Interview with Michael Keating, UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Afghanistan

Michael Keating, UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Afghanistan, spoke to the Global Observatory during his twelve-day tour of Europe and the US during which he has three objectives: 1) to draw attention to the situation facing the people of Afghanistan 2) to draw attention to the landscape in Afghanistan after the NATO and Tokyo conferences this year, and in the light of the transition of security forces 3) to talk about the role of the UN. 

“Afghanistan has perhaps one of the biggest [humanitarian] case loads in the world,” he says “with more being generated all the time.”

Mr. Keating, who is also the Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General in the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), says that one big obstacle to providing assistance is gaining access to affected populations. “Access remains a very, very, big problem,” he says, adding that there are currently discussions going on in the public domain, at the local level, and within the NGO and UN communities on how to share “very practical experiences of what do you need to do in order to gain access.”

Mr. Keating also discusses changes over the years, including the role of non-state actors, the positioning of the UN political mission, and the security situation.

Mr. Keating says that one hope he has is that people will commit to upgrading the factual knowledge of the humanitarian situation, “being much more honest with each other about what capacities we actually have to respond, and then matching our capacities to respond to those needs.”

The interview was conducted by Jérémie Labbé, Senior Policy Analyst, International Peace Institute.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Jeremie Labbe: We are here today with Michael Keating, the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for Afghanistan. Mr. Keating, thank you very much for being with us on the Global Observatory today. You are currently on a twelve day visit to Europe and the US. Can you tell us, what are your objectives for this visit?

Michael Keating: Yes, I have three objectives. First of all, to draw attention to the situation facing the people of Afghanistan–sometimes, with all the focus being on the politics and the security, the elections and so on, the people get forgotten–so both the human development situation and the humanitarian. Secondly, to draw attention to the landscape in Afghanistan after the NATO and Tokyo conferences this year, and in the light of the transition of security forces. And thirdly, to talk about the role of the UN.

JL: Looking at indicators about Afghanistan, the situation looks quite bleak. It ranks among the bottom ten percent of the human development index (HDI), one-third of Afghans live below the poverty line, the country is affected by regular natural disasters, and there are increasing numbers of civilian casualties and widespread internal displacement.

To balance this rather grim picture, what are some of the successes of humanitarian action in the country, and could you share some positive trends?

MK: Well, the successes are often overlooked. The international community has helped the Afghans repatriate millions of refugees over the last decade, has supported hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people, including in informal settlements, working closely with NGOs. The Mine Action Programme is one of the great successes of Afghanistan. It is one of the most impressive mine action programs in the world. More recently, we have seen some very swift responses to help communities that have been affected by flooding, and in some cases–there are not enough–by avalanches caused by heavy winter.

But I wouldn’t want these positive stories to in any way give the impression that the bigger picture doesn’t remain very, very challenging. As you say, there are a large number of people in need of humanitarian assistance. Afghanistan has perhaps one of the biggest case loads in the world: people affected by conflict; 500,000 IDPs (internally displaced people), more being generated all the time, most recently as a result of cross border shelling in Kunar; people affected by floods, and avalanches, and earthquakes, the numbers goes up and up and up, year on year; and of course the chronically vulnerable. Last year, the humanitarian community was providing assistance to up to one-third of the population–perhaps a bit less inside the country–as a result of drought, and so on.

So there are some positive things, but the bigger picture remains very challenging.

JL: The 2012 Consolidated Appeal Process, which is the document that sets the humanitarian strategy and required funding for the UN and NGO partners, describes a “back to the basics.” Could you tell us what it is about and the reasons underlying this choice?

MK: Yes, “back to basics” means a number of things. First of all, making sure that the humanitarian appeal is drawing attention and raising money for people in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. In other words, not including activities which arguably relate more to recovery, and resilience, and disaster risk reduction than to humanitarian response. This is partly in response to what some of the donors have been telling us, is that they would find an appeal that is strictly back to basics–in terms of humanitarian needs–much more fundable. It’s also “back to basics” in that we try to base it on a much more accurate assessment of where people are, what their needs are. We’re doing much more mapping of capacities to respond, and so it really is back to the most basic needs of the population.

Having said that, it didn’t actually work, in that only one-third of the funding has been met. It also has created issues: what do you do with funding for resilience and disaster risk reduction? If you strip it out of the consolidated appeal, how are we supposed to draw attention to these issues, and what are the mechanisms for mobilizing funding? This is the challenge that we need to face, that we are facing right now.

