UN Humanitarian Coordinator press conference

17 Feb 2010

UN Humanitarian Coordinator press conference

KABUL - Transcript of press conference in Kabul by UN Humanitarian Coordinator Robert Watkins, Deputy Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General in Afghanistan; Wael Haj-Ibrahim, Head of Office, OCHA Afghanistan; and Laurent Saillard, Director, ACBAR. 


NAZIFULLAH SALARZAI, UNAMA: Good morning. Welcome to today’s UNAMA press conference. Our distinguished guest speakers today are Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General, Robert Watkins, who is also the Resident Humanitarian Coordinator; Laurent Saillard, Director of Agency Coordinating Board for Afghan Relief (ACBAR); and Wael Haj-Ibrahim, Head of the Office of Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). They will present to you about the Humanitarian Action Plan (HAP) 2010 to you all.

DSRSG WATKINS: Thank you very much. The focus of our press conference this morning is going to be on the launching of the 2010 HAP. I would like to say a few preliminary words about some ongoing humanitarian actions right now.

First, I would like to express my condolences to those who lost their lives in the recent tragic avalanche in the Salang pass. I would like to praise the work of the Afghan authorities in their rapid and well-coordinated response to that disaster and it’s a great source of pride that in spite of the heavy loss of lives we were quite impressed with the rapid reaction and the response of the Afghan authorities.

I would also like to say a few words about what is going on in Helmand province.

We have now so far registered 1,402 families, who have been displaced as a result of the conflict of which 675 have received assistance. We have several UN organizations and NGOs working in the region providing food and any necessary healthcare needs of the population. The World Health Organization (WHO) has begun its polio vaccination campaign in that region where it is able to access the population. But there are some areas where, because of continued fighting, they are not able to continue the campaign.

UNHCR is assisting the government in the registration of displaced families and the World Food Programme (WFP) is providing food and is so far reporting that they have adequate stocks to meet the needs of the displaced population.

Finally, I would just like to say that I want to once again call upon all parties who are involved in this conflict in Helmand to ensure the impartiality and access of humanitarian organizations to affected civilians. I would like to ask them to ensure free movement of civilian population that wish to leave the zone of conflict. I want to remind all parties to take extreme and robust measure to ensure that the number of civilian casualties is limited.

We believe that it is absolutely essential that civilian casualties are completely avoided and that all parties take the necessary steps to ensure that this is the case.

Now, I would like to say a few words about the HAP 2010 in Afghanistan. This is our second consecutive HAP for the country and we have a new plan that envisages the need of some US $ 870.5 million.

The 2010 HAP was produced by the Humanitarian Country Team, the Clusters and the broader humanitarian community to highlight the vulnerability of the people of Afghanistan.

The framework is a planning and implementation tool intended to improve the efficiency and timeliness of humanitarian response.

United Nations Human Development Index lists Afghanistan as 181 out of 182 countries and suffers from chronic poverty. One effect of this underdevelopment is that national institutions do not have the capacity or necessary resources to support the humanitarian needs of the affected population.

The HAP sets out to address this institutional gap and to mitigate the effects of hazards and conflict for the protection of the most vulnerable populations.

Afghanistan needs long-term development and many donors support recovery and reconstruction efforts. However, the impact is often undermined by emergency situations, such as natural disasters and conflict. The HAP sets out to ensure that humanitarian programming complements and strengthens the link to early recovery and development.

Although Afghanistan is subject to a range of natural disasters such as what we saw at the Salang pass, we believe that there are many vulnerable communities within the country and we believe that it is through local Afghan and international NGOs that help reach these populations in the conflict areas.

So we not only want to use this document as a way of drawing attention to the needs of these populations, but also we count very much on the support of these national and international NGOs to deliver assistance in areas most difficult to access.

The 2010 HAP includes US$ 356 million (41 per cent) to NGOs.

Another goal of the 2010 HAP is to improve coordination of humanitarian efforts by ensuring that all humanitarian actors in Afghanistan are focused on the same objectives and working together. Coordination, consensus and agreement on key messages will reinforce efforts to reach those most in need of our assistance.

One major obstacle to good coordination in Afghanistan is finding reliable information on which to base assessments, plan strategies and monitor/evaluate implementation. Improving data collection is a priority within this year’s HAP.

