Spotlight on the International Rescue Committee in Afghanistan

A global organization dedicated to responding to the world’s most challenging humanitarian crises, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) has been helping people rebuild their lives after conflict and natural disaster for more than 80 years. And while the IRC currently operates in more than 30 countries around the globe, it’s in Afghanistan that the organization’s efforts have been the most longstanding.

Read on to learn more about the IRC, its history in Afghanistan, and what the organization has planned for its future efforts in the country.

 

What is the International Rescue Committee?

IRC logoA non-governmental humanitarian aid, relief, and development organization, the IRC provides both emergency aid and long-term assistance to refugees and others displaced or affected by war, persecution, and natural disaster. By focusing on key areas like health, safety, education, economic well-being, and decision-making power, the IRC works to help the world’s most vulnerable people survive and recover from crises and gain control of their futures.

 

How long has the IRC been working in Afghanistan?

Within weeks of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the IRC was on the ground helping support the waves of Afghan refugees flooding into neighboring countries. The organization has continued to provide Afghanistan with relief and development assistance ever since. Some key dates and highlights from the IRC’s more than 30 years in Afghanistan include:

1980 – John Whitehead, then the board president of the IRC, journeyed to the makeshift refugee camps springing up just beyond the borders of Afghanistan. The situation he witnessed, in which more than 5 million Afghans had fled their homeland only to encounter terrible living conditions outside it, proved to be the catalyst for the creation of more permanent IRC operations in the country.

1988 – This year saw the official establishment of IRC operations in Afghanistan, although by this time the IRC had already been operating an extensive relief program in Afghan refugee camps for some years. Mobile clinics and dispensary tents, vocational and self-help programs, and comprehensive educational programs were some of the IRC’s most important contributions to improving the lives of Afghans displaced by conflict.

1989 – Following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, many aid agencies also left the country. The IRC was one of the few organizations to remain and to continue operating under the new regime. Working with a dedicated team of Afghan national staff members, the IRC helped with significant rebuilding efforts, including making repairs to roads and irrigation systems and establishing public health and sanitation facilities.

Early 2000s – Following yet another regime change at the start of the new millennium, millions of returning refugees and internally displaced Afghans began to make their way back to their homes. During this period, the IRC intensified its efforts to help Afghanistan rebuild and repair critical infrastructure.

2007 – Education has always been an important tool for the IRC to help people affected by crisis to regain control over their lives and build a better future for themselves. In Afghanistan in 2007, for example, the IRC trained more than 1,000 new teachers, and helped roughly 11,000 students enroll in 400 schools. In addition, nearly 2,000 people graduated from IRC-supported vocational programs.

 

What’s next for the IRC in Afghanistan?

Now that Afghanistan is beginning to establish and sustain modest but important gains, the IRC’s experience and expertise are more critical than ever. In 2017, the IRC published a strategic action plan for Afghanistan, outlining its program priorities through 2020 and detailing the key focus areas and actions that will help Afghanistan move into a new era of stability and prosperity. Particular desired outcomes of this plan include:

Education – Building on its extensive experience in coordinating community-based education for children, the IRC aims to ensure that Afghan children aged 6 to 14 have the opportunity to fully develop their literacy, numeracy, and social-emotional skills. Achieving this goal will involve training more teachers, supplying educational materials to classrooms, and partnering with the Ministry of Education to create an evidence-based assessment program to determine the quality of Afghan education services.

Health – Because inadequate sanitation and water supply access are leading causes of disease, the IRC plans to build safe and accessible water and sanitation facilities in the nine Afghan provinces in which the organization currently operates. Community-oriented hygiene awareness and disease prevention programs will also help curtail the spread of illness.

Economic well-being – All Afghans should have the opportunity to earn an income that is sufficient to meet basic needs, build assets, and save for the future. To this end, the IRC will continue to offer skills-based training and apprenticeship programs that prepare participants for skilled, high-demand jobs in Afghanistan’s new economy.

Power and decision-making – The IRC aims to ensure that Afghan citizens have the knowledge and power to influence the decisions that affect them. Community education programs around critical issues like property rights and land expropriation are a key component of this objective.

