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UK Support for Aid Workers and the Afghan People

Volume 710: debated on Thursday 10 March 2022

International Development Committee

Select Committee statement

We now come to the Select Committee statement. Sarah Champion will speak for up to 10 minutes, during which no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of her statement, I will call Members to put questions on the subject of the statement, and will call Sarah Champion to respond to those questions in turn. Members can expect to be called only once, and I stress that interventions should be questions, not mini-statements, and should be brief. Front Benchers may take part in questioning.

The Select Committee on International Development published its report, “Afghanistan: UK support for aid workers and the Afghan people” last Friday, one week after Russia invaded Ukraine. I thank all the witnesses we had; I thank the members of the Committee; and I thank our excellent Committee team for all their work, both on the inquiry and on putting the report together. Our focus was on the impact of the Afghanistan withdrawal on the humanitarian situation in that country, its impact on the operation of aid organisations and the people working for them, and how to help prevent similar impacts from playing out in the UK’s response to other humanitarian crises in future. We brought forward publication of our report by a week, as we noted with grave concern parallels emerging in the UK’s response to the rapidly deteriorating situation in Ukraine.

UK and allied forces left Afghanistan in August 2021. The Taliban takeover was rapid. The humanitarian jeopardy is extreme, and the scale of the humanitarian response required is unprecedented. At the same time, the safety of aid workers has been compromised. Any contingency plans that the Government had for evacuating aid workers were neither apparent to the sector nor scaled adequately. Some Afghans who worked on projects funded by the UK Government are now reporting that their lives are at risk of reprisals from the Taliban authorities. Aid workers are at the forefront of responding to people in humanitarian jeopardy. Our report concludes that the Government have a moral duty towards those workers who have helped deliver UK aid projects in Afghanistan and, by extension, aid workers helping to deliver UK aid elsewhere.

The Government’s immigration schemes do not adequately support aid workers seeking safe passage to the UK. Many Afghan aid workers feel abandoned by our Government. The Committee’s concern about immigration routes was narrow: the Government’s treatment of Afghan aid workers seeking safe passage to the UK. In our December oral evidence session, witnesses told us that the Government’s contingency plans for the evacuation of aid workers were neither apparent to the sector nor scaled adequately. Our report calls on the Government to accelerate without further delay all pathways of the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, and ensure that aid sector staff are explicitly recognised and prioritised for protection under that scheme.

We fear that the same approach to people fleeing a humanitarian crisis is being adopted by the UK Government in their response to Ukraine. Yesterday, we heard worrying reports that Ukrainian staff in the British embassy in Kyiv are being denied entry to the UK. Some British staff have described what is happening as “Afghanistan part 2”. Once again, we see the Government showing the same inflexibilities by only making limited, begrudging concessions to pre-existing UK immigration routes; failing to provide sufficient clarity on what routes are available; and dragging their feet in setting up new routes, or variations to existing ones. That response must change.

Following 40 years of war, the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan is devastating and worsening. The withdrawal of UK and allied forces precipitated the rapid collapse of the previous Afghan Government and takeover by Taliban militants. Since then, the number of people needing humanitarian assistance has grown to 24.4 million, more than half the population. Some 23 million people are facing acute hunger. It has been a harsh winter, following hard on the heels of Afghanistan’s worst drought in 27 years, and its people continue to suffer as the country emerges into spring. We are deeply grateful to aid workers, be they British, Afghan or any other nationality, for all they have done and continue to do for the people of Afghanistan. The work they do is phenomenal, but my Committee is ashamed that our Government have not given them the support and clarity they need. In our report, we urge the Government to take a broader, more holistic view of their duty of care towards people working in the aid sector. They simply do not accord those people the respect and support they deserve.

In terms of humanitarian need, witnesses told us how overlapping factors are affecting the situation in Afghanistan and the disbursal of aid to the Afghan people. There has been a complex interplay between the banking liquidity crisis and the deepening humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. Women, children and minority groups are suffering disproportionately. Our Committee heard how international sanctions designed to punish the Taliban were instead cruelly punishing the people of Afghanistan. We heard how the UK Government have been too slow to act on mitigating the impact of those sanctions. In our report, we conclude that the Government should have liaised more effectively and swiftly with the aid sector, international allies and financial institutions to help to resolve the challenges that sanctions pose to the aid sector, address the collapse of the banking system in Afghanistan and free up the nominated funds frozen by the World Bank.

