Afghanistan “As a humanitarian, I have never seen such a crisis in my life”

Isabelle Moussard-Carlsen in the center on an emergency assessment mission in Afghanistan @ Isabelle Moussard-Carlsen

An exclusive interview with Isabelle Moussard Carlsen, Head of the OCHA Office in Afghanistan.


Alain Boinet : More and more, media and humanitarian actors are talking about the risk of famine in Afghanistan. What is the reality today and how do you see the coming months in that regard ?

Isabelle Moussard-Carlsen : The number of people in Afghanistan facing hunger today is unprecedented with 23 million Afghans not knowing where their next meal is coming from. This is more than half the population. 1 in 2 children are facing acute malnutrition.

With winter temperatures dipping below zero, people have to spend more of their already dwindling household incomes on fuel and other supplies needed for winter at a time when food supplies are lowest due to harvest cycle.

This is caused by a number of aggravating factors: Afghanistan is facing the second drought in four years, a looming economic crisis, the socio-economic effects of COVID-19 and decades of conflict and natural disasters. Today, people are spending more than 80 per cent of their household budget on food.

Humanitarian organizations are increasing their response and have already reached 8 million people with food in just three months and 1.3 million with agriculture support, but much more is needed. 

Alain Boinet : What about the health structures which seem to lack staff due to lack of salaries, medicines and consumables ? 

Isabelle Moussard-Carlsen : As the crisis in Afghanistan deepens, a collapse in healthcare must be averted. Humanitarian agencies are supporting the system by providing medicine, medical supplies, paying salaries (many healthcare workers had not been paid for up to five months) and more to prevent this from happening.

From the hospitals and health facilities I have visited, both at provincial and district level, nurses, midwives and doctors told me that they continued to work without getting paid. Starting in October, they had been paid for 2 of the 5 months. What is clear is that they need more support, but at least it is some progress. These wonderful Afghan female and male health workers are preventing healthcare from collapsing by providing trauma care, reproductive, maternal, new-born and child health, among other essential services to their fellow Afghans.

Martin Griffiths, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), during a meeting in Kabul with the Taliban leadership.

Alain Boinet : Martin Griffiths recently indicated in his 2022 appeal for OCHA that the largest budget is for Afghanistan, at $4.5 billion, just ahead of Syria and Yemen. Can we expect that this sum will be effectively mobilized in time to be implemented for the populations in danger ?

Shouldn’t we consider a large-scale relief operation to reach the most endangered populations ?

Isabelle Moussard-Carlsen : This year, donors contributed US$1.6 billion to the response in Afghanistan to cover immediate needs particularly in the last four months of 2021. Indeed, needs are deepening and we urge donors to generously support life-saving assistance, including food, medicines, health care and protection for 22 million people next year.

We are encouraged by the UN security council resolution on Afghanistan sanctions. The humanitarian exception will allow aid organizations to implement at the scale required. Some 160 national and international humanitarian organizations are already providing assistance in Afghanistan and it is critical that flexible and early funding is received so that they can continue to do so.

Alain Boinet : Humanitarian actors testify that among the main difficulties they face is access to the Afghan banking sector to receive funds and carry out transactions as well as the constraints of air travel and visas to reach Afghanistan. What is the situation and what consequences does it have ?

Isabelle Moussard-Carlsen : The economic situation has been extremely difficult and most particularly felt by Afghans.  Banks were closed and there was no money in the system. Doctors, teachers and civil servants has not been paid, local institutions and services are at risk. Last week’s vote for a humanitarian exception will allow aid organizations to implement what we have planned: to reach 22 million vulnerable Afghans. It also provides legal assurances to financial institutions and commercial actors and facilitate humanitarian operations.

At this critical time, we all need to come together, and the international community has a major role to play, to support the millions of Afghans that are counting on us and have exhausted all other options. 

Alain Boinet : Are the financial resources mobilized commensurate with the needs ? Are they available and do the humanitarian actors have the necessary capacity to act during the harsh winter in Afghanistan ?

Isabelle Moussard-Carlsen : Regarding access, winter does make it more difficult to access people in need and for people to access the services they need which is why it is so important that we continue to deliver aid to vulnerable communities, including winter aid that was distributed in October and November ahead of winter. Besides winter aid, humanitarians were also providing people with 3 months’ supply of food and agriculture support like wheat seeds. Access missions are also ongoing along the Saranjal Pass on the way to Ghor province and more recently in snowy and remote parts of Bamyan. In November along, OCHA conducted 17 missions, the majority of which by road. It is critical to re-establish access to remote parts of Afghanistan where needs are often the highest and many communities have not been reached in years. 

WFP trucks deliver food to remote, hard-to-reach areas in northeastern Badakhshan province before roads are blocked by snow @PAM Afghanistan

Alain Boinet : With the new Afghan government, are the humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence respected and is it possible to have unhindered access to all populations ? What is the significance of the UNSC Resolution 2615 of December 22 for OCHA and humanitarian actors ?