What You Need to Know about This Group’s Work in Afghanistan

Relief InternationalSince Relief International (RI) began working in Afghanistan in 2001, the organization has placed a major emphasis on building strong partnerships with local communities and on earning respect and acceptance in order to ensure the safety and sustainability of its work. Over the years, the scope of RI’s activities has grown considerably, but even though the organization now works in a wide range of areas—from health and education to governance and civil society—the goal of mobilizing, empowering, and supporting individual communities remains at the heart of its mission. To learn more about how RI is helping Afghan communities with both short-term relief efforts and long-term development projects, read on for an overview of four RI programs from the organization’s past and present.

Improving animal health

Roughly 23 million Afghans live in rural areas, and at least three-quarters of these rely on their livestock to provide them with food and income. But after years of conflict, essentials like adequate animal feed and veterinary services are no longer readily available, thus putting not only the health of the animals at risk, but also the livelihoods of the families that depend upon them.

Together with the international rural development organization Mission d’Aide au Développement des Economies Rurales (MADERA) and supported by funding from the EU, Relief International is working in some of Afghanistan’s most vulnerable and volatile rural districts to re-establish reliable veterinary care and to educate and train farmers and livestock owners in animal husbandry best practices. By helping communities to improve shelter conditions and nutrition for their livestock, boosting the quality and availability of animal health services, and strengthening ties between public and private animal health sectors, RI is aiming to expand livestock production and increase animal productivity, which in turn have the potential to significantly improve the livelihoods of rural farmers.

Preventing zoonotic diseases

AfghanistanAnimal health in Afghanistan does not only affect the livelihoods of many rural families in Afghanistan, it also impacts these families’ own health. Afghanistan has a small but robust population—about 2.4 million people—of nomadic families and communities who travel with their livestock; these unique living conditions make these individuals particularly susceptible to zoonoses, which are diseases that animals and humans can transmit to each other. Zoonotic diseases pose a significant health risk, which is exacerbated by a general lack of knowledge about animal health, as well as a dearth of government support services in this area.

Under the umbrella of its One Health Asia Program, Relief International works with Afghanistan’s ministries of health, livestock, education, and environment to develop community education and support programs for animal vaccination and zoonotic disease awareness. Educating susceptible populations enables them to better recognize early signs of infection and seek the necessary treatment, while supporting animal health care and vaccinations minimizes the threat of zoonotic disease at the source. According to officials in the Afghan government, RI is the only organization directly involved in fighting the spread of zoonotic disease.

Alleviating cold and hunger in Afghanistan’s eastern provinces

Residents of eastern Afghanistan are all too familiar with the effects of the region’s long, harsh winters: fewer jobs, higher prices for household essentials like wheat and fuel, and more precarious conditions for families who are already struggling to make ends meet.

Drawing on its strong relationships created over the years with some of Afghanistan’s most remote communities, Relief International helped support thousands of families in Kunar province through the winter of 2017 by connecting them with a cash program funded by the World Bank and Afghanistan’s Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs, Martyrs & Disabled. With RI helping direct the assistance to cases of the greatest need—typically families with children under the age of 5—the program provided financial support to nearly 2,600 families in 76 of Kunar province’s communities. As a result, more families were able to stave off childhood malnutrition and could afford to send their children to school rather than requiring them to work in order to help out the family.

School construction

afghanistan educationOf the many barriers to education that children and youth in Afghanistan experience, a severe shortage of proper education infrastructure is one of the biggest. With so many schools destroyed by conflict, many remaining education buildings in Afghanistan had to operate in shifts in order to be able to accommodate more students. In other cases, students had to attend classes in dilapidated or dangerous buildings, in tents, or simply in the open air: environments that are hardly conducive to learning.

One of Relief International’s earliest projects in Afghanistan was the construction of three new schools in the Nijrab district of Kapisa province in the country’s northeast. Featuring 60 classrooms, the new facilities offer approximately 2,500 schoolchildren a safe and secure place to learn.

Afghans Need Better Eye Care – These 3 Charities Can Help

When weighed against Afghanistan’s many other priorities – like rebuilding critical infrastructure, improving education and literacy, and ensuring adequate nutrition for all citizens, to name just a few – the question of eye care and vision health might not seem to be a particularly pressing issue. And yet, the numbers tell another story.

