Health gains in Afghanistan at risk, warns Red Cross

KABUL Thu Mar 8, 2012 4:02am EST

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan risks giving up advances made in healthcare and humanitarian development as global attention and financial support wane ahead of the planned withdrawal of foreign combat troops in 2014, the Red Cross has warned.

Development aid is already dwindling in the impoverished and highly unstable country, putting at risk the hundreds of medical centres and schools that were set up following the ouster of the Taliban in 2001.

"With way less resources available (Afghanistan) will suddenly see much more hardship, and less organisations and government being able to cater to those in need," Reto Stocker, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Afghanistan, told Reuters in an interview.

This could create "a humanitarian situation that would be more dire" than today, Stocker said.

Civilian aid, the vast majority coming from the United States, peaked in 2010 in Afghanistan and Washington has said it will spend less on development as it withdraws troops.

"Afghans are very very very worried that international interest and support would wane, and they have a lot to lose. Because a lot has been achieved over the last ten years," said Stocker, who worked in Afghanistan in the late 1990s.

Recalling that time, when the Taliban were in power, Stocker said there were only a few running clinics per province providing primary healthcare, contrasting dramatically to the national health programme established last year.

Under that strategy, the World Bank, USAID and the European Commission work under the Ministry of Health, funding local non-governmental organisations who provide healthcare.

If resources such as these disappear, Afghans would "simply not understand and accept this. And I think rightly so," said Stocker.

U.S. economic and humanitarian aid to Afghanistan fell from $4.1 billion in 2010 to $2.5 billion in 2011. U.S. aid will be even lower this year as Washington shifts to sustainability projects, which they say require lower levels of funding.

Underscoring fears over Afghanistan's future, the United Nations has said ensuring sustainability is one of the key concerns to be voiced at major Afghanistan conferences in Chicago in May and Tokyo in July.

WORLD MUST STAY AFTER 2014

Stocker called on world powers to uphold their commitments to Afghanistan, long after the war winds down.

"There is at least a moral obligation for the international community to make sure that standards that have been promoted... would continue irrespective of the direct security presence here in Afghanistan".

Despite vast progress made since the Taliban were toppled just over a decade ago, large hurdles in health remain.

Stocker noted that Afghanistan is one of three countries along with Nigeria and Pakistan where polio is yet to be eradicated, and the healthcare programme needs to expand across the country of 30 million.

There is also a need for dialogue with all parties of the conflict, regardless of whatever state it had reached, so access to rural areas can be ensured.

Likewise, the issue of doctor intimidation by all sides of the war needs to cease, he said, saying that international humanitarian law entitles anyone who is injured to treatment, regardless of whom they stand for, including members of the insurgency.

The ICRC has been working with Afghanistan's national security forces, as well as U.S. special forces, to make sure such laws are respected, Stocker said.

(Editing by Michael Georgy and Sanjeev Miglani)

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