How are we able to continue our presence there when many have evacuated? How can we ensure the safety of our staff? If we work in coordination with the new de facto authorities, isn’t that the same as endorsing them? How can we be sure aid won’t end up in the wrong hands?
The landscape is indeed a very different and uncertain one since the withdrawal of foreign forces and the change in the nation’s leadership. Yet the truth is that this type of situation is not new for Medair.
After more than 30 years of working in fragile states, we know how to provide aid in the midst of upheaval and insecurity. Indeed, this is what our mandate compels us to do, since it is in such situations that people often can’t access the lifesaving services they need.
So how do we reach such vulnerable individuals without compromising our own security or integrity?
In practice, the only way is to gain the trust and cooperation of all parties. That means talking with any actors who control access to those in need, whether local authority officials or armed personnel at checkpoints who stop and question our staff. This may include sanctioned groups. Engaging with them in this way does not mean that we support or legitimize their presence; our simple goal is to gain their consent to allow us safe passage to help people in need.
How do we manage these negotiations? We state clearly who we are and what we are there to do: to serve people in need, with no other agenda. We explain that we can only do so under guarantee of freedom from attack, harassment or manipulation. We don’t pay bribes. We never take sides, and neither endorse nor criticise any party. In this approach we follow the humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and operational independence that are part of the Red Cross code of conduct and the Core Humanitarian Standard.
You may wonder whether such idealistic-sounding principles are really enough to guarantee the safety of our staff. Shouldn’t we rely on stronger measures, such as armed escorts? Our staff’s security is paramount and we do not take unnecessary risks. Yet paradoxical as it may seem, our security in fact lies in our very lack of association with military or police forces. Under international law and in real world practice, our credible status as neutral actors who pose no threat is our best form of protection.
It is imperative, therefore, that our activities are driven solely by the needs of the most vulnerable: we do not act on anyone else’s behalf, including donor governments. Amid competing factions, we work to gain the trust of all parties through a reputation of being true to our word and acting consistently in line with our promises. Of course, if we cannot gain assurances of safety from those in control, we will not proceed.
How then does this work in the context of Afghanistan?
For decades prior to the country takeover, humanitarian organisations have already been engaging with all parties including the Taliban in their efforts to gain access to serve the most needy. Humanitarians came together to agree a set of standards called the Joint Operating Procedures, which lays out how we will work regardless of who is in control, and this is now more relevant than ever. It includes expectations that the authorities and local power holders will not limit humanitarian access to any group; that they will refrain from using manipulation or coercion to influence how aid is distributed; will allow women to administer and receive aid in a culturally sensitive manner; and will respect the privacy of information of those we work with. Humanitarian organisations have in turn committed to abide by the humanitarian principles and to be transparent and accountable in our work.
As we continue our life-saving activities, Medair is completing our own careful checks and preparations to ensure we can proceed safely. We implement projects directly, and maintain a presence on the ground whenever safe to do so, enabling in-person monitoring of projects. All our staff and suppliers will continue to be screened prior to employment or contracting to make sure our work remains independent.
Yet first and foremost, we cannot forget that ordinary Afghan citizens are struggling more than ever. As international debates rage over Afghanistan’s political situation, half the population now needs aid to survive. They face a deadly mix of climate change-induced drought, soaring food prices, malnutrition, economic instability, the COVID pandemic, displacements and widespread poverty from decades of conflict. With winter approaching, rural communities will soon be isolated from help by snow and harsh weather. The situation is so severe that the UN has activated a ‘system-wide scale-up’ for Afghanistan, designating the emergency a global priority.
25 years since we first started work in Afghanistan, there is greater need than ever for Medair’s life-saving programmes. Far from the news headlines, we are there, and we are still at work: doing all we can to help remote communities avoid catastrophe and live with dignity. Whatever the future holds, we are determined to remain faithful to the Afghan people.