WHOlogoAccording to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 400,000 Afghans are blind, and an additional 1.5 million have some degree of visual impairment. But what’s truly shocking is the following statistic: WHO estimates that 80 percent of these cases of blindness would be avoidable if proper eye care facilities could be established and maintained.

In this respect, Afghanistan’s story is typical of the state of vision care in many developing nations. With limited facilities and few trained professionals, even conditions that are easily treatable can result in permanent vision damage and eventual blindness.

For example, in Afghanistan, the majority of instances of blindness (60 percent) is caused by cataracts (a clouding of the eye’s natural lens). Cataracts can be corrected by a very simple outpatient procedure. However, at present, Afghanistan only has the capacity to perform about 15,000 cataract surgeries per year. This leaves a backlog of approximately 200,000 cataract patients, many of whom live in rural areas.

Fortunately, a number of charitable organizations have made it a priority to improve the state of vision care in Afghanistan. Read on to learn more about three of them.

  1. The Fred Hollows Foundation

What it is:

FredHollowsFoundationThe Fred Hollows Foundation is an Australia-based, international development organization dedicated to eliminating avoidable blindness. It was founded by Fred Hollows, an ophthalmologist who passed away in 1993, and his wife.

The Fred Hollows Foundation now works in more than 25 different countries, pursuing Fred’s vision of a world in which no one is needlessly blind and everyone has access to quality and affordable eye care. To date, the Foundation has restored sight to more than 2 million people.

What it does in Afghanistan:

The Fred Hollows Foundation has been working in Afghanistan since 2006. At present, the Foundation has two major projects in the country. The first is the University Eye Hospital Project. Conducted in partnership with the Ministry of Higher Education, the Kabul Medical University, and the Kabul University Eye Hospital, it is aimed at increasing the number of skilled and trained eye care professionals in Afghanistan and building the public health system’s capacity to address eye health issues.

The second is the Afghanistan School Eye Screening Project. It aims to reduce high rates of childhood blindness in some of Afghanistan’s rural regions through education and awareness-building initiatives about childhood eye disease. In the future, the Fred Hollows Foundation hopes to work with the government of Afghanistan to coordinate, plan, and implement a national plan of action for improving the country’s eye health sector.

  1. CharityVision

What it is:

CharityVisionLogoA US-based non-profit organization, CharityVision’s mission is to restore vision to people in developing nations. Founded in 1986, the organization has provided more than 375,000 charitable surgeries over the years to prevent cases of needless blindness. Today, CharityVision operates worldwide, performing about 36,000 sight-related procedures every year, and working with local networks in more than 25 countries.

What it does in Afghanistan:

In Afghanistan and the other countries in which it operates, CharityVision uses a charitable model that is all about empowering local physicians and health practitioners. The organization partners with local doctors and care professionals, providing them with surgical equipment, supplies, and other resources and support free of charge.

In turn, the physicians provide their talent and time for such procedures as screenings or sight-restoring surgeries at no cost to the patients. This leads to a stronger local medical community and a robust network of health service systems that ensures that all patients in need can receive charitable surgeries free of charge.

  1. The International Assistance Mission (IAM)

What it is:

IAMlogoFounded in 1966 (the organization’s original name was the International Afghan Mission), IAM is one of the longest continually-serving NGOs in Afghanistan. Although IAM’s present focus areas include development, education, and general health initiatives, the majority of its work over the years has concentrated on eye care and vision health (at the request of the Afghan government).

What it does in Afghanistan:

The NOOR program – National Organization for Ophthalmic Rehabilitation – is IAM’s longest-running initiative. It was launched, along with the organization itself, in 1966 in partnership with Afghanistan’s Ministry of Public Health. At present, the NOOR eye care program is the main provider of eye care in the country.

The program operates three referral hospitals: the NOOR Eye Care Training Center in Kabul, the Mazar Ophthalmic Center, and the Kandahar NOOR Eye Hospital. These are key hubs for the provision of affordable vision care. With the additional goal of building Afghanistan’s internal capacity for treating vision problems, NOOR also provides logistical support and financial oversight to two other hospitals, the Ministry of Public Health’s Central Polyclinic in Kabul, and the Ophthalmic Center in Herat.