Situation in Afghanistan: Discussion

I welcome from Christian Aid Ireland Mr. John Moffett, head of programme development, and Ms Serena Di Matteo, country manager, Afghanistan. Mr. Moffett and Ms Di Matteo are accompanied to this meeting by Senator Ormonde, who travelled to Afghanistan recently as part of a Christian Aid mission.

Before moving on to the subject of today's discussions, I wish to take a moment to express the joint committee's condolences to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and the people of Indonesia on the terrible loss of life that followed Monday's volcanic eruption, the ensuing earthquake and the devastating tsunami, as well as to wish them well with the relief operation that is under way at present.

Members of the joint committee will recall being addressed in February last by Dr. Shinkai Karokhail, MP, from the Afghan National Assembly. Dr. Karokhail was accompanied by Mr. Moffett of Christian Aid on that occasion. On foot of that meeting, Senator Ormonde accepted an invitation from Christian Aid to visit Afghanistan and to report back to the joint committee on the position on the ground there. Senator Ormonde and the representatives from Christian Aid will report today on recent developments in Afghanistan and on Christian Aid's work there. Since 2005, Ireland has allocated almost €22 million in humanitarian and development aid to Afghanistan. In addition, a commitment has been made to provide additional funding of more than €20 million over the three years from 2010 to 2012.

In respect of privilege, I must read out a statement with which I am sure Senator Ormonde is familiar. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice or the long-standing rule of the Chair to the effect that members should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. If a witness is directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in respect of a particular matter and continues to so do, the witness is entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of his or her evidence. Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and witnesses are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

I now invite Senator Ormonde to address the joint committee, after which members will hear from Mr. John Moffett and Ms Serena Di Matteo.

I thank the Chairman for giving me the opportunity to invite Mr. Moffett and Ms Di Matteo of Christian Aid to appear before the joint committee to give a report on our visit to Afghanistan earlier this year. I will preface this by stating that members may recall that last February, Dr. Karokhail visited Ireland as a guest of Christian Aid and made a presentation to the joint committee on the current position in Afghanistan. I was very impressed by this visit and when Dr. Karokhail addressed the joint committee she spoke of the changes that are taking place in that country, such as the adoption of a new constitution, the holding of presidential and parliamentary elections, improvements in health and education and infrastructural improvements such as telephones, Internet services, radio and television. In addition, there were some improvements in the legal and social position of women and children.

That said, I also was highly aware of reports regarding the ongoing, chronic and widespread poverty, the enormous civilian loss of life, the oppression of women and children and political corruption. With that contrasting picture in mind, I pushed my way into Christian Aid and forced it to invite me to visit Afghanistan with the agency in order that I could learn more about the ordinary people there at this time of great instability, conflict and change. I wanted to visit to ascertain how all this was shaping up and to see the work being undertaken on the ground by Christian Aid, as I knew the agency was being supported in part by Irish Aid funding.

There is a tendency in Ireland to think that Afghanistan is a problem that has nothing to do with us. However, it is home to ordinary individuals who struggle to make a better way of life for themselves. The vast majority of people there desire peace and stability and seek a path out of poverty. These are the people who Christian Aid seek to help and about whom Mr. Moffett and Ms Di Matteo know a great deal. In a moment, I would like both of them to give some details on the precise projects in which Christian Aid is involved. The joint committee and I are also aware of a fundamental issue with Irish Aid, which is that when one visits a recipient country, it is very important to enter dialogue and to link in with local authorities. In addition, it is very important to get on side the local civic society groups as they are the people on the ground. Consequently, it was important to me that such a link should be made when I visited Afghanistan and this was one reason I was motivated to go there. As I stated, Irish Aid works through the Christian Aid organisation - I always get the two organisations mixed up. Christian Aid is doing a great deal of work on the ground and is one of the five organisations that receive funding on a multiannual basis, which is an achievement in itself.

While there and in the knowledge that such dialogue was important, I met several Ministers. I met the parliamentary Commission on Women Affairs, the Minister for Labour, the Minister for Education, as well as the human rights commissioner. All the issues under discussion targeted women because I considered women and children to be so oppressed. I began to examine the projects that Christian Aid was undertaking on the ground to try to improve livelihoods of women in particular, to give them a way of life. Other projects were devoted to literacy and numeracy, as well as small projects in tailoring to try to give women an interest. Most of the women concerned were attired in chadors or burqas and very much were at the behest of their elders in the community. Anything that was done was subjected to permission being granted. This is appalling, greatly disturbed me and left me in no doubt but that Afghanistan needs our help. In addition, Christian Aid undoubtedly is making a real difference to the lives of the Afghani people. At this point, I will hand over to Mr. Moffett and Ms Di Matteo to provide a more detailed picture because they are engaged continually.

I congratulate Senator Ormonde on visiting Afghanistan in very difficult circumstances and invite Mr. Moffett to make his contribution.