Streamlining data collection and making the results available to the broad humanitarian community will ensure consensus of statistics and again further strengthen the aid community’s ability to raise the necessary funds in times of crisis. Such effective cooperation will also strengthen donor confidence in the aid community to deliver in an efficient and effective manner and ensure more lives are saved.

Of increasing concern to the humanitarian community is the expanding role of the military in delivering civilian assistance.

The 26 Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) currently in Afghanistan represent the varying agendas of different nations and each PRT allocates aid to the specific area where they are located. This means that aid is being distributed on a geographical basis rather than according to needs; and while some provinces are assured of high levels of aid, there are other needy provinces with little or no assistance.

Distribution of humanitarian assistance should remain solely within the realm of humanitarian actors and not the military; the military may be called upon only in exceptional circumstances and by the appropriate authorities. The distribution of aid by military personnel gives the wrong signal to communities who then perceive all aid to be associated with the military. This has led to threats of violence against the humanitarian community and hampered their ability to deliver needed services.

Finally, we are calling upon all of the governments and organizations present in Afghanistan to help us in raising the funds we believe are necessary to help the vulnerable populations within the country.

Thank you very much.

LAURENT SAILLARD: I would like to talk about five points. Why it is important to support the HAP and why the HAP is an important document. There are five main reasons.

The first reason is related to the situation we face. We don’t foresee an improvement of the situation security-wise in the country. There are several factors that enforce this assumption. It is related mainly to the military surge. We assume that, in regard to the increase of the military presence, there will also be an intensification of the conflict, which will impact on the living conditions of civilians in Afghanistan. We foresee a deterioration of the humanitarian situation. This is one of the reasons.

The second reason is related to the question of access, which the HAP is trying also to address. There are needs, but the problem is how to reach out to the populations. How to deliver assistance, especially in the conflict-affected areas? The HAP proposes different solutions, especially in linking the work of the UN agencies and NGOs. This is one of the ways of addressing this problem of access. NGOs are present in all provinces and have, in many cases, a long-term relationship with the communities, and have the capacity to access people in most parts of the country, not everywhere, but in most parts of the country.

To summarize, the NGO network is one of the most efficient ways to access the people and address their needs. The third point is related to the militarization of aid which has been raised by Mr Watkins. I think the HAP is a necessary alternative in an environment where aid tends to be associated to a political or military agenda. At least the HAP proposes a good alternative, which means to focus more on the needs base and the principles of assistance, rather than military or politically motivated ones.

The fourth point which is, in fact, very much linked to point number two, is about the importance of supporting the NGOs network. During the previous HAP, only four percent of the resources were channeled trough NGOs. In this HAP, I think that 40 per cent of the project is proposed by NGOs. I think it is really critical here that there is strong support to the project proposed by the NGOs as well as the projects proposed by the UN system.

To conclude, the fifth point is about the importance of supporting certain sectors, which were under-funded during the previous HAP. These sectors such as health, nutrition, protection, are critical during these current times, as well as water and sanitation.

I would also insist on the importance of a better link between humanitarian response and early recovery and long-term development and the necessity also to strengthen coordination mechanisms at central and provincial levels.

The Humanitarian Action Plan can contribute to address all these points. Thank you very much.


KILLID GROUP [translated from Dari]: There are concerns expressed that in the past, areas that were not accessible due to security reasons, assistance was given to government institutions. There was no supervision and there was corruption and misuse of assistance. I would like to know if this issue has been addressed in the new plan?

DSRSG WATKINS: As I mentioned, we want to, as much as possible, use national and international NGOs, which are able to go into these areas of conflict and we rely on them to provide assistance as much as possible. It’s very difficult for government agencies to go into conflict areas and that, in fact, is one of the main reasons why there are so many vulnerable communities. This is indeed because government services cannot be delivered and why we must rely on other channels.

RFE/RL: As you said, you need above US$ 800 million for the 2010 plan. How much money do you have now and how much do you need to come from the international community? Meanwhile, you have said that about 40 per cent of this money will be spent by NGOs? Is there a survey on how many NGOs are corrupt and how many are transparent? Many Afghans are concerned about this issue.

