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Monday, 1 October, 2001, 17:55 GMT 18:55 UK
How Afghans became aid dependent
Workers load a shipment of UN World Food Programme food aid for Afghanistan at the Peshawar airport
Food aid on the way to Afghanistan
Daniel Lak

The first food and medical convoys to arrive in Kabul carry a measure of relief to some residents of the Afghan capital.

But with current estimates running to more than seven million people at risk of malnutrition or food shortages across Afghanistan, a few truckloads of flour or antibiotics seem the merest drop into a parched basin of need.

The story of how Afghanistan became a country dependent on humanitarian food aid is long, and has no heroes, except for individuals who worked in desperate circumstances to feed families, or get food through fighting, banditry and bureaucratic obstacles in Pakistan and abroad.

An Afghan refugee working as a driver for the UN World Food Programme prays while a truck carrying biscuits heads inside the WFP warehouse in Peshawar
Supplies are arriving - but Afghanistan is already too dependent on aid

Before the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, a variety of foreign countries had basically subdivided it into areas of responsibility.

The United States worked on development projects around the south-western city of Kandahar.

France was influential around Kabul and so was Italy.

The Italians had projects in the east of the country, including a huge olive farm, complete with presses producing a much-prized and savoured oil.

Britain and other European powers had their interests too.

Click here to see a map of Afghanistan

Iran kept up a strong presence around Herat, in far western Afghanistan.

And then there was Moscow.

The Soviet Union, worried about its soft Central Asian underbelly, worked in the north and north east where ethnic Turkomen, Uzbek and Tajik Afghans had ethnic counterparts across the Amu Darya, the border with Soviet Central Asia.

It is not only that Afghanistan was in desperate need of humanitarian help; most of the countries active there also had geopolitical interests, and the Cold War rivalry between the communist and non-communist worlds was ever present.

A small girl, wounded by shell fragments, sleeps after surgery at the Emergency hospital for war victims in the Panjshir Valley in Northern Afghanistan
Medicines are in demand in Afghanistan
But in terms of per-capital income, education and health services, it was - and is - one of the poorest countries in the world.

Aid workers, especially from western countries, invariably loved Afghanistan.

Its people were hospitable and warm, the landscapes breathtaking, the alluring melange of ancient cultures - Greek, Buddhist and Islamic - a constant source of fascination.

As with many mountainous countries that depend upon trade or subsistence agriculture, Afghanistan was extremely vulnerable to the extremes of weather and political events in neighbouring lands.

Droughts were frequent, although ancient irrigation systems, lovingly maintained, mitigated all but the worst water shortages.

War changed everything. The battle against Soviet occupation, and scorched earth tactics pursued by both sides but particularly Moscow, devastated Afghan agriculture in the 1980s.

Five million Afghans fled the fighting, and irrigation systems were deprived of maintenance and management.

Children in exile were never trained in techniques of agriculture that had sustained their country for generations.

Gun culture

A gun culture, spawned at first by the Western and Saudi-backed resistance to Soviet occupation, displaced the need for young men to learn how to work for a living, to farm or run a shop, to set up a business or take on economic responsibility.

In many ways, aid agencies unwittingly exacerbated this just by doing their jobs.

Setting up infrastructure projects, using foreign experts, doing the work of government and a civil populace may make good economic sense in an underdeveloped and war ravaged economy.

But in some ways they aggravate the effects of war and the gun culture by creating an unaccountable elite.

No one is blaming aid agencies or multilateral organisations like the United Nations for the sorry state of Afghanistan.

The country has been well served by some brave individuals and effective groups over the years.

The current crisis will demand everything the agencies have, and then some, if the effects of yet another war inside Afghanistan are not to kill more people and destroy the futures of yet another generation of Afghan children.

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See also:

01 Oct 01 | South Asia
Food reaches hungry Kabul
30 Sep 01 | South Asia
In pictures: Afghanistan's refugees
27 Sep 01 | South Asia
Afghans brace for US strike
27 Sep 01 | South Asia
Analysis: Afghanistan's future
22 Sep 01 | South Asia
Pakistan's fear of refugee flood
19 Sep 01 | South Asia
On edge: Afghanistan's neighbours
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