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Sunday, 13 January, 2002, 17:33 GMT
Afghan aid: What more can be done to help?
BBC Correspondent Ishbel Matheson spoke to CARE's relief expert Alina Labrada, who answered your questions.

To watch coverage of the forum, select the link below:

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With the worst of the fighting in Afghanistan thought to be over, the Afghan people are facing a humanitarian struggle against starvation.

Tens of thousands of Afghans are facing a food crisis and surviving only by eating grass, aid officials say.

What can be done to get essential aid to the Afghan people? Should the west do more to help the safe passage of food to people in remote areas of Afghanistan.


The topics discussed in this forum were:

  • Current situation
  • Food distribution
  • Security of the aid convoys
  • Contribution of the Middle East and South Asian countries
  • Military food convoys
  • War widows
  • Why the concern for Afghanistan now?
  • Aeroplane food drops

    Current situation


    Newshost:

    Can you let us know how severe the humanitarian situation in the country is?


    Alina Labrada:

    The situation is critical in terms of people not having access to aid that they need, in the countryside in particular. The cities are relatively well off. Kabul, for example, has markets full of food. The problem in Kabul is more that people can't afford to buy it. We've heard reports from other humanitarian organisations that the situation in other cities, like Faisabad for example, is much the same. So what we're concerned about are the people in the rural areas - in the villages - who don't have the means to get to the cities or even to distribution centres where aid is being delivered.


    Newshost:

    We've heard some reports of people actually resorting to eating grass.


    Alina Labrada:

    Yes - this has happened before. This critical situation that Afghanistan is facing is one that really has not changed for the past several years because of the on-going drought. As people sell off their livestock and eat their seed instead of planting it, there comes a point where there is nothing left but the grass on the hillside and that is dire indeed, but that has been happening. So the situation, unfortunately, is still just as desperate.


    Newshost:

    What is the role of CARE here?


    Alina Labrada:

    CARE is continuing to try and deliver aid to these people in the rural areas. We have a distribution going on this week in provinces close to Kabul for people who desperately need food. But beyond that, we're thinking longer term in terms of rebuilding the country. The main thing these people need is help with water. Because of the drought they've got to have more irrigation systems, reservoirs etc., so that whatever water there is - whether it's snowmelt or rain - they can have something to capture whatever rainfall or snowmelt there is to be able to grow crops, harvest and feed themselves.

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    Food distribution


    Newshost:

    Steve Nelson, USA: Last week the US Government announced there had been substantial deliveries of food aid to Afghanistan and that the tragedy of mass starvation had been averted. Is this true and is the food being distributed effectively?


    Alina Labrada:

    There has been immense amounts of food delivered inside Afghanistan. But the problem still remains on people getting to it and the main sticking point is still security. It's not quite safe enough for people to get to it and it's not quite safe enough for many humanitarian organisations, like CARE, to deliver it.

    I was talking to someone from another humanitarian organisation, who had heard reports that people near Faisabad had had to travel eight hours to get to a distribution centre and through two metres of snow. So it's not easy and we can't confidently say that everyone in the country has access to the food that they need - although there is food in the country, access is still the question.

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    Security of the aid convoys


    Newshost:

    Andy, Wales: Do you think aid convoys should carry armed troops with orders to shoot any bandits that attempt to rob the convoys?


    Alina Labrada:

    Humanitarian organisations have a very, very difficult time working in conflict areas when we are militarised so we avoid that like the plague. CARE's convoys do not carry armed guards - our mission is humanitarian. It means that we deliver aid to people who need it. So where we have had to accept logistical support, because we simply don't have the capacity - in terms of trucks or planes - that's a different story.

    We think that the military can play a really useful role in terms of supporting humanitarian operations by providing logistical support. But it is very important and we make it very clear - as do other humanitarian organisations - it has to be under the leadership of a humanitarian organisation because if there is any kind confusion then that doesn't benefit the people that we're trying to help. If we're seen as taking sides that doesn't do anyone any good.


    Newshost:

    So if you think an area is too risky then you just don't go into it?


    Alina Labrada:

    We can't, unfortunately and that's the problem. There must be a certain level of security in terms of our own staff being able to deliver and to monitor the aid.

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    Contribution of the Middle East and South Asian countries


    Newshost:

    Paul Williams, USA: What have the Middle Eastern and South Asian countries contributed to the relief efforts in Afghanistan?


    Alina Labrada:

    Our organisation, CARE, hasn't received that much from those countries because traditionally they have funnelled any kind of aid through organisations that are based in their own countries. But there are hundreds of aid organisations working in Afghanistan - many who have been here for decades and many who are now coming in because the climate has changed and things are more open and there greater possibilities to help the people here rebuild.


    Newshost:

    But it is a global effort that you're seeing here?


    Alina Labrada:

    Absolutely. There are aid organisations from all around the world and definitely people have opened their hearts to the people here and have responded in a major way to the suffering. They've managed to make a distinction between the previous people in power and the people who had nothing to do with it and were just suffering through war and drought.


    Newshost:

    Would it be correct to say that the bulk of the food aid that's been delivered has come from the United States of America?


