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.
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.
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 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.