We welcome the UN Security Council’s December 2021 adoption of a resolution to provide exemptions from sanctions for humanitarian assistance. It also provides exemptions for other activities designed to support basic needs, such as the provision of shelter, food and water, education, health, nutrition and hygiene. We also welcome the UK Government’s adoption of that resolution into UK law at the end of January this year. We urge our Government to further step up their efforts to work with the UN and aid organisations to ensure they can effectively operate under those exemptions. Furthermore, we call on the UK Government to press for the UN Security Council to extend that resolution or bring forward further resolutions to provide additional exemptions for development assistance, closely linked to the performance of the Taliban on upholding human rights and international law.

The World Bank released a statement on 1 March, after the Committee’s report had gone to print, noting further progress on agreeing a plan for the release of further funds from the Afghanistan reconstruction trust fund. We urge the Government to do more to encourage the World Bank to swiftly release the remaining funds, so that aid organisations can use that money to provide humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan. The Government have pledged significant sums of aid since their withdrawal from Afghanistan, but the release of that aid to people who so desperately need it has been excruciatingly slow. The Committee’s report concludes that the Government should have worked faster to disburse the aid they pledged to Afghanistan in 2021.

We urge the Government to continue to support the Afghan people, to whom they have a moral responsibility given the decades of UK military and political interventions there. At the same time, we fear that the narrative of the UK not acting swiftly enough to disburse pledged UK aid will play out in their response to Ukraine. Again the Government have pledged significant sums of aid, but how quick will they be to disburse that aid to the Ukrainian people? Speed is of the absolute essence when people’s very lives hang in the balance. I commend the report, and this statement, to the House.

I thank the hon. Member for her excellent statement. I do not want to put her on the spot, but can I ask her what duty of care she thinks the Government have towards aid workers?

The Government’s contracts with non-governmental organisations are very clear that they do not have a direct duty of care. However, my Committee felt that they do have a moral duty of care, because in the country in which they operate, they are operating as the face of the UK Government—they are going to stations with the UK flag on them, with “UK Aid” written on them, particularly when they are working directly with the UK embassy. We felt that the Government very much have a moral duty towards aid workers, even if there is not a personnel-type duty towards them.

I thank the Clerks and the Chair of the Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), for this excellent and detailed report, and I pay tribute to the NGO workers on the ground. They are working in extraordinarily difficult circumstances, and I so admire their courage. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we are seeing the same problems in Ukraine as in Afghanistan, so does she agree that the Government must learn from previous mistakes and have full contingency plans in place to get humanitarian workers out of the country as and if necessary, no matter whether they are employees of a directly funded organisation or subcontractors?

The disbursal of aid to Afghanistan has been woefully slow, and we still do not know how much of the aid allocated by the Government has been disbursed. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office must publish monthly updates on the allocation and disbursal of aid to Afghanistan and countries in the region? Bureaucratic hurdles continue to hold up the $1 billion that has already been committed to the Afghanistan people through the Afghanistan reconstruction trust fund. Development in Afghanistan will continue to go backward if we are not funding healthcare workers and teachers. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government need to provide an urgent update and appoint a dedicated Minister for aid, so that we can unlock this problem?

My hon. Friend makes the most pertinent points, and I completely agree with all the issues that she raises. From our analysis, it looks like two thirds of the fund pledged in emergency money to Afghanistan has been disbursed, but we are finding it incredibly difficult to get that information, and I hope the Government are able to address that.

As a fellow member of the Committee, I hope it has been made crystal clear to the Government what needs to be done. The report not least gives further credence to what we already know, which is that this Government have seriously and regrettably let down the people of Afghanistan. During oral evidence, the Committee heard that Afghan women were suffering disproportionately throughout the crisis, and the report recommends that the UK Government seek

“to ensure that the rights of women and girls are respected by the Taliban”,

yet this week we learned from the FCDO’s own equalities impact assessment that the scale of reductions to specific gender interventions will impact efforts to advance gender equality, with a reduction of 75% for violence against women and girls bilateral programming being just one example. Is that not a stark illustration that these cuts need to be reversed immediately and that there needs to be a Secretary of State for international development, or at the very least a Minister dedicated to the role, to ensure that the needs of the most vulnerable in our societies are properly represented and advocated for by this Government?

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman, my fellow Committee member, and I fully agree with all his points. I think he would share how painful it was to hear from those women and girls during our evidence gathering, and in particular the pleas from the Afghan judges—they put their faith in us, and we let them down.

Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 56), That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Question agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Question put forthwith, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

Question agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.