Mr. John Moffett

I must start by contradicting Senator Ormonde, who certainly did not force herself upon us. She was more than welcome to accompany us on our trip to Afghanistan last May. I also must commend the Senator to the joint committee as we did not accommodate her in very fancy accommodation. She may have mentioned that she slept on the floor in Maymana. I can confirm, having seen it with my own eyes, that she slept on a mat on the floor and also can confirm there were mice running around the building. No highfalutin accommodation was involved and it was great to have the Senator with us. It opened doors for Christian Aid to meet some high-level Ministers to discuss our programmes and the situations we encounter on a daily basis regarding the ordinary lives of people in the communities in which we work and this was very helpful.

I will start by talking briefly about our work in Afghanistan, after which Ms Di Matteo will follow up with some of our concerns regarding the political and security situation and how we consider the Irish Government and the joint committee might be helpful in pursuing some of the international agenda to support civil society organisations working in Afghanistan. Christian Aid has worked in Afghanistan for nearly three decades under four different regimes from the Soviet occupation through the period of the Mujahideen, the Taliban and the current government of Afghanistan. In those three decades, Christian Aid has invested almost £20 million sterling in north-west and central Afghanistan. Afghanistan is the poorest country in the world outside Africa and is second to bottom of the human development index after Niger. While armed conflict is one of many reasons one third of Afghans live in absolute poverty, another 37% of people are on the edge of poverty and development indicators are worse now than in 2007. Some 36% of the population, 9 million people, cannot meet their basic needs on a daily basis.

Afghanistan has the second highest maternal mortality rate in the world, making pregnancy the single highest cause of death in the country, and the third worst global ranking for child mortality. Drinking water supplies reach only 23% of Afghans and only 24% of the population who are 15 years or older can read and write. An estimated 12.6% of women are literate and only 20% of the overall population in rural areas is literate.

Christian Aid follows a partnership approach in Afghanistan. We work with Afghan-registered non-governmental organisations, NGOs, and civil society organisations, CSOs, in the three provinces in which we operate. They have a direct connection to the communities with which they work.

Although the 2002 Tokyo conference participants pledged $5.1 billion in non-military aid over five years, one quarter of this amount was a re-pledge and the money is still not filtering down into the country significantly. The 2008 study by the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief, ACBAR, found that, since 2001, donors have agreed to provide $25 billion in aid for civil reconstruction and development but have only delivered $15 billion, of which $6 billion has returned to donor countries through consultants' fees and profits.

While billions of euro have been channelled into the country, little of it went through NGOs and, therefore, little of it has reached the communities in need. Our approach means that we can directly reach the communities that are suffering, cutting past the corruption, nepotism and layers of contracting companies that have plagued the Afghan reconstruction effort.

We focus on three provinces in the north and west of Afghanistan, those being Herat, Faryab and central Ghor. We focus on specific districts within each province, based primarily on our partners' priorities and on security considerations of where it is feasible and possible for us to work. Rather than spreading our support too thinly, we try to focus on a small number of villages at any one time to provide sufficient resources to bring about real change before moving on to new villages in the area. Livelihood is the main focus of our programme, representing approximately two thirds of expenditure. It is also the area of work we expect to maintain for longest if and when the security situation worsens. It is worth noting that the current security situation is worse than it was in 2001 when the Taliban regime was overthrown.

Our partners support strategies that benefit agricultural production through the improvement of irrigation systems, cultivation of drought-resistant crops, provision of credits to farmers, soil fertility, crop rotations and the proper use of fertilizers. The overall aim of this is to improve food security, that is, the quantity and quality of food available to people, and to increase incomes from selling the surplus, with a clear approach on resilience to multiple risks and vulnerability. We also aim to increase women's voices and freedom of action, an important objective in a country where women are denied basic rights and freedoms. Increased income plays an important role in this regard. We aim to promote greater responsiveness by authorities to community demands and there is a special focus on gender-based violence.

Given the likelihood of a severe deterioration in the security situation, we are prepared to revert to an emergency programme based on humanitarian relief and international advocacy, which can be managed from outside the country. We have put in place the planning necessary to allow this to happen so that we can continue to operate and support people within Afghanistan from a distance.

As Senator Ormonde mentioned, we have received funding from the Irish Aid multi annual programme scheme, MAPS. We have been channelling funding through that from the Irish taxpayer since 2003. Our second contract, which runs from 2007 to 2011, provides approximately €2.8 million to support the programme in Afghanistan. Although the amount has been reduced in the past two years as a result of budget cuts impacting on overseas development aid, ODA, it is still a necessary component of our overall response to Afghanistan and we are grateful to the Government and Irish Aid for providing it.

Ms Serena Di Matteo

I will link my comments to those of Senator Ormonde and Mr. Moffett. What we do is important as a way ahead for Afghanistan. Our advocacy work has been trying to support these lines in terms of the key messages we are trying to promote.

