How bad are things in Afghanistan? Bad, by all accounts.
Some Afghan children chew mud from the walls of their homes to stave off hunger pangs. The World Bank confirms that 7 million people are "vulnerable to hunger" six years after the United States and its allies toppled the Taliban. Barely 13 per cent have safe water to drink.
In Kandahar, where Canada has 2,500 troops, Mirwais Hospital has no regular blood supply, few medicines and shoddy equipment.
Yet when Norine MacDonald, founder of the Senlis Council think-tank that is active in Afghanistan, said in Ottawa last week that the Canadian government's $1.2 billion aid effort is making little headway, and that Kandahar's refugee camps are "full of starving people," she triggered an indignant backlash.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's minister of international co-operation, Josee Verner, retorted that there is no evidence of starvation in Kandahar. The United Nations delivered 10,000 tonnes of food to the region last year, and plans to deliver 20,000 tonnes this year, with Canada underwriting much of the increase, she said.
This is a sterile debate. The fact is that the Taliban recruit supporters and fighters from the ranks of desperate Afghans. Rather than quibble with Canadian and international aid organizations about whether Afghans are starving or are just very hungry at a time when the UN feels compelled to double its food aid, the Harper government should be looking for ways to improve our aid effectiveness.
The Senlis Council sensibly recommends that the U.S. and its allies provide Afghanistan with as much development aid as they are spending on military efforts to thwart a Taliban comeback. In Canada's case, our military spending is four times higher than our aid spending.
Senlis also suggests supplying urban hospitals such as Mirwais with proper equipment and drugs, building new hospitals and sending mobile field hospitals to treat civilians in conflict-torn areas.
The council urges Harper to appoint a "special envoy" to co-ordinate development and aid, with a focus on such "needs-driven" basics as easing hunger, reducing child mortality and providing clean water. According to Oxfam, most international reconstruction has focused on rebuilding cities and national institutions, not on the grassroots.
And Senlis opposes forced poppy crop eradication programs. Afghanistan supplies most of the world's opium, most of which is made into heroin. But many farmers rely on poppy to feed their families. The council wants Ottawa to support a pilot project in Kandahar that would see one village's poppy crop bought up to make pain-relieving morphine and codeine, which are in short supply.
Rather than dismiss the Senlis Council as an alarmist lobby that cannot get the facts straight, Harper and the rest of his government should take its criticisms seriously. There is a strong case to be made for rethinking Canada's military/aid ratio, for rebuilding hospitals and for focusing on the basics.