September 11, 2001 : Attack on America
Testimony of Andrew Natsios Administrator, USAID Before a Joint Hearing of the Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs and Subcommittee on International Operations and Terrorism Committee on Foreign Relations United States Senate Afghanistan's Humanitarian Crisis; October 10, 2001

Testimony of Andrew Natsios
Administrator, USAID


Before a Joint Hearing of the
Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs and
Subcommittee on International Operations and Terrorism
Committee on Foreign Relations
United States Senate
Afghanistan's Humanitarian Crisis
October 10, 2001


Madam Chairman, Mr. Chairman, and Members of the Committee, thank you for inviting me here for this extremely important and timely hearing on the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.


Afghanistan today is a country in crisis, a crisis that predates the events of September 11th by many years. Three years of drought, 22 years of conflict, and five years of brutal Taliban misrule, have brought untold suffering to millions of people.

The long drought has caused the near-total failure of rain-fed crops in 18 provinces. Only ten to twelve percent of the country is arable, and much of that land cannot be used due to mines and the fighting that has raged about the country since the Soviet invasion of 1979. Thirty percent of Afghanistan's irrigation infrastructure has been damaged or fallen into disrepair, rendering about a half of the irrigated lands unusable.

In 1979, Afghanistan was able to feed itself. Currently, there is a food deficit of nearly two million metric tons (MT) of food. The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) estimates that the country will only produce 10,000 of the 400,000 MT of seed that it will need for next year's planting. We know the reason: most of the seed has already been eaten by farmers who fear they may not survive until the next crop.

Approximately 12 million people, almost half of the country's inhabitants, have been affected by the drought. Between the fighting and the drought upwards of three million people have been driven from the country and are living as refugees. Another million are internally displaced. Many, many thousands more are unable to move, due to illness, hunger, injury, or disability.

The World Food Program (WFP), which distributes most of the food within Afghanistan, estimates that food stocks in the country are critically short and they are aggressively seeking to move food into the country. Although WFP was unable to identify commercial truckers to take food in on Monday of this week, its operations are otherwise proceeding as planned with deliveries yesterday and today going on schedule. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have been able to maintain their programs in many parts of the country, especially those areas where there is no military activity, through the efforts of thousands of dedicated local Afghan staff, many of whom have worked for these organizations for decades.

Still, we believe that 1.5 million Afghans risk starvation by winter's end and that between five and seven million Afghans face critical food shortages and are partially or fully dependent on outside assistance for survival.

Actions prior to September 11

One of the first actions I took as the Administrator of USAID was to order an assessment conducted by a team from our Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, working with the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. Their conclusion was inescapable: Afghanistan was "on the verge of widespread and precipitous famine."

Based on this and other information, and with the support of Secretary Powell, I ordered a Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) to the region. They arrived in June and have been operating in the region ever since. Since then, we have focused on Afghanistan's humanitarian needs as never before. Through closer cooperation with the UN specialized agencies and the NGOs with whom we work, we have been able to target our efforts more precisely toward those who need it most.

The United States, of course, has been monitoring and helping the people in Afghanistan for many years. In the fiscal year that just ended and in the few days since, the U.S. Government donated $184 million in humanitarian assistance for the Afghan people. This includes a variety of programs run by the Department of Agriculture, the Department of State and USAID.

Our country has long been the largest donor to the World Food Program's Afghan humanitarian assistance program. Approximately, 85 percent of the WFP food aid in the pipeline now - 45,000 MT stored in Pakistan and another 165,000 MT on the way - comes directly from the United States.

The President has now added another $320 million of new money to this humanitarian effort.

Humanitarian Situation inside Afghanistan

According to our DART, the conditions in many areas of Afghanistan are well beyond the "pre-famine" stage. As best we can judge, the situation will only get worse with the coming winter.

While most people comprehend famine as a dramatic increase in death rates due to starvation and hunger-related illnesses, there are a number of famine indicators that relief experts look for when reliable information on death rates or malnutrition levels is not readily available. These indicators include the following:

  • Seed shortages due to increased cost of seed and/or consumption of seed stocks;

  • Widespread sale of family assets, including land, homes, domesticated animals, and family possessions, to raise money to buy food;

  • Rising prices of food staples and hoarding of grain stocks by dealers;

  • Consumption of wild foods, domesticated animals, and inedible materials;

  • Increased rates of wasting due to malnutrition and other nutritional disorders;

  • Declining birth rates;

  • Mass migration in search of food and employment; and

  • Increased deaths from starvation and related diseases.

  • In Afghanistan, NGOs, UN agencies, and the media are reporting evidence of nearly every one of these indicators. The Afghan people are tough, seasoned by many years of war and conflict. But many have exhausted their ability to cope. Their resources are exhausted, their animals dead, sold or eaten. They enter this crisis in an extraordinarily weakened state. Apart from the many sick, weak and disabled, the most vulnerable population lives in remote regions, often at very high altitude, cut off from most efforts to provide food or seed.

    We are now seeing whole communities on the move, and many villages abandoned altogether. Although precise statistics are hard to come by, many families have resorted to desperate measures, selling their draft animals, mixing their food with inedible substances, selling off their last possessions, or marrying off their daughters to strangers at an abnormally young age.

    While we have not been able to collect data on food prices fully, there are ample signs that prices have risen rapidly in certain places, even as family income plummets. In major Afghan cities, food prices have increased between 30 and 50 percent in the past month. Most alarmingly, there is evidence of abnormally high death rates in some parts of the country.

