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Between a Rock and a Hard Place – Multifaceted Challenges of Responders Dealing with Afghanistan's Humanitarian Crisis: A Report on the Perspectives of National NGOs [EN/PS/Dari]

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Afghanistan
Sources
ICVA
Date de publication
Origine
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By Fiona Gall and Dauod Khuram

Executive Summary

Afghanistan is facing a rapidly worsening humanitarian catastrophe. NGOs remain key first responders in the evolving crisis, and it is crucial that they can work in an enabling environment. However, both international and national NGOs have been encountering different obstacles due to politics outside Afghanistan and new policies inside Afghanistan which impede programme delivery.

This briefing paper covers a historical analysis of NGO – Taliban relations and highlights the challenges currently faced by the NGOs in Afghanistan, with a focus on national and local NGOs, based on findings from 41 key informant interviews and a desk review of currently available literature. It concludes with recommendations for the humanitarian sector as they move forward with meeting the needs of vulnerable Afghan people in this complex crisis.

NGO relations with the new Taliban government The attitude of the new Taliban government towards NGOs varies both at the provincial and district level and depends greatly on the individual character of the Taliban official that NGOs are seeking to engage with. NGOs with experience in liaising and negotiation with the Taliban prior to August 2021 are in better positions to engage with the Taliban. Many Taliban government senior officials have only had religious studies and do not have an exposure or understanding of development and humanitarian principles, and thus initiatives are needed to help orientate Taliban government officials on key topics such as Humanitarian Principles and the Joint Operating Principles1 .

Impact of sanctions and banking crisis on NGOs Maintaining cashflows has been one of the major issues for NGOs and UN agencies since 15 August 2021 due to pre-existing international sanctions against the Taliban with banks facing lengthy closures and subsequently several new regulations and withdrawal limitations being put into place. While international NGOs and UN agencies with bank accounts outside Afghanistan have been using the services of financial services providers (Hawala system), national NGOs have not been able to utilize this solution as their accounts are in Afghanistan.

Meeting the needs of women and girls While no standard nationwide guidance for women working in NGOs and aid agencies has been put in place, the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation (MoRR) in October 2021 issued a letter to provincial directorates that makes allowance for essential female NGO staff to assist in aid distribution. However, the circumstances under which female NGO staff may work is limited and comes with conditions that pose financial and human resource constraints for national NGOs’ ability to meet the needs of women and girls.

Humanitarian challenges and interferences The Taliban government authorities were reported to be interfering in NGOs work, mainly in areas such as staffing, selection of beneficiaries, and expansion of coverage. The severity and occurrences of interference in all three categories varied at the district, provincial and central level with NGOs reporting the difficulty in navigating the requests from Taliban officials.

Risk transfer and sanctions Under the 2005 NGO Law, NGOs are exempt from taxation on their activities but are required to ‘’withhold’’ income tax owed to the government. National NGOs indicated that they must pay the withholding taxes otherwise they fear that the Taliban government will come after them. National NGOs requested clear guidance from donor and UN agencies on this issue and said it should not be left to individual NGO practice and decision-making.

NGOs reported a lack of clarity regarding the sanctions imposed by the United Nations since 1999 and those by the United States since 2001, with many of them being unclear as to the exact scope of the sanctions. Without access to the advice of legal experts on how to navigate/understand the sanctions, national NGOs are at a disadvantage.

---The issues outlined above are explored in more detail in the report ---

Recommendations

Donors to ensure additional funding for women’s activities and women staff Discussions regarding the role of women in wider civil society, and in education and employment must continue with the new authorities and be led by Afghan women and men. In the humanitarian sector, funding should be provided for expansion of women’s programmes in health, education, and livelihoods to ensure that some of the gains of the last 20 years are not lost, through creative ways of encouraging national NGOs, youth, and women’s associations. The Gender in Humanitarian Action Working Group should make recommendations for a broader range of resilience activities in urban and rural environments such as women cooperatives, psycho-social counselling, entrepreneurship, handicrafts, and animal husbandry. Most importantly additional funding should be provided to ensure women staff continue to be recruited and employed.

Donors to agree on a common position on taxation and sanction compliance Based on the findings of this paper, donors should agree on a common position about payment of withholding taxes by NGOs to the Taliban government. Until now guidance from donors has been conflicting and compliance to sanctions or funding agencies requirements is not always clear. It is recommended that expert legal advice is made available through ICVA to NGOs, especially national NGOs, to help plan their future activities.

Donor funding and partnership with national NGOs Donors must find ways to allocate more flexible, multi-year funds for national and local NGOs to follow up on international commitments to localisation, while UN agencies and international NGOs should continue to scale up partnerships with national NGOs. A standardised due diligence should be agreed by UN and international NGOs for their national partners to reduce bureaucracy and promote transparency. ICVA can provide support for a standardised approach through its work on partnership with UN agencies in Geneva. A good example of preparation of national NGOs for humanitarian programmes through partnership is the ACBAR Twinning programme, which prepares national NGOs for due diligence for OCHA pool-based funds with international and national NGO partners.

In addition, the Afghanistan Humanitarian Fund (AHF) should review its due-diligence process and provide extra support to national NGOs to pass the due-diligence and comply with the required standards. National NGOs respondents found the due-diligence process slow, unresponsive, and not adapted to the current context in Afghanistan.

Communication of humanitarian principles and NGO image Many Taliban government officials are suspicious about the work of NGOs, thus good communication is required to explain donor processes, project identification, beneficiary assessment processes, human resource policies, M&E processes, and other policies. ACBAR and other NGO coordination platforms need to represent collective NGO voices more strongly in negotiating with the authorities as well as disseminating humanitarian principles. The tendency for every NGO to deal individually with the authorities multiplies the risk for those who are less well-placed to negotiate. To do this more resources will be needed, especially on provincial levels. A good example is training on the Joint Operating Principles for district and provincial authorities to reduce misunderstanding as humanitarian assistance is rolled out in the next period.

NGO coordination ACBAR should continue to hold round-table discussions at the provincial level with the Taliban provincial government authorities and NGOs to discuss operational issues. National NGO respondents perceived these meetings to be important in discussing and understanding the Taliban position on critical issues, especially women staff working requirements, in each province. Since other civil society coordination bodies have closed or reduced their activities, ACBAR should expand its current capacity to provide coordination and advocacy on different issues on behalf of its members and the wider group of NGOs and civil society organisations in Afghanistan.

Supporting civil society organisations Civil society organisations (CSOs), registered as associations in the Ministry of Justice, had been very active until 15th of August 2021. CSOs are not suited to humanitarian structures, but they are able to do local relief work and small, community-led projects. Previously many CSOs and small NGOs were engaged and funded by flexible grants from embassies, especially those working in women’s rights.

Currently CSOs are not effectively engaged in responding to the current humanitarian crisis and the lack of funding has seen the closure of 50-60 per cent of CSOs that previously played role in the enabling environment2 . International NGOs who are present on the ground, can engage and passthrough funds and grants from donors to CSOs, which would be a good short-term solution to engage youth and women, especially in delivering protection services in urban settings. Furthermore, UN and INGOs in their capacity as intermediaries must recognise their duty of care responsibilities to support CSOs partners in contextualised risk assessments and mitigation measures