The Government, through the European Union, should support more actively the search for a political settlement and conflict resolution in Afghanistan. The peace process should be inclusive and any agreement should not undermine the rights of women or the most marginalised groups in society. Security and development in Afghanistan is linked to the wider stabilisation and development of neighbouring countries. Aid should not be used to achieve military objectives, a point we try to make in the wider group of communities.

The conflict is interrupting development and leading to significant human casualties and human rights violations. It disrupts economic growth and damages the credibility of the Afghan Government. It also contributes to the instability of the wider region. Christian Aid does not believe there can only be a military solution to the current crisis. There is an important challenge of ensuring the rule of law and stability in the country. It is imperative that all efforts to reduce and end violent conflict in Afghanistan be framed within the context of a political strategy which places primacy on supporting efforts to reduce and end violent conflict in Afghanistan in a sustainable and legitimate manner.

Donors like the EU and the Irish Government within the Union are planning to allocate significant funding to support the new Afghanistan Peace and Reconciliation Programme, APRP. This programme has value in terms of community participation, but the absence of a national peace agreement will not help it. As such, it is important that Afghanistan achieve peace in a sustainable way that includes the broad group of ethnicities and social groups.

The peace process should be inclusive and any agreement that emerges should not lead to the undermining of the rights of the most marginalised, for example, women. In this regard, Afghan civil society can play an important role in the peace process. There are a number of international examples of civil society initiatives helping to increase trust and build peace in conflict-affected countries. Consider the history of the Northern Ireland conflict. In Northern Ireland, a survey was commissioned in which 3,000 people submitted testimonies to a Norwegian academic. A number of the recommendations on human rights were adopted into the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and the commission proved influential in creating an atmosphere of inclusiveness. The Irish Government can bring expertise and knowledge of how it manages to resolve conflict and come to agreement. In Afghanistan there is a similar need to end the conflict, hold talks between all the people involved and reach an agreement suitable to all. It is very important to frame this by looking at the regional approach. The conflict in Afghanistan is not just related to the borders of the country; it is important to consider all countries in the region. The success of the international efforts to promote security and development is linked to the stabilisation and development of the wider region. This is part of a United Nations Security Council resolution. We need to work together, possibly through an impartial mediator, to build trust and confidence in the region while considering possible investments. We must improve relationships because in many cases insurgency is not just linked to Afghanistan but has broader roots in the region.

We oppose the use of aid for military objectives. Using scarce resources for development and poverty eradication programmes will produce greater benefits and increased stability in the long term. I thank the committee members.

I thank the delegation for its presentation. It is good to see Senator Ormonde making a presentation. Reference was made to the billions of euros channelled into Afghanistan and used for the wrong purposes. Where does most of that funding come from? Delegates referred to the south, where the people feel marginalised and are concerned about weak government. What can the EU do and what can Ireland do, along or through the EU, to bring about political settlement?

That was an interesting, graphic and horrifying account. Like the previous speaker, I am concerned at the extent of the aid transferred to date. Looking at the figures, we are still talking about €9 billion. Where has this gone? It cannot be all gone through corruption and nepotism. It is horrifying that €6 billion has reverted to donor countries in consultants' fees and profits. That is a nightmare.

My question concerns the ethnic divisions in the country. How seriously are these being taken? Recently, the president had to make several attempts at ministerial appointments before he got the numbers right so that it was more representative of the ethnic groups in the country. From speaking about the role of women with someone who worked on the ground there, pressure had to be brought to bear to allow women to attend the consultative Afghan peace jirga. Is it true that they were selective in the women, so the women who were invited were those less critical of what was going on?

Is it possible to talk to the Taliban or do they have an agenda that precludes dialogue and involves only domination? However bad things are for women now, I fear how much more of a nightmare it will be for women if the Taliban gets into power again. Are those providing aid making any effort to make it conditional on going directly to those affected in the way Christian Aid is doing? It is appalling that this country's poverty rate is next to that of countries in Africa.

I refer to the drone aircraft and its impact on civilian society. Is that just a headline in the newspaper that is then forgotten about?

I thank the delegation from Christian Aid Ireland. I am aware of the good work it does in Afghanistan and other places. We recently had an opportunity to examine aid bodies. The question of Haiti was discussed. Aid bodies agree there was a lack of co-ordination. When there is an emergency such as in Haiti, one can understand this. There has been a gradual progression in Afghanistan to a more stable political climate, particularly since the first presidential election in November 2004 and the re-election in 2009. A considerable period has passed. Perhaps Christian Aid can explain the level of co-ordination that exists between the authorities and various aid organisers on the ground.

The Taliban is a problem and it seems to have a drug industry within Afghanistan that is causing some of the devastation and humanitarian problems. I am not sure if this is within the remit of Christian Aid but perhaps it can indicate what is happening with the authorities. Not only is this factor detrimental to Afghanistan but Afghan opium is the most used opium in Europe.

