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Afghanistan:Funding Of Ngos

Volume 597: debated on Thursday 25 February 1999

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Why they have restricted the funding non-governmental organisations in Afghanistan.

My Lords, the Government are maintaining their support for humanitarian assistance programmes of non-governmental organisations in Afghanistan where these can be delivered in an effective and principled manner by local staff. We believe that there are serious threats to the security of expatriate staff, and obviously we must organise our funding for NGO activity accordingly.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. However, does she recognise that the aid agencies already take Foreign Office advice on security seriously, and that this new policy is unfair and makes an unprecedented link between security and funding? Does she agree that the policy is causing unnecessary delays when there is a continuing humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan?

My Lords, I cannot agree in this instance with the noble Earl. Noble Lords will be aware of the serious situation in Afghanistan. During 1998 there were a number of developments which have had a direct and indirect impact on aid operations, including fatal attacks on UN personnel and other security incidents and a deteriorating human rights situation. All expatriates, but in particular British and US expatriates, have been specifically targeted. This is not a matter of the general kind of risk which NGOs and other members of international organisations take when they go into a conflict situation. This is a matter of a specific and targeted risk. The Department for International Development and the Government feel strongly that we cannot continue to support the funding of NGO organisations in Afghanistan where the lives of individuals may be put at risk. However, we continue to support humanitarian programmes where they can be delivered by local staff.

My Lords, does the noble Baroness accept from me that during the period of the Soviet conflict in Afghanistan between 1980 and 1990 NGOs were funded by the British government under circumstances at least as dangerous as those which obtain today under the Taliban regime, and that those circumstances did not prevent courageous NGO workers, both British and Afghan, from performing extraordinarily useful tasks under conditions that were often difficult and dangerous? Does the noble Baroness agree that the conditions in those days were rather more dangerous even than those which obtain today?

My Lords, I think I said in my answer to the supplementary question from the noble Earl that many members of NGOs and international organisations continue to work in difficult and dangerous situations. However, in this particular situation there has been a specific threat to expatriates. We have adopted a carefully considered position given the knowledge and information available to us. It is not the first time that we have reached this conclusion. We came to the same conclusion at one time in Sierra Leone. However, the NGOs at that time agreed with our stance and pulled out. Some years ago in Cambodia the same thing happened. It has also happened in Chechnya. I cannot agree with the noble Viscount.

My Lords, have other countries with NGOs like ours taken a similar decision? Has there been consultation with the European Union on these matters, as sometimes happens?

My Lords, there has been consultation with the European Union. In fact the European Union reached a common position on this matter while the UK held the presidency. We have agreed a number of clear objectives, including trying to promote stability and development for the whole region; looking at issues concerning respect for human rights; and the need to provide effective humanitarian aid. There is also a strategic framework within which UN organisations are working. However, not all organisations have adopted the same position as the UK, although it is important to stress to the House that the UN has withdrawn its personnel—those personnel have not returned—and there are other countries which have adopted the same position.

My Lords, on the broader front, can the Minister say whether the US sanctions are still in place; whether sufficient leverage is being exerted; and what are the current dividing lines between the individual members of the six plus two initiative?

My Lords, I am not entirely sure what the noble Viscount means when he talks about dividing lines. The UN special envoy visited the region last October, when he met the Taliban leader. It was an extremely successful meeting which diffused the tension between the Taliban and Iran. The focus then shifted to a proposed meeting between the six plus two group of neighbouring states, plus the UN, Russia and Afghan factions. However, what the focus of the meeting should be, which factions should attend and the agenda for the meeting have still to be agreed. As to US sanctions, I will come back to the noble Viscount on that matter.

My Lords, given the remarkable and vital work done on the ground by the dedicated NGOs in Afghanistan—work that cannot be done from afar—why, since November, have Her Majesty's Government stopped the aid on condition that expats do not go in? What are the government policy guidelines for suspending or restricting aid to a particular country?

My Lords, as to the last point of the noble Baroness, she may wish to look at the announcement made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for International Development on 8th December, which set out very clearly the Government's position on this matter. Since then we have issued criteria to NGOs about the kinds of programmes and projects we are prepared to fund. We are in the process of allocating that funding, on a six-month basis, which will be reviewed at that time.

Our funding has not stopped. In 1998 our commitment in Afghanistan totalled £8.5 million, which was channelled through the UN, the International Committee of the Red Cross and some NGOs.