AFGHANISTAN: FOOD INSECURITY, THE PROBLEM THAT NEVER WENT AWAY

EurasiaNet, NY Aunohita Mojumdar 2/10/09

Just as the United States is preparing for a massive reinforcement of its troops in Afghanistan, so too is the United Nations calling for a surge in humanitarian relief. Forty thousand people die every year in Afghanistan not from violence, but from the unnoticed collateral damage of war — hunger and poverty. The number is 25 times higher than the toll due to violence, says the UN Security Council in its most recent report.

Despite repeated calls for greater attention to food security, the numbers of those who cannot meet their minimum dietary needs in Afghanistan is on the rise, growing from 30 percent to 35 percent between 2005 and 2008. The crisis is expected to worsen over the next few months as the impact of local drought and high global food prices push more Afghans into food insecurity.

Underscoring the crisis, the UN launched a Humanitarian Action Plan for Afghanistan on February 3, calling for a $604 million emergency relief package. The appeal, which will also aid health, education, water, and shelter, has earmarked over 50 percent to food and agriculture assistance. It even warns that, without urgent action, post-Taliban gains in education and health stand the risk of reversal.

Part of the problem is drought. Last year, the country received less than 24 percent of the rainfall level of 2007, resulting in an 85 percent drop in wheat production. Overall, there occurred a 30 percent drop in cereal harvest over the previous year countrywide. Today, on average, an Afghan family spends 77 percent of its income on food, compared to 56 percent in 2005. The increase, says the UN’s humanitarian appeal, “quickly pushed large segments of previously borderline food-insecure people into an inability to obtain enough basic food and having to resort to destructive coping measures.”

Launching the humanitarian appeal in Geneva, the UN Under-Secretary General and Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes said: “In 2008, at a time of rising global food prices, Afghanistan harvested only two-thirds of its annual food requirements, leaving a serious gap for the government and the humanitarian agencies to fill.”

Despite the urgency, and awareness among international monitors, concern has not translated into relief. A Joint Emergency Food Appeal launched in July 2008 by the Afghan government and the UN, calling for $404 million to “feed Afghanistan’s most vulnerable people who are in desperate need of food aid,” was dismally under-funded. Despite repeated appeals, it has only been half-funded. The current estimate doubles the number of people in need of food assistance since last year, to almost 9 million.

According to Oxfam, the health of over a million young children and half a million women is at serious risk due to malnutrition. One out of every two Afghan children under five is stunted and 39 percent are underweight, the humanitarian agency says.

In a memo to US President Barack Obama, Oxfam has warned of the possibility of significant food shortages in 2009 that could “adversely affect public health and even spark displacement and unrest.”

In the southern province of Kandahar, the new governor Tooryakai Wesa is asking for tractors and training, rather than troops, even though his province is considered one of the most violent in the country. During a recent visit to Canada, Wesa said he would like to create security through jobs, not tanks and artillery.

Though 80 percent of Afghanistan’s population is dependent on agriculture, the sector has been one of the most under-funded, receiving only $500 million out of the $15 billion spent on non-security related reconstruction in this country. The country’s leading donor, the United States, is estimated to have spent less than 5 percent of USAID’s budget for Afghanistan since 2002 on agriculture. In 2007, US spending on agriculture amounted to less than 1 percent of what it spent on security.

Speaking in Kabul on February 1, the UN’s top official in Afghanistan, the Secretary General’s Special Representative Kai Eide, described agriculture as a neglected sector: “The government and donors must make sure that agriculture becomes a priority not only in rhetoric, but in the allocation of resources.”

The apparent unwillingness of donors to fund the emergency appeals for food and development aid for agriculture lie in the structural inadequacies of the funding mechanisms, say experts.

Remarking on the launch of the UN appeal, the Norwegian Refugee Council Secretary General Elizabeth Rasmusson urged “donor nations to commit more funds to establish and maintain independent humanitarian funding for Afghanistan.” She pointed out that “most aid is for development and reconstruction,” rather than aid for civilians in the midst of conflict.

Indeed, humanitarian funding has dried up as donors have moved towards funding the ‘post-conflict’ state. Donors often target conflict zones in need of humanitarian assistance with money for development projects. Many of these target areas are unable to absorb development aid.

Spending on agriculture development, which could prevent such humanitarian crises, is less appealing. It requires long-term painstaking dedication at the ground level. Many donors are unwilling to make such commitments, Oxfam says, as it is easier to quantify development projects such as the construction of bridges and schools. Returns on humanitarian investment are both lower and slower, making such projects unattractive to the private sector with its eye on quick profits and large returns.

“A large volume of aid money goes to private, profit-making companies,” Oxfam points out in its memo to President Obama, adding that “too much aid seeks to achieve rapid material results, without sufficiently promoting local ownership, sustainable poverty reduction or longer term capacity building.”

According to Mudasser Hussain Siddiqui, Manager of Policy Advocacy & Research Action Aid Afghanistan, an NGO, “the key issue here is that we are in this vicious cycle of drought and food insecurity every year. This can be attributed to lack of investment in agriculture and rural employment or livelihoods in Afghanistan.”

Much will depend on the new Obama administration’s plans for Afghanistan. Initial signs suggest an approach weighted to military solutions, with a reduced emphasis on development and “less ambitious” short-term goals. None of this adds up to an encouraging future for Afghanistan’s hungry millions.

Editor’s Note: Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul. She has reported on the South Asian region for the past 18 years.

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