I welcome the delegation and I congratulate Senator Ormonde for organising this, which puts a good face on Irish politics. An ordinary person in Ireland is likely to ask the following questions and perhaps Mr. Moffett can respond. What exactly does Mr. Moffett do and how does it help the people when he arrives on the ground? Do the people like to see him coming? By the time the organisation leaves, are the people self-sustainable and are they somewhat better than before the organisation got there? Are the people living in fear of coercion by their rulers? There is no one in the Western world who does not think the members of the Taliban have horns, which I assume they have. Does Christian Aid ever come into contact with the Taliban? Does it try to prevent Christian Aid from trying to carry out its work? The Government of Afghanistan should answer this point but I ask Christian Aid to paint a picture of what it does on the ground.

I thank the delegation for its presentation. I congratulate Senator Ann Ormonde for taking the initiative in going to Afghanistan and for organising this meeting.

This is an eye-opener; I did not realise Afghanistan was the second poorest country in the world in human development terms. Does the present Afghan government, voted in after the US-led invasion, really have the support of the people? As Ms Di Matteo is the country manager she might know more about it. In recent days, I read in a newspaper about President Karzai receiving finance from Iran, the US and other countries. How much support does he have in the country rather than support from forces outside Afghanistan?

Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked a number of the questions I wish to raise, such as where the billions have gone. The delegation expressed strong views on the matter and on what will happen when the security situation gets deteriorates. It was stated that a severe deterioration is likely. Apparently the Taliban are in the south and east of the country. What ratio of the entire population of Afghanistan is controlled by the Taliban? How strong are they? Is it right that western countries should go in and change the way of life of the Afghanis and remove the Taliban from positions of power? I accept that maternal and child mortality rates are very high but at what stage do we have the right to go in and change people's way of life?

I join my colleagues in welcoming those from Christian Aid and, in particular, our dear friend and colleague, Senator Ann Ormonde. I congratulate her on her visit; I have no doubt she is a brave lady. I am sure everybody here is aware of the difficult times in which we live and of the public concern about the sacrifices people are being asked to make to continue with our progress towards the 0.7% target when, at the same time, we speak about great massive cuts in public expenditure.

We need answers on the allegations of corruption. I do not have any difficulty with the work done by organisations such as Christian Aid, where money goes directly to projects on the ground and is not passed through various hands, in some of which it disappears conveniently. As Deputy Ardagh stated, one reads in a newspaper or sees on television that President Karzai is wrapping his arms around the president of Iran and in the next breath he is presented with a bag full of cash. These issues do not rest easily on my shoulders nor on those of anybody else. Great damage can be caused to the work done by organisations such as Christian Aid and the programmes in which Ireland is engaged and through which it passes on money.

I note in the report we received that Irish Aid will channel funds through the Afghan reconstruction trust fund. Does the delegation know anything about this? What type of work does it do? Why are we making this change to the previous methods we used to channel funds to projects with which we were all happy, such as the elimination of poverty and disease and raising standards? I feel a little uneasy when I see a change is being made for no apparent reason. It is also stated that the package will increase our activity in combating hunger and improving nutrition. I do not know anything about the Afghan reconstruction trust fund and I would like to hear the views of the witnesses on it.

I pay tribute to those serving in the international security assistance force. Once again, Irish troops are doing a great job representing Ireland abroad and our ongoing support for the important work they do should go on the record. Their number is small and the job they do in removing mines is of tremendous assistance to the other forces present in larger numbers. Our seven, through their expertise, can save thousands from injury and death.

It is horrifying to read that the opium industry generates an estimated 46% of Afghanistan's GDP. Is a serious attempt being made to get rid of this scourge which affects the entire world? If it has such an influence on Afghanistan's overall economy do the witnesses think a serious attempt is being made to get rid of it? It amounts to almost half of Afghanistan's GDP. Recently, President Karzai stated he would step up the battle against the production and trafficking of drugs. I thought this was one of the primary reasons many people were there in the first place. Apparently the yields have improved which has decreased the effect of the reduction in the cultivation area. Better yields are being obtained from a smaller crop.

I am speaking through ignorance because I do not profess to know a great deal about Afghanistan. In fairness, I would state most people find it extremely difficult to understand all of the various agencies involved in the various works being carried out, particularly in view of the billions in hard cash which were invested. Where is all the money going? The sum of €22 million is small compared to the billions we are discussing but I would prefer to see it go to organisations, such as Christian Aid, which have a proud record and which we know do solid work. I always get nervous when people begin to speak about moving it to other programmes about which we do not know a great deal. As the witnesses are here I will ask them to inform us about the new reconstruction task force being established.

Deputy Barrett mentioned the very strong figure of 46% of Afghanistan's GDP. It also accounts for 90% of the global supply of opium, which is extraordinary. I certainly appreciate the difficulty because it involves smallholders throughout the country and they must be given another way of living. I presume this is a big part of what would have to be done.