Isabelle Moussard-Carlsen : As humanitarians, we continue to engage with all parties including the Taliban (as we have been for decades) to access people in need, focusing on the most vulnerable.  The humanitarian principles are the guiding principles in our engagement and essential to principled response in complex situations such as the one in Afghanistan. As before, humanitarian assistance is independent and must be based on needs as identified by needs assessments.

We are very encouraged by the UN security council resolution on Afghanistan sanctions and will allow the 160 humanitarian organizations on the ground to respond to people in need at the scale required.

 

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Isabelle Moussard-Carlsen

Isabelle has been engaged in the humanitarian sector since 1987.

Her first field experience was in the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan. She subsequently spent 12 years in the field in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Kenya and Somalia.

Back in France in 1999, she first worked for four years with the Samu Social de Paris before joining ACF in January 2005 as Desk Officer.

In March 2013 she was promoted to a Regional Director position.

She has been the Director of Operations of ACF- France between August 2016 and April 2021.

Isabelle has joined OCHA Afghanistan in June 2021.

Objective Zero Hunger in 2030? What strategy for Solidarités International?

Breeder in Kabo, RCA – 2015, ©Vincent Tremeau
  1. Conflict, Climate Change and Covid 19, the terrible trio that exacerbate global food and economic insecurity

According to the United Nations [1], “Extreme hunger and malnutrition remain an obstacle to sustainable development and create a trap from which it is difficult to escape. Hunger and malnutrition make people less productive, more prone to disease and therefore more often unable to earn more and improve their livelihoods. “Conversely, when people lack economic security because they are dependent on precarious employment or have lost their means of production, they cannot meet their food needs. 690 million people suffer from hunger in 2020, or 8.9% of the world’s population (FAO). Many of these people are in rural areas and yet contribute to feeding the world as farmers, breeders or fishermen. And ironically, people with access to too much food tend to waste it; according to the UN, each year an estimated one third of all food produced, the equivalent of 1.3 billion tons, ends up in the garbage cans of consumers and retailers.

Vegetable farming, Gado, Cameroon – 2019

The Global Food Crisis Report 2020 [2] analyzed the main factors contributing to food and economic insecurity and classified them according to the importance of their impact on populations: 1) conflicts and insecurity, 2) extreme climate shocks, 3) economic shocks. To a lesser extent, the following factors also aggravate food and economic insecurity: crop, livestock and human diseases.

The Covid 19 pandemic has changed this situation, making it one of the main causes of hunger and loss of income in the world again. Indeed, in many countries, restrictions on movement affect access to employment, access to means of production (seeds, etc.) or the sale of products. The income, and consequently the purchasing power of many people, is thus greatly diminished. In addition, the various restrictive measures implemented by governments (containment, border closures) have degraded access to food markets and the supply of food products on these markets, whether produced in the country or imported from abroad, sometimes causing price inflation [3]. David Beasley, Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP), speaks of the risk of a “famine pandemic” with 270 million people affected [4]. Mark Lowcock, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator points out that the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance will rise from 168 million in 2020 to 235 million in 2021, a considerable increase of 40%.

Conflicts and climate shocks will also continue to be major causes affecting the food and economic security of many populations in 2021. During conflicts, civilians are often deprived of their sources of income, food systems and markets are disrupted, resulting in higher prices and/or reduced availability of food and productive commodities and tools. Conflicts prevent businesses from operating and weaken the national economy. David Beasley estimated in 2017 that about 60% of the world’s hungry people live in conflict zones. 80% of WFP’s budgets are allocated to war zones. Concerning climatic shocks (floods, droughts, etc.), they affect the livelihoods of populations, especially those who are highly dependent on natural resources (farmers, herders). Land is degraded, crops are destroyed, while livestock struggle to find water for drinking and sufficient pasture. Natural disasters also impact productive and economic infrastructure: roads, bridges, dams, buildings, irrigation networks, etc. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that agricultural yields will decrease by 20% per decade by the end of the 21st century in some areas of the Sahel.

Fishermen from the village of Molo, Marsabit County, Kenya – 2016, ©Axel Fassio
  1. The Food Security and Livelihoods Strategy of Solidarités International 2020-2025

Achieving zero hunger in 2030 as desired by the Sustainable Development Goals seems, according to the situation previously exposed, an unattainable goal since world hunger figures are increasing again, whereas they had managed to decrease between 2005 and 2015 [5]. This increase could even accelerate if the current crises, conflicts, natural disasters, pandemics continue to intensify.

Solidarités International has been working in the SAME sector (Food Security and Livelihoods) since its creation with its first food assistance operations in Afghanistan. The general objective of its SAME interventions, recalled in its 2020 – 2025 strategy [6], is to ensure sustainable food and economic security for populations vulnerable to political, socio-economic, climatic and health shocks.

