30 Years of Impact — An Evaluation of the Mine Action Programme of Afghanistan (Executive Summary)
§ METHODOLOGY & OBJECTIVES
Due to successive waves of instability and conflict from the 1980s onwards, Afghanistan was heavily contaminated by explosive ordnance (EO). Established to improve this situation, the Mine Action Programme of Afghanistan (MAPA) commenced activities in 1988. MAPA is a platform and umbrella structure for mine action, linking coordinating bodies, donors, and implementing partners. As of August 2021, MAPA had cleared over 81% of land known to be contaminated by legacy landmines and explosive remnants of war in the country, allowing for the release of thousands of square kilometres of land for productive use.
In 2021, MAPA finds itself at a critical juncture. It is not on track to meet the targets committed to as part of the Anti- Personnel Mine Ban Convention obligations. Funding for the mine action sector in Afghanistan has been decreasing steadily since 2011, dropping from $113 million to $32 million by 2020. The emergence of new threats, such as improvised explosive devices (IEDs), requires constant capacity building in a sector that is always at risk of brain drain. Finally, the takeover of the Taliban in the summer of 2021 threatens funding streams, as many donors are reluctant to engage with the new regime, whether directly or indirectly — even as it simultaneously opens a window of opportunity in terms of access to previously inaccessible areas, and more secure operating conditions.
In this context of challenges and transition, future actions should be data-driven and evidence-based to ensure that the funds allocated to mine action in Afghanistan make a difference. This evaluation was commissioned by the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) to take stock of three decades of mine action in Afghanistan. It maintains a focus on impact resulting from MAPA while also including criteria of relevance, efficiency, effectiveness, and sustainability. Its primary intended audience are the MAPA stakeholders themselves, ranging from the Directorate of Mine Action Coordination (DMAC) and UNMAS to implementing partners (IPs) and donors. It is hoped that it will also benefit and inform a wider community of actors involved in similar endeavours in other contexts.
To gather the evidence needed, a mixed-methods methodology was employed, combining different sources of quantitative and qualitative data to gain an extensive understanding of mine action results over time. Data collection took place in 24 communities across eight provinces, representing the different regions of Afghanistan. All had been sites of mine clearance in previous years, across different types of land and by different IPs. Close to 2,000 individual survey respondents were selected randomly from the communities, with an eye to guaranteeing the equal inclusion of female respondents.
Beyond the reported impact of mine action at the individual level, the evaluators also opted to assess impact at the community level via observation and interviews with community leaders. Geospatial analysis techniques were employed to better understand changes resulting from mine action at the national level, using night lights as a proxy for economic development, and studying changes in land usage after mine action. Impact is further demonstrated via case studies, showcasing growing townships, agricultural lands, cultural heritage sites, transportation hubs, and other high-profile examples.
Unique methodological challenges should be considered when reflecting on the impact of mine action in Afghanistan throughout the decades. Perhaps the most important is that demining is rarely a discreet ́one-off’ event which leads to direct changes in its immediate aftermath. Rather, mine action tends to occur in waves, sometimes over decades. It is thus difficult to pinpoint the ‘peak' of mine action dividends across several dimensions. Furthermore, proximity to relevant demining sites is often not easily assessed - communities may well be impacted by minefields not in their immediate vicinity. These challenges were mitigated by triangulating data, posing recall questions to individuals, but also employing advanced spatial analysis to assess the impact of demining on the access to areas further afield.
§ KEY FINDINGS: 10 MESSAGES
1. MINE ACTION IN AFGHANISTAN HAS SAVED COUNTLESS LIVES
Mine action activities have been delivered in two forms. First and foremost, MAPA carries out landmine clearance activities whereby landmines are identified and cleared from contaminated sites. In addition, mine action implementing partners conduct explosive ordnance risk education (EORE) activities to inform local communities of the presence of explosive ordnance in the surrounding area, increase people’s awareness of the types of landmines, and change attitudes and behaviours in the event that they encounter explosive ordnance. MAPA delivered on this fundamental mission of saving lives and limbs: 97% of respondents to this study noted that their physical security had improved as a result of mine action.
2. MINE ACTION VASTLY IMPROVED MOBILITY AND ACCESS TO RESOURCES AND MARKETS
Landmines and explosive remnants of war (ERW) do not just result in death and injury, but also in vast stretches of land becoming inaccessible. 86% of respondents in urban locations and 57% of respondents in rural ones noted that landmines were contaminating pathways, roads, and transportation routes. Thanks to mine action, it is now possible to visit relatives or attend culturally important weddings and funerals in surrounding villages. Children who were not allowed to go to school out of fear of mines prior to clearance are now able to pursue their education again. Accessing healthcare and transporting sick people to health facilities is now easier and safer. Pathways to streams, springs, and other natural water sources were previously obstructed by landmines in certain communities; the clearance of these pathways enabled residents to access and use these natural resources.