I join my colleagues in welcoming Ms Di Matteo and Mr. Moffett and commending Senator Ormonde for her initiative. I am sure it is difficult to answer questions about corruption and narcotics, but they are nonetheless causes for concern. Is there a better way to run Afghanistan? The question of whether its Government has the support of the people is relevant.

I join other members in welcoming the delegation from Christian Aid Ireland and thanking Senator Ormonde for her work. When she told me she was going to Afghanistan, I was slightly concerned because it was no picnic. My brother-in-law spent a considerable amount of time there recently and described it as a difficult environment. I have been to Niger which is just below Afghanistan on the human development index and seen at first hand how desperately people need assistance. I commend Christian Aid Ireland for staying the course in that country. We recently learned about the sad case of the Scottish aid worker, Ms Linda Norgrove, who lost her life while doing good work in Afghanistan. How difficult is it to retain staff in the country? Given that Mr. Moffett expects the security situation to deteriorate, how hard is it to ensure staff will be secure?

The delegates spoke about civil society and the important role women can play. It is crucial that the developments that have taken place since 2001 in regard to the status of women are not undermined in any solution to Afghanistan's troubles.

Mr. John Moffett

I thank members for their questions and comments. I will begin by addressing the issues of security and staff retention because they are constantly at the top of Christian Aid Ireland's agenda.

Staff numbers in Afghanistan are kept to an absolute minimum; Ms Di Matteo is the only European member of staff in the country. The other international staff member is from Tajikistan; the remainder are from Afghanistan. We are linked with the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, ANSO, which sends daily updates on security incidents and breaches around the country. We have put strict security procedures in place, whereby staff in danger can be brought to a secure location or taken from the country on a prearranged route. Senator Hannigan referred to the attack on the Scottish aid worker. As an NGO, we believe the recognition of our humanitarian work by the Afghan Government and opposition forces gives us a degree of security. In general, members of the NGO community are protected by their humanitarian status, whereas individuals who work for organisations contracted to or perceived to be working in conjunction with the Afghan Government face greater risks. It is a constant concern, however, and we are exploring contingency plans in order that in the event of a further deterioration in the security situation we will be able to manage the programme remotely and continue to support our Afghan staff without maintaining an international presence. Obviously, the risks for international staff are considered to be greater than those for national staff.

Deputy Connaughton has asked us to outline what exactly we do in the country. In the current economic climate he is correct to ask us to be explicit in explaining how we work through our local partners and what we deliver on the ground. We have been working in Afghanistan for 30 years and during that period we have operated under various administrations. We have worked under the Mujahadeen, the Taliban and the current Government and are known to the leaders of each of the opposition groups. Our humanitarian status gives us a level of security which is not enjoyed by organisations associated with the Government or security forces. By working with local Afghan NGOs we are able to target people directly, as well as learn about the needs of people on the ground, rather than enter with preconceived solutions to their development problems.

In particular, we try to respond to the needs of women and poor farmers in the three provinces in which we work. A number of the partners Senator Ormonde visited in May were working with women's groups to set up reflect circles. In a context of 13% literacy rates among women, we are trying to provide opportunities for women and young girls who were denied the right to attend school to develop literacy and numeracy skills. We are also trying to provide culturally appropriate livelihood opportunities for women to give them an opportunity to earn an income and thereby attain greater freedom for themselves and better opportunities for their families. However, it is difficult work.

As I am sure the Senator will recall, one 14 year old girl who was attending a literacy circle outside Maymana told us her father had refused her permission to attend a school located a few miles away from her home because he feared for her security, but he was willing to allow her to attend literacy classes. These classes are the best educational opportunity the young girl can hope for, but we would like to develop better opportunities for girls to access formal education. This is happening in Kabul and other parts of the country over which the Government has control, but its control, security and women's opportunities decrease the further one moves from the centre.

The destruction of much of the country's infrastructure as a result of conflict restricts opportunities for farmers to expand their activities. We are trying to assist them in expanding and diversifying in order that they can develop resilient livelihoods which are less dependent on a single crop. We hope they will also be less inclined to engage in narcotics production. They are pressured into growing opium because of the value of the narcotics trade and there are routes through the region into Iran and Europe. As Ms Di Matteo noted, the problem needs to be addressed on a regional basis because it is not confined to Afghanistan. We are working with farmers to find crops which can provide them with alternative sources of income. This is a slow and difficult process because opium production is an entrenched industry and it is risky for people to change their livelihood strategies. We have provided support for sericulture - silk farming - in parts of Herat, as well as cash crops such as saffron.

Our ultimate goal is to allow people to become self-sustaining in order that they will no longer require our support and to put in place stronger communities. We hope security will improve over time, although at the moment it is not great. There will be better security for people to live and operate within.