According to the intervention logic of SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL (SI), our SAME activities are part of 3 different phases of intervention to achieve this objective:

How do SAME activities work?

1) Shock absorption: by covering food needs and supporting food markets, SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL (SI) helps prevent the risks of hunger and malnutrition and prevents populations from increasing their vulnerability to the crisis.

2) early recovery: through the distribution of productive inputs, technical support and the rehabilitation of economic infrastructure (reconstruction of markets, road rehabilitation, drainage of agricultural fields, etc.), SI contributes to the revival of the population’s economic activities.

3) risk preparedness and adaptation: in-depth analysis of livelihood capacities and vulnerabilities to shocks enables SI to strengthen these livelihoods and diversify them so that they are more resilient. Through the value chain approach, SI strengthens the adaptive capacities of actors along food chains and labor markets.

For 2025, the strategy of the SAME sector focuses on 3 axes:

  •  Developing our emergency response capabilities, particularly by integrating with our Water-Sanitation-Hygiene (WASH) emergency responses to maximize their impact on populations
  •  Better alert and anticipate SAME needs in the face of chronic shocks by participating in food and nutrition security surveillance systems.
  • Develop the long-term adaptive capacities of food and economic systems, particularly in the face of economic and climatic crises.

SI is well involved in the global Food Security cluster co-led by FAO and WFP, where the association is a member of the SAG (Strategic Advisory Group) [7]. 7] It is the voice of NGOs and contributes to the strategic orientation of this cluster and its accountability to its partners and the populations supported by SAME interventions. SI’s objective is to mobilize as many humanitarian actors as possible in order to find relevant, efficient and sustainable solutions to help reduce food and economic insecurity in the world as quickly as possible.

 How is the search for quality and impact of programs organized at Solidarités International?

SI’s Food Safety and Livelihoods (SAME) unit is part of the Deputy Program Operations Department (DOAP), alongside the  Water/Sanitation/Hygiene (WASH) and MEAL (Monitoring, Evaluation, Accountability and Learning) units, as well as cross-  functional reference points for the Market-Based Approach and Public Health. This Deputy Directorate guarantees the  technical and methodological quality of IS programs. Its mandate is divided into 4 objectives:

To improve the overall quality of IS operations through the development of tools, guides and training, as well as support for  the formulation of intervention logics and the demonstration of the impacts of interventions.

Improve IS technical skills by conducting training, technical workshops and developing technical partnerships

Provide direct technical support to field programs on specific technical aspects or at critical phases (diagnosis of needs,  strategy, implementation, monitoring-evaluation, development of innovations)

Represent SI’s expertise externally to humanitarian coordination networks or networks for the exchange of expertise and  learning (EAH and Food Security Clusters, ALNAP, Global Task Force Cholera, Humanitarian Environment Network, etc.).

Who Is Julie Mayans ?

Trained as an agricultural engineer, she has been working for 15 years in the Food Security and Livelihoods sector (SAME),  emergency development responses in Africa, America and Asia with several NGOs (SI, ACF, CARE, TGH and IFRC). She has  held several positions in the field: Program Manager, Program Coordinator and also Regional Coordinator.

For the past 6 years, she has been working at Solidarités International’s headquarters as a SAME technical advisor and focal  point for Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) and Climate. Within the technical department, she provides technical support to the  field teams in the different phases of the project cycle (needs assessment, project design, implementation, monitoring and  evaluation). On the other hand, she is responsible for the development and operationalization of the SAME IS strategy and  the technical orientations related to this sector. Finally, she represents SI’s SAME expertise externally to the global food  security cluster and various inter-NGO working groups (Humanitarian Environment Network, DRR Network, Agriculture  Working Group of the cluster).

1] Sustainable Development Goals, UN

2] Global Report on Food Crises 2020: https://docs.wfp.org/api/documents/WFP-0000114546/download/?_ga=2.23710714.192553430.1592491272-1602702074.1572458169

3] To go further, see the study of the Covid 19 working group of the Food Security Cluster: https://fscluster.org/sites/default/files/documents/lessons_from_the_wider_industry_with_respect_to_covid_19_and_impact_on_fs.pdf.

4] In addition, the FAO report “The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2020”, although referring to the year 2019, estimated that the Covid-19 pandemic could add between 83 and 132 million people to the total number of undernourished people in the world by the end of 2020.

5] In ten years, between 2005 and 2015, the number of undernourished people increased from one billion to 800 million, i.e., 200 million fewer people (FAO).

6] SAME Strategy 2020 – 2025: https://www.solidarites.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/strategie-securite-alimentaire-moyens-dexistence-SOLIDARITES-INTERNATIONAL.pdf

7] For more information, see the SAG webpage of the Global Food Security Cluster: https://fscluster.org/page/gfsc-strategic-advisory-group-sag.