JL: I’d like to move on to a more specific issue now. The July 2012 Protection of Civilians Report of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) shows a decrease in the number of civilian casualties during the first half of this year, 2012. This is a slight improvement compared to 2011, which saw the highest number of civilian casualties in recent years. Is this the beginning of a positive trend, or a mere anecdotal change in your view? And what’s the impact, if any, of UNAMA, or other humanitarian actors in this development?

MK: It’s difficult to say that it’s the beginning of a long-term trend. I would like to say it’s the beginning of a long-term trend in which all parties to the conflict take more care to protect civilians. Certainly NATO and ISAF have taken the evidence of their activities affecting the civilian population very seriously. We’re also engaged in discussions with the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) to make sure that as transition of security responsibility unfolds, they also have the orders and capacity to protect civilians. And the evidence suggests that the antigovernment elements also take this very seriously. They always react very strongly to the reports that the UNAMA’s human rights unit produces, which are very carefully done by brave people investigating specific incidents on all sides.

And that really answers your question, or addresses your question about the role of UNAMA. I mean UNAMA’s core function, one of its three main purposes is to protect and promote human rights. And one of the most powerful ways of doing this is by producing factually accurate, timely, credible, well-researched reports on how the civilian population is being affected by the conflict. And they are taken, as I say, very seriously indeed.

Now, as to whether the trends will continue, that’s a very big question. With the transfer of security responsibility, much more will be dependent upon Afghan security forces, Afghan police capacities, Afghan local defense forces ability, and willingness to protect the local population, particularly women and children. And we need to work very hard in the coming months and years to ensure that systems of accountability, systems of protection are in place. But it’s too early to say whether the positive trend will continue. And I have to say in the last few weeks and months there have been some very, very ugly incidents that have resulted in the deaths of far too many civilians.

JL: You mentioned indirectly the need to engage all the actors in the conflict to protect civilians, but also for broader issues of humanitarian access. This includes ISAF, this includes the government, but also non-state actors, such as the Taliban or al-Qaeda. How has the now defunct global war on terror impacted the ability of the humanitarian community to engage these non-state armed groups? And has the new approach of the international community–which recognizes the need to engage at least the Taliban in reconciliation talks–has it changed anything in that regard?

MK: A number of things have evolved over the last few years. For example, one is the positioning of the UN political mission. Under the current SRSG and his predecessors, there has been a conscious attempt to reposition the political mission in a way that makes it clear that its purpose is threefold. One is to promote peace and reconciliation, whether at the local level, on the national stage, by supporting the Afghans to talk to each other, or by creating an international environment that is conducive to peace and reconciliation. The second objective as I mentioned is to protect and promote human rights. And the third is to encourage more coherent approaches by all actors, whether they’re military or civilian, international or Afghan, towards governance and development.

So one consequence of what’s happened in the last few years is a much higher level of attention to how the UN explains its purpose and activities to make sure that we communicate what we’re doing to the local population, so as to create a more conducive environment to gain access, to support the entire UN family in trying to reach people in need.

Having said that, clearly, there does need to be a distinction between humanitarian actors, between development actors, and between political actors. Access remains a very, very big problem, both in terms of logistics, in terms of reaching communities that are directly affected by conflict, and in many other ways. There are discussions going on, both in the public domain and at the local level on access, and there’s also a move afoot both within the NGO community and within the UN to share very practical experiences of what do you need to do in order to gain access. And of course it depends on what you’re doing. A polio campaign requires very different types of access to the delivery of a truck of water. One part of the country is very different to another part of the country. Afghanistan is gloriously diverse, and what works in one place will not work in another.

But certainly, these three objectives, including the need to maintain humanitarian access, must be kept both distinct, but need to inform each other. For example, in discussions about peace and reconciliation, the importance of maintaining people’s access to services, humanitarian services, such as health, must be a feature; and the other way around, the ability of humanitarian actors to reach populations in need, wherever they are in the country.

JL: Afghanistan is the one country with the highest number of security incidents involving humanitarian staff. How does this impact on humanitarian access and the ability of humanitarian actors to deliver aid and implement programs? And I would add, are you able to secure, with the different parties to the conflict, some security guarantees?

