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Saturday, July 7, 2012

Message from children in war-torn Afghanistan


By HIRONOBU SHIBUYA
Special to The Japan Times

When world leaders gather in Tokyo on Sunday to discuss their contribution to Afghanistan's future development they will face a dilemma. The global economic crisis makes donor countries hesitant to give development aid to nations in need. This situation is even more problematic for a nation as hotly debated as Afghanistan.

The need for aid in Afghanistan remains pressing, however. The life, health, education and protection of people in Afghanistan, among them 15 million children, depends on the decisions made in Tokyo by the world leaders, who need to make real and concrete commitments addressing the particular needs and concerns of the future generations of the country.

An example is Naweeda, 11 months old, who was already severely malnourished when she was born into a drought stricken Afghan province and a family that often didn't have food for days. When Naweeda was 9 months old she weighed 4.5 kg, where 9 would have been considered healthy. She did not even have enough energy to cry. Today, Naweeda is on the mend. She has been admitted to a new feeding program for malnourished children in her province. She has gained 8 kg and is making her first attempts to play.

But hundreds of thousands of other children in Afghanistan remain malnourished or underweight, stunted in physical and intellectual growth. Those children and their parents need help. The amount of foreign aid flowing into the country was nearly equivalent to 100 percent of the country's GDP in 2010/11. Afghanistan has been heavily reliant on aid for the past decade and is not yet ready to sustain the delivery of basic services such as health and education to its people on its own. A number of governments have stepped forward to foot the $4.1 billion a year for security forces, yet there are still no clear commitments to plug the funding gap for essential basic services that are critical to Afghanistan's communities. For example, the Afghan government has estimated a funding gap of around $67 million to deliver the Health for All Afghans National Priority Program.

Without more aid, the achievements of the past 10 years and the billions that have already been invested into the country are in danger of being wasted. Investment in basic services has had a significant impact on the lives of ordinary Afghans. Key service delivery areas such as health care are particularly vulnerable to reductions in funding. Thus far, civilian aid, such as infrastructure costs, delivery of essential services and government expenses have cost $6 billion per year.

Shouldering parts of this sum is by no means a small investment, especially for Japan. The Japanese government has given over $4 billion to Afghanistan since 2001. Three years back, the country pledged another $5 billion over five years. This was to be channeled into security, the reintegration of ex-combatants and development. The latter makes up $1.487 billion of that budget.

Only a fraction of this donor money is being invested in health and education — $3.5 billion over the last 10 years. The contributions have nevertheless made a significant difference in the lives of women and children. At the turn of the millennium, more than one in four children died before the age of five. In 2011, 7 million children attended school, compared to one million 10 years ago. More than 2.5 million girls are now enrolled; a decade ago, there was not one formal girls' school functioning. Women are now more widely employed, as teachers and health workers. Out of nearly 60,000 students enrolled in teacher-training colleges in 2011, 40 percent were women.

But this is just the beginning of development for Afghan women and children. Many improvements are still waiting to be made. Dropout rates are high, and less than half of Afghan children can read with comprehension. More health care workers and midwives are needed to ensure that people in remote villages get the help they need. Malnutrition is also rife in this food-insecure nation, where two-thirds of children are stunted and one in three is underweight.

Certainly, there are challenges and doubts about aid for Afghanistan. The confidence among the donors in the government of Afghanistan has been waning over the years due to corruption and lack of accountability in the country.

Yet, we cannot forsake the country's children. With 57 percent of Afghanistan's population under the age of 18, resources have to be made available to ensure this generation has the opportunity to grow up healthy and well educated, and fit to tackle the country's challenges in the future. That is the common ground for the Afghan government and international community's commitment to continue, improve and expand the delivery of basic services.

Afghanistan's future economic development and stability depends on its children.

Hironobu Shibuya, chief executive officer of Save the Children Japan, was formerly special advisor to the executive director of UNICEF.


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