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Afghanistan: Humanitarian Aid

Volume 699: debated on Wednesday 12 March 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether the central government in Afghanistan are the most cost-effective channel for humanitarian aid and reconstruction.

My Lords, the UK Government firmly believe that the Government of Afghanistan are the most cost-effective channel for reconstructive aid. The Peace Dividend Trust conducted a study and estimated the local economic impact of aid spent through government systems to be more than four times greater than aid spent through international contractors or even non-governmental organisations. The United Nations in Afghanistan has a mandate for humanitarian aid and at present we believe it is best placed to deliver this.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that Answer. Of course, I agree with her that the Afghan Government are the main channel of assistance but with $2 to 3 billion dollars flowing into this country every year, there is a limit to government capacity and to what they can absorb. Does she agree that donor co-ordination is essential at this time? Money is coming in unco-ordinated from many different sources. Does she further agree that we need to give more long-term funding to civil society organisations so that projects such as the national assistance programme, which has been very successful, can be secured and become an example for other projects?

My Lords, I agree very much with the noble Earl, who is a strong champion of NGOs. I assure him that while we will continue to help through the Afghan Government structures the 18,000 community development councils with building schools, health clinics and other things, we believe that we need to engage further with NGOs. He is absolutely right that they face huge constraints and we need to support them as much as we can. As regards the donor co-ordination that he raised, we believe that the UN has potentially a far stronger role to play in that.

My Lords, has the noble Baroness seen the latest Oxfam report entitled Community Peacebuilding in Afghanistan and, if so, does she agree with its opening statement that,

“existing measures to promote peacebuilding in Afghanistan are not succeeding”?

Given that there is a danger of losing hearts and minds as we lose the security battles there, what proposals do the Government now advocate to try to put this situation right and to bring peace and cohesion at local level?

My Lords, we do not beat about the bush on this. There is a huge problem. Afghanistan is still one of the poorest countries in the world. However, real progress is being made in parts of Afghanistan. Five million children are going to school, 2 million of whom are girls. The economy is growing and 82 per cent of people now live in districts where they have access to some basic healthcare; in 2001, the figure was 9 per cent. So some progress is being made. However, the noble Baroness is right that we need to have local schemes on the ground that really help people. Through the national solidarity programme there are 31,000 small-scale projects to improve clinics, schools, water supplies and electricity generation. Half a million families, comprising ordinary people such as shopkeepers, tailors, farmers and builders, are engaged in microfinance, which enables them to take up loans and start building small entrepreneurial organisations.

My Lords, what training are the Government giving, or are willing to give, to non-governmental organisations, voluntary groups and faith groups to make the delivery of their aid more cost-effective?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right. The UK Government, through DfID, the FCO and other government departments, make help available to NGOs. Part of that help will be training. We are directly helping Womankind, empowering women in Afghan society, which is very important. We are helping the Halo Trust, which looks at demining, another very important area. I will get back to the noble Lord on the religious aspect.

My Lords, what assistance is being given in rural communities, particularly to women? They seem to do the farm work, growing their own crops and tending animals. This was all very much destroyed by the Taliban. Rather than just grow poppies, they need to grow other things.

My Lords, the noble Countess is absolutely right. Empowering and supporting women is important. Hardly any girls were in school before 2001. Under the Taliban it was illegal to educate young women, so it is important to support women. Seventy per cent of those receiving small microfinance loans, on which we touched earlier, are women. That is very important and we will continue to support women.

My Lords, I welcome the noble Baroness’s answer to that question. Does she accept that aid which is not passed through government can have the effect of undermining the Afghan Government when we should be strengthening them? If there is a problem with capacity in the Afghan Government, surely the answer is not to change the way we give aid but to give more of it to strengthen governmental institutions.

My Lords, the noble Lord, who has tremendous experience and expertise in this area of building capacity in post-conflict areas, is absolutely right. The most effective way of getting money down to local people in the most need is through government and building up their capacity and, particularly in Afghanistan, their legitimacy, which has not been recognised over many decades. That is achieving value for money.

My Lords, what efforts are being made to engage with and empower the Pashtun communities in Helmand province and the south of Afghanistan?

My Lords, an enormous amount of activity is going on with communities in Helmand province. On the Pashtun community in particular, I will have to write to my noble friend.

My Lords, going back to the noble Earl’s question, exactly how much financial aid does the Treasury give to Afghanistan’s central government, either directly or through the UN, each year? What percentage of it is from the international aid budget?

My Lords, the aid that goes directly through the Afghan Government from DfID is 80 per cent of £345 million. We are a very big contributor to Afghanistan.