about economics, it is about being a key partner. It is about being a crossroads or a hub for economic trade between Central and South Asia. That is the reality that I believe is at the end of a road on which you have started to travel. And it is a very exciting year, it is a crucial year for the people who, as I said, 54% who are living on less than a dollar a day, who are surviving not living. And that’s why peace is absolutely vital for the people of Afghanistan.

None of you asked about this so let me just mention one thing, the UN could not do its work in Afghanistan, if it were not for the member states of the UN, the most important member state of course is Afghanistan, but in addition, there are member states that provide us tremendous resources to work here. And they include Japan, Korea, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany and a long list of other countries who, I think, demonstrate considerable empathy with the people of Afghanistan directly and via the UN. And I think there really is a central interest in this year being the year, when great strides can be taken on this journey. So, let’s see how it works and I will be very happy to sit with you from time to time, formally, informally, one on one, as you wish, and in particular as I travel across the country if you would like to join me don’t be shy. There are lots of people living outside those T-walls of Kabul and, you know, when I went to Tirinkot recently, people looked at me and said hardly anyone ever comes to see us, do you even know we are here? Do you care? So, I think the presence of the UN, the presence of the NGOs across the country in some of these locations is crucial and we will do everything we can to continue that this year and next. So, you are welcome to join me.

Reuters: Do you think any peace deal with Taliban in the future will impact UNAMA’s humanitarian activities in Afghanistan because you said the real challenge will start after peace deal?

DSRSG: Well, what I said was that the peace will enable the real war: the war against poverty. At the moment, when it comes to humanitarian action, there is an awful lot of work that is happening, a great amount of work that’s happening, and you know, we will continue to stand with the people in need of humanitarian aid and to help the authorities of this country. You know, for example, last year the government had a strategic grain reserve, 60,000 tons of grain. But the government was not in a position at all times to help distribute that grain to people. So there was an arrangement made with the United States, with the World Food Programme and with the government whereby that grain of the government was milled, it was fortified with minerals and it was then distributed. So that type of arrangement whereby we can actually help the authorities with one of their central roles, which is to help people who need help is something that we will certainly be continuing. I think that we would be interested in helping the authorities also expand the extent to which development takes root. When I talk about development, I mean access to quality education for every girl in this country, for example. It also means tackling some these problems that have now arisen. Look at the city of Herat or the city of Qala-e-Naw. In the last 9 months both of those places receive about 200,000 people from rural areas. They were forced from the rural areas either because of violence or because of the drought. They’re in the towns or the cities now. Do you think they are going to go home? What do you think?

Reuters: I don’t think so.

DSRSG:  I don’t think so either, I agree with you. If they don’t go home, that becomes a development challenge for the governor of Herat or the governor of Badghis. It is not a humanitarian issue. If people, 200,000 people, have arrived in the city of Herat and the city of Qala-e-Naw, the question then arises - housing, schools, healthcare, jobs, power grid, markets, all of that becomes a development challenge. When I was in Herat last week, or the week before last, I had a very good conversation with the new governor there, who was very realistic about this. I asked him: Do you think people will go home? And he said: No, I think we need to plan long term for people’s integration. That is a development challenge, we will work with the governor of Herat on that challenge. That challenge, by the way, will become central across more and more areas of Afghanistan because at the moment you have about a third of the population living in cities and two-thirds living in rural areas. And as is the case across all countries of the world, poorer people in rural areas move and they move to cities in search of opportunity. And that will happen and continue to happen across Afghanistan. We think that within 15 years or so, it will be about 50% of the population in rural areas and 50% of the population in the cities. So, managing that movement and planning for urban development so that you don’t have a series of slums but instead have a series of neighborhoods is something that is very, very important. And let me give you one concrete example of how we are helping with that. Just last year UN Habitat worked with the municipality of Kabul and it helped the municipality to register 566,000 dwellings. Why is that important? It is important because after that the municipality can then actually start issuing invoices to people that are called ‘Safayi’. You have a dwelling, you need to pay a service fee to have that dwelling because you are benefiting from the municipality’s services. Last year the Safayi invoices resulted in 5.1 million extra dollars for the municipality here. So that’s an example of a very cost-effective engagement by a UN agency, helping Afghanistan to meet a challenge which will become more and more present as urbanization and urban planning becomes ever more necessary. For those of you from Kabul, you will know, Kabul ten years ago was much smaller than it is today, and ten years from now it will be much bigger than it is today. And I wish you all the very best with that and we will be here for as long as the people of Afghanistan make us feel welcome, need us or invite us to be here.

Q: Last year one of the concerns was the amount of aid needed for humanitarian and the pledges were low. This year, a couple of months into the year, what is your estimate for what you need for humanitarian assistance and what is the level of pledge?

DSRSG: Last year we ended the year well, we ended the year about 85% funded. No financial requirement is ever a 100% met. I think in terms of proportion it was the best funded appeal of any country in the world. And that’s why I really want to pay tribute to the biggest five donors to that appeal, including a couple of countries I didn’t mention earlier, one of them is Australia, which really came to the help of people of Afghanistan, and the other one was is the European Commission.

For this year we need 612 million dollars. That would enable us to meet the needs of about 4.5 million people across the country. And my message to the donor community has been, early money saves money. The longer we wait for money to come in, the more people suffer, and the harder it is to help people fix the situation they are in, or address the acute needs they have, or people die, which is the worst-case scenario. 

In that regard I cannot underline the urgency of the people who are in what we call ‘category 4’ of the food insecurity index. Category 5 is famine. Today 3.6 million people in Afghanistan are one step away from famine. They are in category 4. Reaching those people is the single biggest humanitarian priority. So, for donors to come, and come quickly and come generously is vital and that’s why I will actually be knocking on doors across Europe for the next week to have discussions in Brussels, in London, in Stockholm, and other places to raise attention for this very acute need. There are more severely food insecure people in Afghanistan than in any other place on earth, except one. I mean, the situation here is acute. There is a food insecurity crisis. I can’t overstate the issue. I’m counting on donors, all development ministers received a letter from me the first or the second week of January, we’ve got some responses – it’s not where I wanted to be yet.

RFI: Is the UN planning to participate in the peace talks? I mean between Khalilzad and the Taliban?

DSRSG: No. You’ve asked a very specific question -Is the UN trying to participate in the talks between US envoy Khalilzad and the Taliban. As you described them, they are talks between US envoy Khalilzad and the Taliban.

RFI: So, the UN is not concerned to participate in these peace talks?

DSRSG: I think the conversation between US envoy Khalilzad and the Taliban is a conversation between US envoy Khalilzad and the Taliban. Is the UN concerned about peace and always ready to help and has it been asked to help in other areas?  Absolutely. But there are certain issues where it’s of a different nature, I would say.

Thank you very much. I really appreciate your interest and your help.