The key actors providing lifesaving humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan and also leading on critical advocacy efforts with donor countries are aid agencies. These are registered with the Ministry of Economy which allows them to operate in Afghanistan. Historically NGOs have been largely responsible for addressing and responding to the large levels of needs that have existed due to decades of conflict, acute poverty and natural disasters such as floods and droughts. COVID-19 is likely to place new pressures on the overall humanitarian efforts with additional medical and health needs linked to the lockdown and movement restrictions. The pressures on aid agencies impact their ability to delivery assistance and the ability of populations to assess services. These challenges are already being seen on the ground and are having profoundly negative impacts getting critically needed aid to vulnerable Afghans.
In recent years there has been growing misunderstandings and misapprehensions among Afghan officials about aid agencies policies and the nature of work that they undertake, even accusing NGOs of wasting money and resources. Another concern is that the big international NGOs compete with each other for donor funding and squeeze out the indigenous local NGOs who are at the forefront of delivery. The traditional understanding of humanitarian aid delivery based on the humanitarian principles to be neutral, impartial and independent has been blurred due to interactions with the military and for-profit sector. Currently 2,627 national and international NGOs are registered, yet it is clear that not all of these NGOs can be described as purely humanitarian.
The shortage of medical equipment and emergency assistance is becoming more apparent due to COVID-19, exacerbated by challenges of servicing Taliban-controlled regions. Accessing these regions is complex and challenging to humanitarian safe movement principles. They include illegal taxation requests as well as threats and risks to personnel and the people they are helping.
I did an informal survey of 15 international and National aid agencies and here is a summary of their primary challenges:
Access: This is a widely accepted humanitarian principle premised upon good local knowledge and acceptance by local communities. Aid agencies work hard to counter misconceptions around humanitarian aid and ensure that local actors and governments understand that aid is delivered based on need.
Government Tax and Customs: Taxation and custom fees are a growing concern for aid agencies that import goods, medicines, shelter materials and other necessary items. NGOs face increasing levels of bureaucracy creating delays in receiving assistance.
Even though NGOs are tax exempted under Afghan law, they are still asked to pay taxes in order to get imports cleared, and results in goods being held up in customs for up to six months severely impacting their usefulness. For medicines this can be catastrophic since they are not stored properly by customs. As a result Afghans in need of assistance may well not get this assistance in the critical Covvid-19 response period.
Quality checks: Customs will sometimes require “quality checks” of goods imported by aid agencies. The quality control employees usually take a proportion of the goods, such as medicine, for the purpose of testing, a process that has no time limit and may result in the sample not being returned.
Taxation by Taliban: NGOs working to deliver humanitarian aid in the field are increasingly approached by the Taliban and other “Armed Opposition Groups” (AOGs) and asked to pay taxes on the different types of assistance provided. This could include essential emergency items, such as food, shelter and hygiene kits, but also for vital community level activities in education and even health, impacting on the COVID-19 response.
Coordination with Afghan government Line Ministries and Signing of MOUs: While Afghan law stipulates that the Ministry of Economy is the lead on the “registration, supervision, and coordination” NGOs, loopholes in the law create an opportunity for line ministries to pressure the aid agencies into Memorandum of Understandings (MOUs). Negotiating these MOUs can take NGOs from a matter of a few weeks to a year. This MOU process is becoming a major obstacle for NGOs at the national and also provincial levels. Such onerous and bureaucratic processes make it nearly impossible to implement projects or do emergency response in a timely manner.
Recommendation for Improvement:
- Afghan youth are actively taking part in helping people with distributing masks, food and awareness raising as the COVID-19 pandemic cases are increasing so aid agencies should take the opportunity and support those volunteer individuals and groups to facilitate timely emergency relief response.
- The Ministry of Economy should establish clear procedures for NGO registration and customs requirements.
- Humanitarian leadership in Afghanistan need to pressure both the government and Taliban to ensure NGOs are free to do their work without unnecessary bureaucracy or taxation.
- Aid agencies should continue community-based approaches and seek the necessary levels of acceptance. A greater campaign of awareness raising is necessary to facilitate their work.
- Aid agencies should collect and share information on the problems they face to ensure a coordinated and unified message to the government.
- Afghan peace agreement negotiations must include a commitment from the Taliban that it will not demand taxes and will provide security assurances for the aid agencies. All sides must commitment to the humanitarian principles that define the work of humanitarian aid agencies, and there must be a clear distinction between military and humanitarian operations.
- All parties must commit to an urgent humanitarian ceasefire to address COVID-19 related challenges and in the long term assist vulnerable displacement-affected communities.