    Alina Labrada:

    I would say it's from the United States and the rest of the international community - the Afghanistan support group - which is a group of about 12 countries who've been supporting Afghanistan for years and have bolstered their efforts even more during the crisis. So I can't say for a fact that it is just the United States - certainly they have been a prime mover and throughout the past several years, yes, they have been a major source of funding for aid organisations, including CARE.

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    Military food convoys


    Newshost:

    Philip Sarkol, The Netherlands: To really help the people of Afghanistan who are in desperate need of food and clothing to help them through the harsh winter, shouldn't there be more UN military food convoys?


    Alina Labrada:

    Again we get back to the question of the military and the humanitarian side. What would really help, in terms of security, is if this stabilisation force was able to extend throughout the rest of the country. In terms of ensuring that there was law and order throughout the country and that it was not just in Kabul. I think Hamid Karzai's priorities in terms of peace and security are things that he is working very hard to achieve and that the stabilisation force would be a really good instrument for that if it were allowed to spread out a little more.


    Newshost:

    At the moment of course, their mandate is just in Kabul and the surrounding areas.


    Alina Labrada:

    Exactly.


    Newshost:

    But it really is very risky even just to travel the main roads at the moment in Afghanistan outside the capital isn't it?


    Alina Labrada:

    Yes it is. CARE had a convoy about a month ago that was coming from Peshawar to Kabul and they were stopped near a checkpoint and asked to pay a bribe. They said no because as a humanitarian organisation we don't do that and as they left they were fired upon. These were just bandits - these were people who were advantage of the situation and of the fact that there isn't law and order in the rest of the country. So in terms of getting not just food aid but thinking in the long run about the rest of what the country needs - definitely the more secure that the country is, the more that people will be able to help people here rebuild.

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    War widows


    Newshost:

    Let's talk a little now about your own work here in Afghanistan. You've restarted distributions to thousands of war widows here in Kabul. Could you explain to us the plight of the war widows here?


    Alina Labrada:

    It's been extreme. To begin with, in Afghan culture, there is usually a very large extended family and when women get married they go to their husband's families. These widows have been bereft of any kind of support system for many, many years because there has been fighting in the country for more than 20 years. Their situation become even more desperate under the Taleban because the rule was you could not venture outside without a male relative. These women had no husbands and had fled to Kabul - they had been displaced - so they had no extended family here - they had no uncles, brothers or cousins to go out with them. So it became a virtual prison in terms of being housebound because if they had no one to go out with, how could they get food assistance or even try to get a job because they couldn't go anywhere without a male relative. So this particular group of widows that we help are 10,000 in number and their children and extended families number now about 60,000 people. But that literally is just a small percentage - there's anywhere from 30,000 - 50,000 war widows in Kabul and right now they're all looking for jobs, just like everyone else.


    Newshost:

    Indeed, many of the women beggars that you see on the streets here are the war widows.


    Alina Labrada:

    Yes because they've had no other option. As it is the assistance that they get from CARE and from other organisations in the past several months has just not been enough. This is why we've resumed our monthly programme a bit early. We had given these widows a six months supply of food after September 11th because the situation was so uncertain and several weeks ago we began checking on them to see how their situation was and discovered that they had already run out of food or were very close to it. So we started the monthly programme sooner rather than later.

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    Why the concern for Afghanistan now?


    Newshost:

    Tahir G, USA: Why has the world been ignorant or dismissive about a "starving Afghanistan"? Up until now droughts have come and gone many times in the past 50 years of the country's history and many a family has perished in the past without even a word of concern from any country or organisation. Why is it suddenly within the world's spotlight again?


    Alina Labrada:

    It is the political situation frankly. For many, many years it was extremely difficult to get funding for any programme in Afghanistan - it is one of many, many countries that were in dire straits. So there was a certain amount of fatigue on the part of the international community and also just abandonment in terms of what happened after the Soviets were driven out and people forgot about Afghanistan. The questioner is right, it has always been one of the poorest countries in Asia. So in a sense as drastic and as tragic as the situation is, the fact that people now are paying attention is giving Afghanistan the best chance that it has had in decades to really move forward and for the people here to be able to fulfil their potential.

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    Aeroplane food drops


    Newshost:

    Ng, China: Why don't the food agencies not send the food by all kinds of aeroplanes to the villages in the mountains? Isn't it easier to drop food than bombs?


    Alina Labrada:

    This is another one of these very difficult questions. As a last resort, if there is no other way to get to a village, you would do an airdrop and the Americans did that. But the problem with that is that many times the people who were running to get the food that's dropped are not the people who need it the most. The people who need it the most are the ones who are not able to get to it - who are housebound because they're already sick, because they're children or they're elderly and they simply can't travel even to get to the food drop.

    So we prefer to do an airlift - the difference being that you bring supplies in, in massive quantities by plane, to some distribution point or to a central point and then you move it out from there and that way you can spread the aid out to many places where they need it the most. But you are able to actually talk to these people before you give them the aid and make sure that it is going to the people who are in most desperate need. We've seen a lot of cases where people will get the aid and then go out re-sell it which doesn't do the people who really need it any good. So it's a question of monitoring and making sure that it goes to the people who need it the most and that's, unfortunately, not the most effective way to do it.

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