DSRSG: I’ll take the first part. The appeal has just been launched. The response so far, officially, is about two per cent of the total amount. But the appeal has just been launched. We have strong indications from a number of donors that we have visited over the last couple of weeks that there will be very important contributions particularly in the areas of food and health and protection which are very important areas. We are very optimistic that we will have a good response from donors. Second, we have been in discussions with donors and made it clear that we are not only looking for new additional funding for Afghanistan, but we are also asking donors to channel some of their development rehabilitation assistance into these humanitarian activities.

ACBAR: Thank you for asking the question about corruption. It is an important point. What we would like to say, first, is that you can be sure this is something we watch carefully. The last thing we want to see is misuse of tax-payers money or public money, which is supposed to support the people. So let’s be absolutely clear.

There are many ways of tackling corruption. A few important points: First – and that is the case for the HAP – NGOs, when they submitted their projects, match with criteria and with international standards, like the accounting systems, human resource management system, project management, needs assessment mechanisms and so on and so forth. So that they have transparent and accountable systems and they report their activities to the Ministry of Economy and to their donors on a regular basis. And that information is all public.

Another point is the presence in the field to control what we are doing. That’s why access is so critical. The other point is information. Matching with international standards is very important, but it is not enough. People also need to know what they are entitled to. That’s why the involvement of the community, when you design and implement the project is important, so they can at least monitor what is going on by themselves and if they have a problem they can complain or they can at least address and request, and clarifications can be brought.

So all these elements including, matching the standards, presence in the field to control what you are doing and sharing of information are three critical points.

So I think this is really what we are looking at when we are talking about tackling corruption. Also that’s why the media is so important.

FREELANCE JOURNALIST: My name is Aunohita. I’m a freelance journalist from India. I have two questions, one is on the direct spending by the military something on which the UN has been able to take a stand. The second part is the use of civilians as force multipliers – or the post-battle field clean-up operation. I would like your comments on whether you feel this compromised the neutrality of the civilian and humanitarian community? And my second question is for Robert Watkins: Seeing the decreasing access of UN agencies and seeing a recent policy document by the largest donor, the US, which intends to direct most of the aid to areas where their troops are based and also intends to use civilians as force multipliers. Do you think this reflects the failure of the UN to play a neutral role and as a coordinating mechanism for the aid?

OCHA: Thank you for the question. I think it is important to discuss the issue of the role of the military in delivering development or humanitarian aid. This is a very complex issue, but I will try to make it brief for the sake of everyone’s time.

We look at this issue from two angles: the issue of principle and the issue of practicality. As a matter of principle, development actors or humanitarian actors are well trained and have the experience in delivering assistance to the people who need it. Asking the military to do it is not the best use of resources and to deliver the best services to the people who need it. And on the matter of principle: aid should be provided on basis of need and not political or military strategies. Which leads us to the practical part: if that aid is delivered as part of a military or political strategy the counter-strategy is to destroy that aid. And that is why we call on the military not to be involved in delivering food assistance, healthcare or building schools and clinics.

Our experience suggests that the community will be at risk if this effort is seen as a part of a military strategy. With respect to the civilian surge, it is the same – if the civilian surge is meant to be part of the political military strategy it will lead to the same failure. People’s acceptance of the service provider and to the service is key to the success of the effort.

That is why Mr Watkins and Mr Saillard mentioned we feel that community-based organizations – NGOs, whether national or international – are the best mechanisms to provide assistance and we urge the donor community to provide the resources for that.

DSRSG WATKINS: We fully recognize in the United Nations our reduced access to different parts of the country, because of the spread of the conflict and the increasing number of insecure areas, which means we cannot operate as much as we used to. However, in spite of that fact and the given results of the Humanitarian Action Plan for 2009, donors have been very supportive of the efforts that the UN and NGOs are conducting activities in the area of humanitarian assistance, so I have not seen a diminishing interest or attention on the donors’ part.

And, in fact, it is because of the reduced access that the appeal for 2010 has increased compared to 2009. I would emphasize, once again, why we must increasingly rely on national and international NGOs to deliver aid to those difficult areas.

