KABUL - National and international development and humanitarian aid agencies working in Afghanistan on Tuesday said it was essential that social, economic and security needs of ordinary Afghan men, women and children were at the forefront of the agenda of Istanbul conference. The joint statement was issued by Action Contre La Faim, Afghan Health and Development Services, Afghan Institute for Learning, British Agencies Afghanistan Group, Civil Society Development Centre, Christian Aid, Coordination of Afghan Relief, Cooperation Centre for Afghanistan, Integrity Watch Afghanistan, Medica Afghanistan, Oxfam, Swedish Committee for Afghanistan and Terre des Hommes.
The NGOs said the next few months will be critical for the Afghan people and the Istanbul Conference and next month's Bonn Conference should represent the next set of building blocks for the future of Afghanistan and for peace and stability in the wider region. "They must be more than empty talking shops," the statement said.
It said transition was now fully underway with the international military forces largely set to withdraw by the end of 2014, but insecurity was worsening across Afghanistan and civilians continued to suffer, with nearly 1500 civilians killed in the first six months of 2011 alone.
"Afghanistan is at the heart of the region: building peace and prosperity in this country promises opportunities and benefits to all its neighbors. Both Afghanistan and its regional partners face common challenges and must find common solutions," the statement said, but suggested these solutions must also include, and address, the needs of the Afghan people as a whole if they are to succeed.
"The purpose of this statement is to highlight priorities in three areas – security, peace and reconciliation, and economic and social development – that must be addressed."
About security, the statement said the civilian cost of the conflict continued to increase, with anti government forces responsible for the majority of Afghan civilian casualties as well as for the most serious abuses of human rights, although the pro-government forces were also responsible for a significant number of casualties and continue to carry out night raids. "But all parties in the conflict, including armed groups, have a legal duty to avoid harming civilian men, women and children."
"Recent efforts to improve the effectiveness of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are welcome. However, as they take on more responsibility for security in the country, there are serious concerns about their readiness, conduct and accountability. Some members of the police abuse civilians with impunity. The Afghan army does not have the capacity to properly track and investigate civilian casualties."
The statement said initiatives such as the Afghan Local Police legitimized and empowered militias and local commanders, many of whom have abused civilians.
It said there must be a sustained focus on the recruitment, retention, training and equipping of the national forces as well as developing ANSF capability to monitor, minimize and respond to civilian casualties. In addition, the statement said there must be adequate monitoring of the ANSF under civilian oversight. "These steps are essential in ensuring a just, peaceful and stable Afghanistan and contributing to wider regional stability."
The aid agencies urged all parties in the conflict to increase efforts to prevent and minimize civilian casualties, and to respect international humanitarian law.
The aid agencies supported the Afghan government to ensure that civilians casualties were properly tracked, investigated and appropriate compensation was paid.
It suggested upholding the further professionalization of the ANSF as a top priority, including the provision of quality training in international human rights and humanitarian law.
The statement said it was widely recognized that there was no military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan. "A political settlement is needed to deliver an end to the fighting and achieve sustainable long-term peace that will create a better life for all Afghans. Regional partners, too, can only benefit from a stable and peaceful Afghanistan. More than that, there can be no lasting peace in Afghanistan without the constructive involvement and support of regional actors as well as the wider international community."
The statement said the only way forward was through a transparent and inclusive peace process involving representatives from all parts of Afghan society, as well as regional actors. "The important role of women in particular must be acknowledged and facilitated. The more that women feel involved in and committed to a political settlement which safeguards their rights, the more likely they are, within their families and communities, to promote changes in attitude and genuine reconciliation – essential for a lasting peace. Improved governance with greater capacity and resources at the local level, and rule of law that applies to all in society, too, are vital to ensure a sustainable peace."
It said a genuine commitment to the meaningful participation of women, civil society and other minority groups by calling for their inclusion in all phases and levels of all peace processes must be demonstrated.
It should be ensured that women's rights were not sacrificed by publicly pledging that any political settlement must explicitly guaranteed women's rights in accordance with Islam including rights to education and political participation as enshrined in the Afghan constitution.
Efforts at improving the technical capacity of local government, increasing resources available to government at the sub-national level must be supported so that the rule of law was upheld and applied to all members of society.
It said the economic and social development in Afghanistan has seen rapid over the last few years but the growth was not sustainable and had not succeeded in reducing the levels of extreme poverty in the country.
A greater regional economic cooperation, and the promotion of trade and investment could play a vital role in promoting sustainable economic growth.
"Afghanistan is rich in minerals, including iron, copper and gold, which are estimated to be worth hundreds of billions of dollars. These valuable reserves can be an important driver for transforming Afghanistan from one of the poorest nations on earth into a prosperous mining centre and a useful resource for its neighbors." However, the statement said this opportunity must be coupled with strong governance reforms to ensure that it benefited the Afghan people as a whole, and not just a few.
The statement aid rural development was vital in the drive to reduce poverty. More than 80 percent of the Afghan population is reliant on agriculture and related trades to support their families.
However, the focus has been on increasing agricultural production for markets whereas the majority of farmers are small scale subsistence farmers trying to make a living out of dry farming in an environment heavily affected by environmental degradation and the effects of climate change. One result is that more than seven million Afghans continue to regularly suffer from food insecurity.
The NGOs said energy was a pre-requisite for development and viable ways of generating sustainable energy on a large-scale and it must be explored. "Stronger financial services can act as a catalyst for increasing business and trade in the country but these must also offer affordable opportunities for the marginalized in society."
"Above all, there must be inclusive economic development which involves Afghans from all parts of society. In particular, Afghan women are a largely untapped resource yet experience in other countries demonstrates that if women have the right tools – including education, job opportunities, and a voice in decision-making – they can help to break the cycle of poverty."
Finally, economic progress will remain restricted unless Afghan men, women and children have effective access to basic services, such as good quality education for boys and girls and reliable healthcare.
It recommended supporting the development of a clear, coherent and long-term plan for accessing, and distribution of profits from Afghanistan's mineral wealth in an accountable and transparent way.
It called for improved access to, and quality of, basic services such as health and education, especially in rural areas and especially for women. Increased support to the agriculture sector, targeting the poorer farmers and including investment in sustainable land and water management, including long term disaster risk reduction to avoid the annual hunger caused by drought and food insecurity.
The statement suggested focus on investment in supporting the government to develop micro hydro power and other forms of sustainable energy production measures including solar power.