Ms Serena Di Matteo

I will expand on what Mr. Moffett said and try to reply to all the interesting questions. Today is a great opportunity to bring the situation in Afghanistan to the attention of members. I am not sure how much comes through the media or through different stakeholders.

The situation in Afghanistan is as bad as we are describing. What are we doing and where is all the money going? That is the big question organisations such as Christian Aid are asking themselves. It is a matter of legitimacy, and this relates to the extent of support for the Government. It has to do with people who are disappointed and frustrated because they see all this aid coming to their country, but their lives are not changing. Afghan people to whom we talk wonder where the money is going. It has to do with accountability. For us, accountability is essential, not just towards the people we help, but also towards those who support our work. We must make sure the majority of every euro sent to us goes to the poorest of the poor. Our approach is not to have a large structure of experts, paying overheads and running costs, but to make sure the funding we have goes towards helping the poor. This is possible through local NGOs, which, in a way, are better value for money because they have greater expertise and access to certain areas, particularly those in which international organisations cannot travel due to security concerns. They also have better links with different stakeholders. Together with them, we manage to ensure that the needs of the poorest of the poor are addressed.

On the subject of the Afghan Government, we all know how Mr. Karzai was elected during the last elections. I can definitely say there is a big question over the legitimacy of this Government and whether people really believe that the Government will do something for them. Mr. Karzai has been called a number of things, including the mayor of Kabul, because his legitimacy does not go beyond the capital. At the moment, I would say he does not have legitimacy even in Kabul, and he is losing ground. In the eyes of the Afghans he is seen as someone whose interest is really in the international donor community rather than in his own people. There is a perception among the Afghan people we work with that they have been neglected and forgotten. Thus, there is a question mark over the legitimacy of the Government and its accountability to the people.

We must always bear in mind what we want to achieve in Afghanistan. Organisations such as Christian Aid want to tackle grinding poverty. Other actors might have different agendas, but we believe poverty can only leave Afghans with fewer options to earn money: corruption, the opium trade, or joining the Taliban and fighting with the insurgency. Thus, if we do not try to tackle poverty, there will be no development and no peace. We want to go to the root causes; we do not want to tackle poverty just to stabilise areas, which is the approach taken by the military. Organisations such as ours have concerns about this because, for us, long-term development goes beyond quick-impact projects or reaching stability within a counter-insurgency strategy. Our purpose is to make sure that poor Afghans get a better living. They are not as poor as they used to be; they have access to basic services and resources and they are able to stand on their own feet. We want to promote systems that do not create a permanent dependency on our services, and that is why it is important to work with these people - with the communities themselves - to empower them. When we talk about empowerment, it is not just about rights; it is about income, health, education and everything else.

It will be interesting to understand where all this money is going. I am sure the Irish Government, within the European Union, has the authority and right to ask where it is going. We have a sense of responsibility because of the support that people such as the committee give to organisations such as ours and towards the development of Afghanistan. We are particularly concerned about the financial crisis and budget cuts, so it is important that every cent we spend goes to the right people and in the right direction.

Ethnic groups are an important issue. The majority ethnic group is the Pashtun, and then we have the Uzbek, the Tajik and the Hazara, which are minorities. The bottom line is that the conflict has ethnic roots. This is why the initiation of a dialogue that brings everyone around the table is important in achieving long-term peace. This peace needs to be inclusive of all ethnic groups, not only the majority but also minorities such as the Hazara and the Shia, as well as marginalised social groups such as women. It needs to be as broad as possible to be legitimate and sustainable.

There is much concern among women about where the reconciliation and peace process will lead. They are afraid that if insurgency or Talib elements rejoin the Government they might lose the possibility of raising their voice. The little that has been achieved so far might be lost, and they might go back to their previous condition. We all saw the photo of the lady on the cover ofTime a few months ago. Not even a year ago, this woman had her ears and nose cut off because she was trying to run away from home and an abusive marriage. If this was done to a woman by her own husband only a year ago, I do not think we are making much progress in human rights and development.

I was asked how serious we are about what we are doing in Afghanistan, how much we want to take stock of what we have done since 2001, almost ten years ago, and to say what we have achieved. What we have achieved is probably not sufficient so we must ask how we can review our approach and do better to ensure that the people live better. If almost 40% of the population remains food-insecure and unable to meet their food security needs, the situation is appalling despite the billions of euro, dollar, pounds, whatever, that are thrown into the country.

Do we have the right to change people's lives? I do not believe we are there to do that; this is not what Christian Aid wants to do. We want to help the people have better lives and to create better living conditions and access to food, water, sanitation and medical aid at a time when the Government is not able to provide such services. We do not believe we are there to find solutions for them and this is why we try to advocate for Afghan-led solutions and processes. As members noted, perhaps the way we decided to act was valid but did not bring the results we expected. Perhaps it is time to listen to what the Afghans have to say, see what kind of solutions they may propose and leave them the choice as to how they want to proceed in their own country and with their own future. If they want the Talibs back that will be their choice. It is not up to us to say who should rule the country. This is why we do not aim to change their lives. We are only there to support them. For Christian Aid it is not a matter of who will be in power. We will work for the Afghan people whoever may be in charge and hold power. We are not going to enter into political discussions as to who is the good guy and who the bad guy. It is a matter of legitimacy and about what the Afghan people want.

