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Afghanistan: Funds Or Food? Government, Aid Agencies Debate As Winter Approaches

Intense efforts are under way in Afghanistan to distribute food to some 1.3 million people who the UN says will be cut off from further aid in the next week because of bad weather. This winterization plan involves sending thousands of trucks loaded with grain, flour, vegetable oil, and other staples into remote areas of the country. Despite the return of 2 million refugees this year, the UN believes starvation is not a threat in Afghanistan this winter. But the humanitarian efforts are raising questions about what's best for Afghanistan's beleaguered people -- food or money? RFE/RL correspondent Grant Podelco reports from Kabul.

Kabul, 13 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- It is mid-November, and already the Paghman Mountains of the Hindu Kush range looming to the north of Kabul are draped in snow.

In a few days, a week at most, the fierce Afghan winter will strike with full force, and the high passes between the country's many mountain ranges will be closed.

Humanitarian agencies in Afghanistan, such as the UN's World Food Program and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), have been working for months to ensure that the millions of Afghans who live in remote areas do not go hungry this winter. In addition, the country is coping with some 2 million refugees who have returned to Afghanistan this year.

At the WFP -- with a staff of 800 the largest food agency at work in Afghanistan -- efforts are continuing 24 hours a day in a bid to preposition food ahead of the winter snows and spring mudslides.

Burkard Oberle is the country director in Kabul for the World Food Program. In an interview with RFE/RL in the Afghan capital, he says he's optimistic about the food situation this winter: "All agencies have had time to prepare themselves for the winter. Food is needed -- there is no doubt about it. Food and other inputs are needed for people to get through the winter. And it is a very harsh winter usually in Afghanistan. But we have had this preparatory time, and starvation should not be a risk. I believe people will have enough food to get through the winter, from both their own resources and from the humanitarian community."

Though there are millions more mouths to feed, Oberle says the overall situation in the country has improved since last winter. He says this is mainly due to a better harvest and drought relief in the northern areas of the country.

Oberle says the WFP is providing about 50,000 metric tons of food, and the ICRC another 20,000 tons, to help feed about 1.3 million Afghans living in the Central Highlands, eastern Afghanistan, and other inaccessible areas, some as high as 3,000 meters.

He says 50,000 metric tons of food equals some 5,000 truckloads of beans, grain, vegetable oil, flour, sugar, salt, high energy biscuits and other foods. He says the WFP has already prepositioned more than 30,000 tons of food, placing it where it will be reachable once the heavy snows hit.

Getting the food where it's needed most in Afghanistan is challenging. Oberle said: "We had some experiences last year where we hired villagers and communities to clear the roads to allow our trucks to move on, to help us to get over difficult [stretches]. Some of these sections of the roads had been cut off by avalanches, and we engaged communities to help clear these passages. We also had quite a number of incidences where we had to hire donkeys from people to pick the food up from distribution points or points from as far as our trucks could go and take it back home to their communities."

Just as challenging is ensuring that everyone receives the food fairly. Susana Rico is the deputy country director for the WFP in Afghanistan. Women are the traditional minders of the family food basket, but she notes that in Afghanistan, social restrictions mean women are not usually given a role in determining how food is distributed.

"The food distribution is done mostly to men. And hopefully each one of them takes the food home and distributes it evenly. But it has been proven over and over again that if the women receive the food, there is a more adequate, more fair distribution among the household members. For that time to arrive [in Afghanistan], we still have a long way to go."

Rico says that in Afghanistan, the WFP coordinates most of its efforts with the "shuras," the village-level councils:

"In many instances, the shuras would seek the voices of women, either the school teachers or some other women in the community. But they do not participate fully because they cannot be a part of this social gathering and the like. And I am sure that if we had more of an opportunity to listen to what women want, to what women think should be done, we probably could reach more of those who truly endure the worst pains of the lack of sufficient food or adequate food."

Although the WFP's own food distribution goals will be met, and coordination with the ministries in the Transitional Authority government in Kabul is improving, WFP country director Oberle admits that misunderstandings and differing views do creep into the aid distribution process.

In particular, he says, there is a feeling in the government that cash would better serve the needs of the country's people than food handouts:

"There is a notion around that cash can help much better than food. And certainly in many areas that is the case. There are equally other areas and other people who prefer food to cash because markets are far away. If they have a food [shortage] and they get cash, they would have to buy the food anyway -- they would have to go to very far away markets. Cash tends to increase prices wherever it is available because traders respond to a higher supply of cash by increasing prices."

Kamaluddin Nizami is the first deputy in the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development. He agrees that there have been improvements in dialogue between the government and the aid agencies:

"We have meetings each week with [nongovernmental organizations], which can be held in their offices or in the ministry itself. I participated in two of these meetings, and I think that there is very good coordination among us. And I hope that we can continue this coordination."

Afghan Transitional Authority President Hamid Karzai recently expressed concern -- as winter approaches -- for the country's 2 million refugees. He said a government commission had been formed to pool the resources of four or five ministries. But he said the commission "may not be able to address the whole problem."

Nizami believes the food situation in Afghanistan this winter will be better than last, due in large part to an increase in security in the regions and improvements to the country's transportation network.

But he feels strongly that cash assistance would be more versatile than food aid for his people and would also stimulate the economy: "I am of the belief that instead of providing food for the work people do, it is good to give them money until they can decide themselves what to do. Because as we know, the lack of food is only one of the Afghan people's problems. If the government and nongovernmental organizations can provide cash money for them, in fact, the economy will be strengthened and the condition of the bazaars will improve."

He called on donor nations to bring their promises into practice so that Afghanistan "can stand in the same rank" as the other nations of the world.

The WFP's Oberle says everyone -- the people of Afghanistan, the government and the aid agencies -- all want to see faster progress. He says he knows Afghans are eager to become what he calls "normal members" of the world community. But he cautions: "Patience is needed to achieve that. The country has come out of 23 years of fighting and insecurity, and this cannot be repaired overnight and forgotten. I would appeal to the people of Afghanistan to understand that it will take time. While they have the assurance of the international community and their government that they are as determined as the people themselves to accelerate that process as quickly as possible, on the other side [they should] not return to grumbling and to expressions of dissatisfaction that could easily result in increased tension."

Such tensions, he says, could result in further fighting and conflict in Afghanistan.

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    Grant Podelco

    Grant Podelco is the editor in chief of RFE/RL's English-language website. He first joined RFE/RL in Prague in 1995 as a senior correspondent after working for many years as a writer and editor for daily newspapers in New York, Oregon, and Texas. He reported from Afghanistan in November 2002 to mark the one-year anniversary of the fall of the Taliban.