    Humanitarian Response Strategy

    President Bush's strategy to deal with this vast and complicated humanitarian crisis is designed to accomplish five critical objectives:

  • reduce death rates;

  • minimize population movements;

  • lower and then stabilize food prices so that food in markets is more accessible;

  • ensure that aid reaches those it is intended for; and

  • begin developmental relief programs, in which we can move beyond emergency relief, where possible, to begin long-overdue reconstruction projects.

  • Reduce Death Rates

    Our primary goal, of course, is to prevent as many people from dying as possible. Winter is fast approaching, so time is clearly of the essence. We must get as much food as possible into the country as soon as possible, particularly to the mountain areas of the Hindu Kush. This means doubling the amount of tonnage going in, at the very least, from approximately 25,000 MT per month to 50,000 MT. We are opening all possible pipelines to move food, seed, and other emergency commodities such as blankets and health kits into the country to increase the volume of aid. Health care, nutritional surveillance, and water and sanitation programs are also vital to the success of the aid effort.

    Minimize Population Movements

    When people have sold all their assets for food and have run out of options, many leave their villages to find food or work. In other famines, we know that as many as 50 percent will die along the way or in famine-induced refugee or internally displaced persons (IDP) camps. So we must do everything we can to encourage people to stay in their villages by moving as much food as possible into the villages and rural areas. The million or more refugees that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has predicted has not materialized thus far. One of our objectives is to see that it never does.

    Lower and Stabilize Food Prices

    We also need to do what we can to drive down the cost of food, so that ordinary Afghan citizens can buy what they and their families need. Many people die of hunger during famine not because of a shortage of food, but rather because of an inability to purchase food that is available due to skyrocketing prices. The best way to counter this is to sell significant amounts of food to local merchants in order to bring down prices and discourage hoarding. These merchants have their own means of protecting their goods even in the midst of general insecurity, and the incentive of profits to be made ensures that the food will reach the markets. Experience from other famine situations has shown this to be a particularly effective strategy, especially in smaller markets where even limited amounts can have a significant effect on prices.

    Ensure Aid Reaches the Intended Beneficiaries

    It will be necessary to do our utmost to keep U.S. Government humanitarian assistance out of the hands of the Taliban or other armed groups. Part of our strategy to do so is linked to our second goal, limiting population movements. By moving as much food as possible to remote villages and towns, we can help discourage people from concentrating in refugee or IDP camps, where the risk of manipulation by the Taliban and their supporters is comparatively high.

    IDP camps should be managed, and all food distributed, by experienced expatriates; to permit Afghan IDPs to distribute supplies or manage the camps, on the other hand, is to invite their manipulation by the Taliban or other extremist networks such as al Quaeda.

    At the same time, we must be prepared to shut down any program if the Taliban begins to loot or manipulate the aid. Where the security of the food is an issue in IDP camps, we should avoid distributing dry rations. Wet feeding programs in which prepared food is distributed directly to beneficiaries, rather than uncooked or dry rations, should be the norm wherever possible, even for adults, because cooked food spoils quickly, is heavier to move and harder to store, making it more difficult to steal and more likely that the intended beneficiaries will receive their rations.

    By opening as many food pipelines into the country as possible, not only will we be able to move more food quickly to where it is needed, we will also minimize the distance any given aid convoy must travel to reach its destination, thereby reducing the opportunity for diversion. We will also make it our policy that no more than two weeks' worth of food is warehoused in areas the Taliban controls so as not to create attractive targets for looting.

    Finally, we will also implement a humanitarian public information campaign so the Afghan people know aid is on the way. This will have the dual effect of helping to discourage further population movements, and will provide a check against diversion or manipulation of aid since people will know what they are supposed to receive through this information effort.

    Developmental Relief

    The constant conflict that has plagued Afghanistan has kept people from rebuilding their homes and villages, their farms, their markets and their businesses. We intend to structure our relief programs so that they can begin this long-overdue process of small-scale reconstruction at the community level where conditions will allow. Our food-for-work programs, for example, will focus on practical sectors, such as agriculture. Distribution of seed for the winter wheat crop or even small-scale repairs of irrigation systems and wells can make a profound difference in the country's recovery from this crisis. If enough crops can be planted and livestock rebuilt, next year will not have to resemble this one.

    Commitment to the People of Afghanistan

    The President and the Secretary have made very clear that the Afghan people are not our enemies. The President said on October 4 when he announced his new $320 million initiative for the Afghan people: "We are a compassionate nation... We will work with the U.N. agencies, such as the World Food Program, and work with private volunteer organizations to make sure this assistance gets to the people. We will make sure that not only the folks in Afghanistan who need help get help, but we will help those who have fled to neighboring countries to get help as well."

    With the new funds the President has added, we can redouble our efforts to get relief to those who need it most. Despite the events of September 11, and the fact that we have no diplomatic relations with the Taliban, and despite their refusal to hand over bin Laden and dismantle al Qaeda, our humanitarian assistance policies will not change. Food aid distribution will be based on need. The President has made this very clear.

    Accomplishing our humanitarian objectives under the current circumstances is a huge task, but I am confident that, if we follow the President's strategy, we can save many, many lives and help Afghanistan begin to rebuild itself. Let me assure you that we at the Agency for International Development are fully committed to doing everything we can to work with you in Congress, the other Executive Branch agencies, and the international community to accomplish these objectives.

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