I was asked about co-ordination. Of course, there is a level of co-ordination among human rights agencies and non-governmental organisations. That can always be improved in order to avoid overlapping and duplication and to try to address the gaps or the needs of the people.

How do we help the people and are they happy to see us? They are extremely happy but they fear that if the international community leaves they may go back to the disastrous past of deprivation, poverty, abuses and miserable lives. They are very happy we are there helping but are not happy when such support does not help them to have a better life, affects civilians or causes deaths through military operations. Of course, there have been a number of actions which do not help our presence but, looking at the big picture, the people are definitely happy that the international community is there to help.

There was a question about the Afghanistan reconstruction trust fund. Every donor contributes money to the trust fund for different priorities. In the main, the trust fund is there to support the Afghan Government and so is part of what is supposed to be Afghan ownership in identifying priorities in how the funding is spent. In a way, therefore, it is a system that empowers the Afghan institutions to manage budgets and decide how they should be spent.

There have been a number of discussions on the Afghanistan reconstruction trust funds and whether the Government has the capacity to manage the fund budgets in a way that is accountable to the donors and also to the people to ensure their needs are addressed. A number of donors have recognised the trust fund is a way to go but that they must be prepared to accept that the Government's capacities are still weak and there may be shortfalls or problems of transparency as to how the money is spent. That discussion is ongoing but the trust fund is where all the major donors contribute and is used to pay, for example, salaries of Government officials and police officers and, in particular, to support the Government for salaries and institutional purposes.

I hope I did not miss any question. The military forces are doing an excellent or, at very least, a very important job because they support the Government in providing security. A problem can occur when security forces do development work or claim to do such work but which is not development, rather reconstruction of infrastructure. We recognise they have a very important role in helping the Government to provide security but we do not believe they are in a position to help development in a sustainable way in the long term because their purpose is not about the eradication of poverty but about stabilisation, clearing areas of insurgency and winning the hearts and minds of the people by trying to provide the security in areas where there is insurgency.

I thank Ms Di Matteo. I shall allow Senator Norris one minute.

I apologise that I was not present at the beginning of the meeting because of a series of conflicts in my diary which I explained to Senator Ormonde. I wished to be here to show solidarity and respect for her adventurous and courageous spirit in visiting a very troubled part of the world. I am very glad to have heard the extended reply of our distinguished guest, Ms Di Matteo. I was struck by a number of areas of agreement, especially in regard to the rather dubious process in which Mr. Karzai emerged.

I was also very interested in what Ms Di Matteo said about channelling money through NGOs and about the massive amounts that disappear. We are aware of this, being continually alerted by people such as Mr. John O'Shea of GOAL. Recently Human Rights Watch, or perhaps another of the groups that deal with international transparency issues, produced an analysis which is highly critical of aid going directly to the Government in Ethiopia. The same kind of thing happens in this case.

The delegation was remarkably diplomatic about the military forces in Afghanistan. I cannot imagine they have won very many hearts and minds by blowing up wedding parties and killing children and so on. It has been a disaster. If, as has been suggested, there is a possibility that the Afghan people have signalled a desire for the Talibs to return, it would be a massive indictment of the mess that western countries had made there. That unfortunate country has been the locus of a proxy war for more than 100 years and it is appalling because the people squeezed are the ordinary people with which Christian Aid deal and about whom Senator Ormonde came back with a very important report. She then occasioned this meeting.

I have had the opportunity to travel to some troubled parts of the world with Christian Aid and I compliment them on the wonderful work they do. My apologies for not hearing all of the presentation but what I heard was valuable and I will study the additional documentation. Did I go over time?

We had the Senator on the clock.

What is the breakdown roughly among religious groupings in Afghanistan between Christians and Muslims and so on?

Ms Serena Di Matteo

The majority or 99% of the people in Afghanistan are Sunni and the minority are Shia. In fact the Shia are considered as a minority in the Constitution and their rights are legally protected within the Constitution. Almost the entire country is Sunni and the Shia represent only a small percentage of the population. The Hazaras, one of the ethnic groups, are based mainly in the central region of Afghanistan. I am unsure if the committee remembers the ballet of Bamiyan, where the Buddhas were destroyed by the Talibs. This is where the Hazaras live and they are also considered a minority. They are mainly Shia.

What percentage is Christian?

Ms Serena Di Matteo

If 90% are Sunni then 10% would be Shia.

Very few are Christian.

