Page last updated at 16:48 GMT, Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Afghan aid fails to feed the hungry

Women with a child in Afghanistan
Parwan province is quiet, but signs of discontent are growing

By Peter Greste
BBC News, Parwan province, Afghanistan

It is not hard to see why Alla Gul is upset. Her two-year-old daughter cries weakly in her arms with barely enough energy to eat.

The child stares vacantly at the other patients in the Charikar hospital ward, her muscles wasted with malnutrition, her angular bones protruding like twigs beneath her papery skin.

When Alla Gul returned with her family from a refugee camp in Iran six years ago to Afghanistan, they expected better things.

The Taliban had fallen, security had returned and international aid began pouring in - billions of dollars' worth.

"It's indeed very difficult. For months, we haven't been able to afford to buy meat for our children. It's very painful to watch," she said.

Alla Gul and her daughter
Alla Gul's two-year-old daughter is weak with hunger

Alla Gul says she never wanted handouts. But she and her husband - a contract farmer who gets a portion of the produce from the land he works - always believed they would lead a comfortable life.

Now, he simply can't earn enough to feed the family.

Dr Aslam Fawad is despairing. Each day he walks the malnutrition ward, watching more and more patients arrive from across this otherwise fertile farming district.

Poverty is so deep that even many farmers are unable to feed their families.

Unicef figures show that an extensive vaccination campaign has helped more children survive, but Dr Fawad says because of the dire state of the economy, some patients keep returning, time after time.

"The malnutrition problem in Afghanistan, and especially Parwan province, is very bad. That's because of the years of fighting, the damage to our infrastructure and rising unemployment.

"It's all helped to make things worse," he said.

Deep discontent

The statistics bear him out: officially, unemployment is about 40%, though it is probably far higher than that; of those who do have a job in Parwan, 45% earn less than $1 a day; chronic malnutrition for children under five across Afghanistan is 54%.

And perhaps most surprising of all, on a UN scale of human development indicators, Afghanistan has slipped from 117th in the world, to 181st - second from the bottom - since the Taliban were ousted.

Professor Sayed Massood, an economist from Kabul University, believes that backsliding is responsible for much of the deep discontent with the government, and growing support for the insurgency.

Vegetables for sale at a market
Even farm workers are suffering from malnutrition

He blames the crisis of public confidence on the policy of pouring billions of dollars in development aid into regions where the insurgency is strongest.

"Instead of the benefits [of aid] going to friends, they are going to enemies. We needed to spend money in the places where the people believe in democracy and work for the government.

"But instead only the enemies are getting rich," he said.

"We need to set examples of peaceful provinces that are also prosperous, but that's just not happening."

Prof Massood argues that the international community has adopted an aid policy that has been entirely counter-productive.

"They have politicised aid; they have tried to use their money to bring about political change in the frontline provinces - they have tried to bribe their enemies.

"But they don't understand that it works the other way around. If you improve the economics of the people, the politics will follow. If you don't, you will lose them."

That might explain why the insurgency appears to be spreading to parts of the country that until now have been relatively peaceful.

Slowly switching sides

Rural Parwan province, just to the north of Kabul, is still quiet, but there are growing signs of discontent with the government, and resentment at the way the people have been neglected.

Malnutrition ward at Charikar hospital
Some patients keep returning to the malnutrition ward in Charikar hospital

Abdullah Khan heads another family struggling to find enough food. He is a tractor driver, working the fields for neighbouring farms.

But a month ago, his two-year-old daughter Rabia also had to be admitted to hospital with severe malnutrition.

Rabia is recovering with Dr Fawad's help, but several days ago his wife gave birth to another girl - one more mouth to feed just when they can least afford it.

"Instead of aid going to those like me who need it, it goes to rich, corrupt people. I'm very angry at the government," Abdullah Khan said.

The government badly needs the trust of Abdullah Khan and those like him - moderates who just want a peaceful life.

But the more Afghanistan's children suffer, the more support for the government slips, and the more it grows for the insurgency.

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