NEW YORK TIMES: General McCrystal and ISAF have made a lot of the so called “government-in-a-box” role in Marjah. I want to know if you can comment on the perspective of military delivering services. Also, are there any UN agencies that are part of this “government-in-a-box” …. They’ve made clear that they want to deliver things like health services, etc.

DSRSG WATKINS: First of all, let’s be clear, it is not the military that will be delivering the services. The military has a strategy for clearing the area so that the Afghan institutions can deliver those services. We, as the United Nations and NGOs – the humanitarian community – are not a part of that process. We do not wish to be part of that process, because we do not want to have the humanitarian activities that we deliver to be in any way linked with those military activities. Nonetheless, it’s the sovereign right of the Afghan Government to deliver services to its population, wherever that might be. It is fully within their responsibility.

We deliver services where they are needed as best as we can. But we are not and we will not be a part of that military strategy.

WAKHT NEWS AGENCY [translated from Dari]: My question is regarding the HAP. Where will the focus of this plan be? Will it be only in areas under conflict or all of Afghanistan? And I wanted to know the UN's views on the recent arrest of the Taliban leader in Pakistan?

DSRSG WATKINS: The HAP is intended to deliver assistance where it’s most needed - whether that be in areas that are in conflict or not in conflict, where we, on the basis of our joint UN-NGO assessment of needs. As I have said earlier we have identified a majority of needs, not all needs are in those areas under conflict for the reasons which I mentioned, which is there is a lack of government access to those areas to provide service. Regarding the second part of your question, we have no comment or position on that.

RAHE NEJAT [translated from Dari]: In several conferences, it was mentioned that to ensure the transparency and the effectiveness of aid, assistance should be channeled through the government. How come this assistance is essentially given through local and international NGOs, at a time when the head of the anti-corruption authority says that most NGOs are involved in corruption?

DSRSG WATKINS: First of all, let’s make it very clear: we are officially encouraging assistance channels through the government for rehabilitation and development assistance. When it comes to humanitarian assistance, we believe that the proper channels are outside the government because of the reasons that we have been discussing, that most of the needs are in conflict areas where the government is unable to provide this assistance, and will not be well received by parties of the conflict. It is important that neutral and impartial organizations provide this assistance.

ACBAR: If I can react on one specific point. The last one that was mentioned in the question made by the head of the anti-corruption commission. I think these types of declarations, that all NGOs are involved in corruption are completely counter-productive. It is misleading information. I am not saying there are no problems of corruption. There are certainly problems of corruption, but can we accuse an entire group of organizations? By the way, when we talk about NGOs, we have to be precise, because NGOs constitute a very specific type of organizations that are non-profit making organizations. Now, in Afghanistan, when the term “NGO” is used you have everything, you have the UN, you have NGOs, you have the PRTs, you have private contractors, you have a bit of everything. NGOs are not profit-making organizations. It is a very special category. What I want to say is that these types of statements are completely counter-productive. They send an extremely negative and wrong message to the population and increase the level of distrust. We have to be very careful with that. Also, one thing we have to be careful about: We need success stories in this country. There are things that work and there are services that are delivered every day.

It is very easy to point the finger and to say: ‘You are corrupt.’ But look at the number of people who really receive assistance in this country through these organizations. We are talking about 10 million people--one third of the population.

All these people basically survive in this country because of the presence of these organizations. I am not saying it is perfect, there are problems. But look at the problems. Why are there problems? And how to address them, rather than condemning an entire group of organizations that have been working for decades in very harsh conditions, and have delivered assistance. Let’s be measured by these type of things.

PAJHWOK [translated from Dari]: We again come to the question of militarization of the aid. What are those political and military objectives that are behind the militarization of aid that concern you?

DSRSG WATKINS: It is not so much what is behind this. You should ask the military what is behind it. What is of concern to us is that it causes confusion between who is a military actor and who is a humanitarian actor and we believe our humanitarian actors have more credibility in the eyes of the population as it is more impartial.

We are looking to assist anyone who is in need, where military may have other objectives and it is important for us that this distinction is made very clear to the local populations. So that they do not think that humanitarian actors, who have neither military nor political agendas, are part of that process. We want to keep the two actors and their intentions very distinct.