Ms Serena Di Matteo

There are no Christians. Afghanistan is not a country where there is freedom of religion. As a Christian one could be punished by the death penalty because it is considered a crime and an apostasy. I wish to provide a figure and I will finish then. It costs almost $1 million per year to support the development of one US soldier in Afghanistan while an average of only $93 in development aid is being spent per Afghan. The comparison is between $93 and $1 million.

I apologise that I was not present earlier. I am not going to make a speech like Senator Norris. I will read the minutes of the meeting but I wish to ask two questions. If they have already been answered, please tell me and I will read the minutes. I would not have the delegation repeat what they have said already. I realise Christian Aid has been involved in Afghanistan for a long time. In the context of the religious make-up of the country as the delegation has described it, how do people in Afghanistan deal with the fact that Christian Aid, as a Christian organisation, is providing the assistance it provides? Does this create any particular difficulties?

I am unsure whether Christian Aid can comment on the political situation, but with regard to resolving the conflict in Afghanistan there are contradictory reports about the nature of the contribution that Pakistan makes to either facilitating resolution or exacerbating the difficulties. Will the delegation provided comment on this point?

Ms Serena Di Matteo

I will provide a very short answer because I realise we are running out of time. Christian Aid is aware of to how to present itself to communities. We realise that our name might be a constraint or might be misunderstood in some way with a broader audience. However, we have never had major problems because we have always been transparent and we have always spread this message. We believe poverty is not about religion; we do not care if someone is Muslim, Jew or Christian; we believe our work is about helping the poor, whatever their religion. We have stated this at all levels, including at community level. My team is almost all Afghan. They are all Muslim and we employ mostly Muslims. There is no need to hire Christians to work for us. We work with local organisations because we believe they are better placed for the success of the programme. They represent value for money, there is accountability in the way we spend money, how we make an impact and how we reach the poorest of the poor and try to change their lives.

The political situation is very tricky. We have tried to make the case previously that we do not believe the military solution is the only solution. There must be a more comprehensive strategy to end the conflict and this entails a political settlement not only within the border of Afghanistan, but also with the neighbouring countries. The memo we presented contains a paragraph on the regional context and why we believe it is important to begin dialogue with the neighbouring countries, including Pakistan and India, on building trust and trying to resolve the old disputes, which are still in a burden. Certainly, Pakistan has played a double game. One day it is a friend, another day it is the enemy. There is a huge influx of insurgents coming from Pakistan and there is also territory under dispute, including Waziristan, an area which is certainly one of three main spots where the insurgency is located.

The question of co-ordination was raised. Christian aid includes the Irish Council of Churches, the Methodist Church in Ireland, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the non-subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland, the Moravian Church and the Religious Society of Friends, that is, the Quakers in Ireland. Some seven churches are co-ordinated in Christian Aid as well as the Salvation Army. Christian Aid also works in close partnership with Irish Aid. I call on Senator Ormonde to make a comment.

I thank the committee for inviting Christian Aid today and for the fine contributions and I thank the Members for their thought-provoking questions. The replies were comprehensive and we have been given a clear picture of the sterling work that Christian Aid does, which I have witnessed at first hand. I have seen the programmes and the way in which the organisation targets women and children with literacy programmes and upskilling to try to carve a path for them out of poverty. Such is the work they are doing and they deserve to be supported. I hope members of the committee will continue to support Christian Aid in its work. I suggest - I may be out of order - that we write to Irish Aid to outline the high quality of work which it is doing and which I observed at first hand during my visit. I would like the committee to back me on that.

Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan: I would support that.

It deserves it. Christian Aid is doing superb work and we need to continue to let Irish Aid know about the work it is doing. I hope the committee will honour that.

I do not see any difficulty in doing that because the committee supports the work Christian Aid is doing. I thank Senator Ormonde. We met three years ago and had a discussion with 30 Afghan MPs, who came from a cross-party basis, on the peace process. Subsequently, they went to Glencree. There is a process taking place which will be time-consuming but the work the Senator is doing would appear to be excellent.

I formally welcome the fact that parliamentary elections took place in Afghanistan last month. It is clear that government and civil society structures remain very weak as a result of poverty, corruption and decades of conflict. It will take many years for the Afghan people to rebuild their shattered communities. It is important to assist elected leaders and community leaders in a positive and appropriate way. It is also the case that insensitive interventions are likely to lead to further radicalisation and extremism. Afghanistan has suffered from both for far too long.

As I said at the beginning of the meeting, we should produce a report on Senator Ormonde's initiative following the discussions of the committee. We had a discussion with her before she went away. We will take that up after the meeting. It would be useful to bring today's discussion to the attention of the Minister of State, Deputy Power, in the context of Irish Aid's deliberations and budget allocations for Christian Aid's work and for Afghanistan.

The joint committee went into private session at 5.05 p.m and adjourned at 5.10 p.m. until 3.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 3 November 2010.