x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Shift Afghanistan military spending to development aid

More than 50,000 Afghans die every year, the bulk of them newly born babies, children under the age of five and mothers, because of a lack of 'human security': access to economic opportunity, education and health care. Unfortunately, these silent deaths do not grab headlines.

Much of the Afghanistan war reporting is dominated by headlines of civilian or military deaths due to armed conflict. As tragic as these deaths are, their numbers pale in comparison with the loss of lives due to other reasons, such as maternal deaths and infant mortality. For example, about 2,000 international troops, mostly from the United States, have lost their lives since 2001 in Afghanistan. About 3,000 civilians have been killed in the first six months of 2010, while about 20 Afghan policemen and soldiers die every day trying to secure the country against a brutal insurgency that is maintained outside our borders.

In contrast, however, more than 50,000 Afghans die annually due to a lack of human security. Newly born babies, children under the age of five and mothers constitute the bulk of these lives that can, and must, be saved. Unfortunately, these silent deaths do not grab Afghan or international headlines. Why is this and what can be done about it?

One of the key reasons has to do with the fact that defence spending continues to outstrip spending on development. In other words, protective security is often prioritised at the cost of human security, even though the two types of security are inextricably intertwined. Conservatively speaking, more than six out of every 10 insurgents in Afghanistan are rented fighters, or "10-dollars-a-day Taliban" who, for a lack of livelihood to support their families, have been recruited by regional terrorist networks.

But what do we mean by human security? Unlike protective security, human security is far more than the absence of violent conflict. It encompasses human rights, good governance and access to economic opportunity, education and health care. A whopping 80 per cent of international aid resources is spent on protective security measures. Much of the remaining 20 per cent of international aid devoted to civilian assistance bypasses the Afghan government. A multitude of parallel mechanisms sap some 80 per cent of civilian aid resources, leaving the Afghan government with only 20 per cent.

This immense imbalance between security and development, or civilian aid versus military assistance, is partly why the Afghan government continues to remain weak. In effect, the Afghan government receives a very small amount of discretionary funding, which is not even enough to reform a ministry. Hence, a proportionally small amount of civilian aid coupled with ineffective aid delivery mechanisms have perpetuated weak governance and incentivised petty corruption in Afghanistan's deeply insecure human environment. Consequently, these overlooked problems continue to harm stability in the country.

The international response to underinvestment in development came in 2000 when world leaders adopted the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a set of eight development-related goals - to be achieved by 2015. The goals provide a framework for the international community to work together towards a common aim, ensuring that human security reaches everyone, everywhere.

Since 2004, Afghanistan has made continued progress towards these goals. We have been able to reduce child mortality from one in every four children to one in every six; seven million more children now attend school; and with one of the lowest telephone access rates in the world in 2001, the percentage of cellular subscribers had increased to 21 per cent of the population by 2006, well on track to reach the target of 50 per cent by 2015.

In spite of Afghanistan's strong economic progress, per capita income in the country remains the lowest in the region. Only 27 per cent of Afghans have access to safe drinking water, 12 per cent to adequate sanitation and just 9 per cent to electricity. More than 40 per cent of the Afghan population remains unemployed, and more than half hovers at the brink of poverty. Another 8.5 million, or 37 per cent of the people, are in the borderline of food insecurity and thus hunger.

The basic package of health services, implemented by the Ministry of Public Health, and the national solidarity programme (NSP), managed by the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, are the prime examples of the Afghan government's successful national programmes that focus on the basic yet very critical needs of the rural population. The two national programmes cover more than 80 per cent of the population in over 25,000 villages. As a result, access to health care has increased from less than 5 per cent under the Taliban to more than 80 per cent now across the country. This government-led effort is saving more than 50,000 lives, mostly mothers and their children, each year. And under the NSP, villagers, including women for the first time, have formed community development councils, through which they participate in designing and co-implementing projects that address their acute local needs.

On July 20, at the Kabul Conference, the Afghan government presented to our international partners a blueprint for true partnership: the donor community must channel at least 50 per cent of all aid resources through Afghan state institutions, including the Ministry of Public Health, and must align their independent aid efforts with the priorities of the Afghanistan National Development Strategy.

One of the core objectives of our strategy is to address Afghanistan's human security needs so that children can be better nourished, mothers have skilled assistance in childbirth, and families can have access to electricity, clean water, and education. And when more than 60 per cent of Taliban fighters eventually see that their basic human security needs are met, they will disengage from violence and choose to lead a peaceful life in the society. Indeed, the war in Afghanistan cannot be won militarily alone. We and our partner nations must work together and mobilise our resources to invest at least 50 per cent of all international aid and national revenues to change forever Afghanistan's dire human security situation. The time to act is now.

Dr Suraya Dalil is Afghanistan's acting minister of public health, and Ashraf Haidari is the chargé d'affaires of the Afghan Embassy in Washington DC