MK: Well, let me answer your last question first. I mean, getting security guarantees has become more complicated in recent years. In fact, it reminds me of a previous period in which I was serving in Afghanistan in the late 80s, where in order to gain access to a population, you would have to deal with many different commanders and many different actors and make sure that they all knew what you were doing and they were comfortable with what you were doing and so on. I mean, the days when you could just make a couple of phone calls and you were then fairly confident that you would be able to move around, one on the government’s side, and one on the… you know, as it were, with antigovernment elements… those days have gone. It has become much more complicated.

Access affects humanitarian action in many, many ways. We need to do more research on this, but the evidence suggests that things like polio, and possibly other humanitarian problems, are greatest and certainly most difficult to address in areas of high insecurity. There may be a correlation between malnutrition and access. Again, I don’t want to say that’s the case, but these are the kind of things that we need to understand.

Another very practical problem is that some donors are unwilling to provide funds to humanitarian organizations which are unable to monitor and account for the use of funds and to produce quite high levels of reporting as to their impact. But again, if you don’t have access, that’s very difficult. I think the key to access in Afghanistan, and maybe in many other parts of the world, is not only by engaging at a political level with the leadership of the parties to the conflict, but also by gaining community acceptance, because if communities and community leaders want you to work with them, to support them, to engage with them, then they are the best advocates with authorities from whatever side of the conflict they come, to help ensure access, and I think we’d have to have a much higher level of appreciation, and we’re developing it, as to which actors are most acceptable in what kind of environment.

Let me conclude on this point by saying that we must nevertheless remain vigilant. There are organizations which have been in Afghanistan ten, twenty, thirty years and have very high levels of local acceptability. Many of the people in the local community would have been helped by them–either as prisoners, or as beneficiaries, or as patients–and yet they are subject to security incidents and attacks. So there is no easy fix in terms of gaining access. But the connections between access, humanitarian need, and certainly the ability of the humanitarian community to respond is very strong.

JL: My last question will be about humanitarian coordination in the country. The integrated nature of the UN Mission in Afghanistan is a source of concern for some humanitarian actors. Some NGOs are reportedly reluctant to participate in the UN-led humanitarian coordination system for fear of being perceived to be a part of the political efforts of the United Nations to support the government. What are the challenges you are facing in this respect, and how do you see the future of humanitarian coordination in the country?

MK: Well, the importance of preserving the neutrality and impartiality of humanitarian actors cannot be underestimated. The reality is that the UN has got an integrated mission structure, so my job is to try and make it work in a way that creates space and opportunities for humanitarian actors, and that allows them to influence where they wish it to be the case. The political agenda of the UN seems to me that the integrated mission structure does have its risks, but it also creates opportunities. It creates opportunities for those… someone like me, who’s involved on the humanitarian side of things to make sure that humanitarian concerns are taken very seriously in the political engagement of the UN. I’m not saying it wouldn’t happen otherwise, but it makes it much easier.

I am able to introduce two conversations at the political level–you know concerns about IDPs, concerns about chronic vulnerability–and to make the point that failure to address these problems will have serious political consequences. If they go unaddressed, broader efforts to help the Afghans to manage their own affairs, to sort themselves out are going to be very badly compromised.

In terms of strengthening humanitarian capacity, we’re fortunate with most of the humanitarian community to have a group of people who are more focused on meeting needs in the most pragmatic way possible, rather than entering into interminable discussions about the merits or demerits of integrated missions, and I think the collective sense that we have to work together more effectively, whether we’re NGOs, whether we’re UN agencies, whether it’s from the Red Cross Red Crescent movement, and in some cases from government in order to meet those needs on an efficient basis, that’s the overriding spirit.

And if I may say, one of the things to which I hope we are all committed is upgrading our factual knowledge of the humanitarian situation, being much more honest with each other about what capacities we actually have to respond, and then matching our capacities to respond to those needs. And what we’re already discovering is that sometimes the needs are in different sectors and in different geographical locations to those where the capacity to respond is located, and we have to bring these things together.

That kind of factual information and that mutual honesty, working through the cluster system, seems to me to be the way forward, and the best way in which we can mobilize more resources, and then influence policies, which may result in a more effective response, as well as durable solutions to humanitarian crises, some of which are recurrent, and lend themselves to different forms of development and security interventions.

JL: Mr. Keating, thank you very much indeed for joining the Global Observatory today, and I wish you the best of luck for this complicated task.

MK: Thank you very much.