Memories of ACBAR
How ACBAR began
It is difficult to remember the exact dates for events that took place 30 years ago, but checking my diary for 1988, I find the first note mentioning ACBAR on the 11th of August. The writing says “09.30, ACBAR Steering Committee/IRC”, which reasonably must mean four things: One, that a Steering Committee meeting took place at the office of the International Rescue Committee in Peshawar; second, that a General Assembly meeting had occurred earlier where, three, a decision had been taken that the name of the organisation should be “Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief” and, four, a Steering Committee had been elected.
I have only vague memories of the election of the Steering Committee, in spite of the fact that I became the vice chairman. The memory of the name is clearer. The General Assembly meeting was in the dining hall at Dean’s Hotel in Saddar Bazaar, Peshawar, and the proposal that the name should be ACBAR was forwarded by a member of the French NGO, Guilde du Raid (later “Solidarités International, Afghanistan”) and was quickly accepted by a great majority. I actually don’t remember if anyone voted against.
If the recollections of the exact events are rather diffuse, my memory of the overall situation and the events that led to the establishment of ACBAR is more distinct.
When multitudes of Afghan refugees arrived in Pakistan 1979 and the following years due to the war in Afghanistan, UN agencies and NGOs became engaged in humanitarian assistance works. The majority of the NGOs worked with the refugees while a handful started cross-border work from Pakistan in the rural areas of Afghanistan which were more or less under the control of the Mujahideen, the resistance movement against the Soviet invasion forces and the Kabul government. UN had a marginal presence in Afghanistan, mainly limited to Kabul and a few other bigger cities and was not involved in the cross-border work.
In April 1988 the Geneva Accords was agreed upon in which it was stipulated that the Soviet military forces should have left Afghanistan by the 15th of February 1989. Although the war, as we sadly know, didn’t end, the Accords nevertheless brought hopes of peace, and the international donor community showed a considerably increased willingness to fund humanitarian and rehabilitation work in Afghanistan.
The Geneva Accords included an agreement that under UN auspices, the international community should undertake a substantial programme of relief and rehabilitation in all areas of Afghanistan. The immediate result became the creation of the UN Office of the Coordinator for Afghanistan (UNOCA) under the leadership of Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, and the different UN agencies started to make plans on how to start up programmes in Afghanistan.
Also for the NGO community the Accords signified changes. For those that so far had worked exclusively with refugees, the doors to Afghanistan had opened,
where the needs after ten years of war were enormous. Many begun to explore the possibilities of starting projects in Afghanistan, and meetings and discussions took place between them and the cross-border NGOs that already had experience of working in Afghanistan. And the other way around, refugee NGOs were familiar with UN Agencies; a know-how which their cross-border colleagues most often did not have. There were several coordination attempts among the NGOs prior to ACBAR but they were either too specialized, like covering only one sector, or too informal, like only providing an opportunity to meet and discuss.
The events that led to the creation of ACBAR were, above all, the NGOs’ relation with UNOCA. The need for improved coordination between the NGOs themselves and between UN and the NGOs was generally recognized. Within the cross-border NGO group, there was also a broadly held view that UNOCA and the UN agencies could learn from the experience of NGOs in cross-border programmes and not the least benefit from their extensive networks in the rural areas. While UN agencies usually worked in support of and through central governments, operating in the Mujahideen-held areas would involve dealing with hundreds of local counterparts in the fragmented resistance movement.
During the UN Coordinator's, Sadruddin Aga Khan, first visit to Peshawar, he was several hours late to a meeting with a big number of NGO representatives at Dean’s Hotel and then he, when he finally arrived, merely informed the NGOs on the grand plans being prepared within the UN system. A few questions were allowed but no time for discussion, and the impression was created that UNOCA had little interest in learning from their experience, and that NGOs would have little opportunity to contribute to or even comment upon the ambitious relief and repatriation plans being coordinated by UNOCA.
Shortly after the Coordinator's visit, it became known that UNOCA had requested the International Council of Voluntary Agencies in Geneva to take on the responsibility of coordinating the NGOs. Since the NGOs had not been consulted, this caused considerable resentment. It was perceived as another example of UN arrogance vis-à-vis the NGOs, and at meetings in Peshawar, many NGO representatives voiced the opinion that “if anyone should coordinate us, it should be ourselves”. Or in other words, among the NGOs there was a clear preference for a 'home grown' approach to coordination rather than an externally forced solution. This led to the holding of more preparatory meetings and finally to the establishment of ACBAR.
In the following years up to 2001, ACBAR’s relation with the UN became better, mainly because it was realised that the NGOs and thus ACBAR were central to the humanitarian assistance work in Afghanistan. The political movements and factions that formed the different Afghan governments were mainly occupied by warfare and had little, if any, time and resources to care for the Afghan people with the result that NGOs were the principal actors in providing social and other services to the Afghan people. The ACBAR secretariat and sub-committees were busy with coordinating projects in Afghanistan and setting standards in the different sectors. ACBAR was represented in different coordination bodies like the Afghanistan Support Group and the Afghanistan Programming Body together with donors and UN. It published reports and participated as an important actor in international conferences. The Afghanistan Resource and Information Center (from 2005 the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University) under the leadership of the late Nancy Dupree was created within the ACBAR framework and became a principal collection of information, reports and surveys generated by NGOs, bilateral humanitarian organizations, researchers and UN agencies.
To go back to my personal recollections, there are of course a lot from the years in the 1980s and 90s. The discussions and sometimes stormy debates at Steering Committee and General Assembly meetings and at different conferences; the first UN conference on assistance to Afghanistan in Geneva in the autumn of 1988; the six-weeks journey to 13 different countries that Sultan Aziz and I undertook in 1990 advocating for continued funding of the humanitarian work in Afghanistan; negotiations with the Taliban government; ups and downs, successes and both internal and external problems and difficulties and, not the least many good memories of colleagues and friends in the different Steering Committees and among the NGOs.
The events in the autumn of 2001 brought a radical change to Afghanistan – not only in the political domain but also in the fields of humanitarian and development support. For the first time in more than 20 years, Afghanistan had a government which was recognized and supported by the international community, and which had the expressed ambition to build a modern state. Kabul saw a huge influx of embassies, UN Agencies as well as other bi- and multilateral donor and development institutions. Also the NGOs and ACBAR moved their central offices to Kabul and had now to face the new situation. As someone said, in the 1980s and 90s, NGOs had been on the first row when it came to questions about assistance to Afghanistan, but after 2001 they, and thus ACBAR, were demoted to the third, since the principal chairs were now occupied by the Afghan government and the international donor community.
Consequently ACBAR had to adapt and that process took the organisation from only dealing with coordination of NGOs to work in the broader context of advocacy, policy and development issues. ACBAR’s achievements with regard to the NGO law, the Code of Conduct and papers like the “Falling Short: Aid Effectiveness in Afghanistan” from 2008 are undoubtedly highlights in this work.
Anders Fänge was the Country Director of the Swedish Committee in different periods between 1983 and 2011. He is a “founding father” of ACBAR and has been a member of the ACBAR Steering Committee 1988 to 1990, 1998 to 2001 and 2007 to 2011.