Charities attacked for 'exaggerating' aid crisis

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The Independent Online

They are the unofficial and unwilling opposition. Britain's aid agencies have become the most vociferous opponents of the bombing of Afghanistan.

And in return, they have been attacked by the Government and accused of exaggerating the scale of the humanitarian disaster to help to raise funds.

Despite being barred by the charity laws from taking up an overtly political stance, they stand accused of employing the spin doctors' dark arts to pursue an anti-war agenda. As millions are threatened with starvation, aid agencies face accusations of being "emotional" for contradicting official pronouncements on aid delivery into Afghanistan.

"We're conscious that we're forced to be more political," said Fiona Fox, a spokeswoman for Cafod, one of the charities that is calling for a pause in the bombing. Because Third World governments are often weaker than large charities, the latter are "inadvertently pushed into being political.

"Cafod doesn't want this," she said. "At the moment, we feel we're on the side of the angels. But if we're associated with being political and using it politically, it will not be good in the long run."

When Tony Blair sought to justify the bombings last week, the World Food Programme (WFP) rejected his claims that the Taliban were severely disrupting food supplies. Clare Short, the Secretary of State for International Development, then provoked fury in some circles by dismissing the charities as publicity-seekers.

"There are some agencies who quite frankly want to raise money in their own countries and therefore want to be in the news," she said.

Political consensus reigns in Westminster, with the military policy supported overwhelmingly by MPs, forcing charities into the role of being the main opponents to the bombing campaign. Aid workers have assumed higher profiles as they try to spread the humanitarian message.

Christian Aid has been at the forefront of the campaign, calling for a pause in the air strikes while the humanitarian crisis worsens.

The WFP has raised its estimate of the number of Afghans who desperately need food from 5 million to 7.5 million after the 11 September attacks. It said it aimed to move in 52,000 tons of food during the next month to counter the effects of the harsh winter.

Dominic Nutt, a spokesman for Christian Aid, was in Afghanistan for five weeks before the suicide hijackings, preparing for an appeal to counter the drought in the region. "We've got people living here on the ground. It's been up to us to raise even a question mark over the Government's policy," he said.

Mary Robinson, the UN Commissioner for Human Rights, was the first to call for a pause to allow for a safe passage of aid.

Senior Christian Aid staff, who had been meeting every morning under their international director, Roger Riddell, a former chief economist for the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries, decided to back her call. They were joined by five other big aid agencies, including Cafod and Oxfam.

The charities said the bombing made it impossible to deliver the huge amounts of food needed. Afghan truck drivers were refusing to take the aid and only a fraction of the food needed was getting through. The consequences of failing to deliver aid were underlined last week when Christian Aid received its first reports of deaths from famine in the north of the country.

But the Government insists that the Taliban are the primary cause of the humanitarian crisis and the main obstacle to getting in aid.

John Davison, of Christian Aid, said: "To be attacked in the way we have is disappointing. To be accused by New Labour minister of spinning the story is unbelievable.

"The suggestion that we are doing it for the money, that we are ramping up the status of the crisis in order to get more funds ­ a suggestion which has been made ­ shows great ignorance or dishonesty.

"I don't know if Clare Short has got any people in Afghanistan telling her what's going on, but we have."

Oxfam, which has 120 local staff in Afghanistan and is in constant contact with other aid workers in Pakistan, also criticised the Government's approach.

Barbara Stocking, who joined the charity as a director in May after serving as an NHS director for the southeast region, backed the decision to call for a pause in the attacks.

Helen Palmer, an Oxfam spokeswoman, said: "Clare Short's approach was very unhelpful. She was implying that we make it up as we go along."