Market access was estimated as a function of transportation costs between all settlements, proxied by night-time lights and weighted by population. Analysis shows that, thanks to the clearance of transportation pathways, aggregate access to markets more than doubled in 2013 (compared to a hypothetical scenario in which no demining had taken place). Considerable regional differences result in a more nuanced picture at the sub-national level: by 2013, compared to the no-demining scenario, market access in Panjshir province had increased more than tenfold. In Paktika, this increase stood at 10%.
3. MINE ACTION IN AFGHANISTAN HAS BEEN A PREREQUISITE FOR DEVELOPMENT INITIATIVES
Communities with protracted presence of explosive ordnance are considered dangerous for development initiatives, especially for programmes such as road construction. Conversely, landmine/ERW clearance created the space for international agencies and the authorities to become more involved in local development, contributing to an increased sense of security in decontaminated areas. This included country-wide initiatives such as the Citizens Charter National Priority Programming (CCNPP). Along with government programmes, international and national NGOs were able to distribute agricultural supplies and cash to some of the communities cleared of mines. In the locations visited for this study, the majority of interviewees agreed that a number of development activities had benefited their community which would not have been possible prior to landmine clearance. These include large projects such as pipelines, electricity and telecommunication infrastructure, but also, frequently, bridges, flumes, and irrigation structures.
4. MINE ACTION HAS GREATLY BENEFITTED THE AFGHAN ECONOMY
While the impetus for humanitarian mine action has been primarily to save lives and limbs, this evaluation also finds wide-reaching positive economic impacts in every sampled community. Lands cleared of explosive ordnance meant that many communities had more lands for crop cultivation. Nine out of ten survey respondents in rural areas noted that their household income from agricultural products had increased after demining. The land also increased in value. Pastoralists also benefitted, as lands released from contamination were frequently used for the herding of sheep, goats, and cattle — over half of the survey respondents noted that their income derived from livestock increased as a direct result of mine action in the area. Landmine/ERW clearance allowed community members to gather resources such as wood, stones, herbs, and dung, leading to increased self-sufficiency and decreasing the high costs often associated with heating and construction.
5. MINE ACTION HAS PROVIDED DIRECT MONETARY BENEFIT TO THOUSANDS OF AFGHANS
MAPA directly employs over 5,000 Afghans, providing a regular salary indirectly benefitting tens of thousands of dependents. Through the community-based demining approach, many more have been employed over the years. Local recruitment in a contaminated area stimulates the local economy and helps to build trust with the local population, thereby improving the security of mine action organisations and its access to local knowledge about contamination. Mine action operations have also been leveraged to provide employment to particular groups such as women or former combatants, supporting the reintegration process. Beyond providing a salary to deminers and EO risk educators, MAPA collaborated with the Ministry of Martyrs and Disabled Affairs to extend direct financial benefits to maimed victims of explosive ordnance. Numerous respondents explained that they knew of victims who had received assistance in the form of a disability benefit. This is usually the only support received by EO victims, and a lifeline to them and their dependents.
6. MINE ACTION BENEFITTED PEOPLE’S MENTAL HEALTH AND COMMUNITY RELATIONS
Psychosocial relief from the decreased threat of harm was widely discussed by the people consulted for this study. 95% of respondents interviewed for this study reported that their level of anxiety had decreased as a result of explosive ordnance clearance. Women in particular report a reduction in anxiety, connected to no longer having to worry intensely about children, male relatives, or themselves undertaking activities near contaminated lands. While some anecdotal evidence points to the risk of causing stress to children through EO risk education activities, overall, the beneficial mental health impacts are indisputable. At the community level, the presence of explosive ordnance had been eroding the social fabric and sparked tensions. Mine clearance attenuated tensions between different groups, including settled farming communities and kuchi nomadic pastoralists. As there was more land, the competition and pressure for livestock grazing grounds decreased in many surveyed communities. Some 80% of respondents to the survey noted that mine action had increased the level of peace and coexistence in their community.
7. MINE ACTION IN AFGHANISTAN WAS THE CAUSE OF SOME NEGATIVE EXTERNALITIES
In some villages, the benefits of mine action are distributed based on existing power dynamics within the community. Those who can lay claim to the cleared areas naturally stand to benefit from them more than others. While disputes regarding cleared lands were only mentioned by 7% of respondents, those tend to be clustered in certain communities, suggesting that land disputes are highly localised. Areas near urban centres are at higher risk of dispute and land-grabbing due to increased land value. Another frequent complaint voiced by research participants was the degradation of soil and destruction of community infrastructure over the course of clearance operations. Roads, bridges, and irrigation systems were sometimes mentioned as having been destroyed by deminers. Generally, community members that were consulted agreed that the benefits of mine clearance far outweighed the infrastructure destroyed. They noted, nonetheless, that the promised reconstruction tended to take a long time, or sometimes did not manifest at all.
8. MINE ACTION IS RELEVANT AT THE GLOBAL, NATIONAL, AND COMMUNITY LEVEL
Mine action can be situated at the heart of the triple nexus: it is humanitarian in its life-saving work, is a precursor to longer term development, and has positive implications for peace and security. It is linked to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and other international treaties and frameworks. Its relevance to the national agenda, no matter who is in charge, is showcased by its alignment with the Afghanistan National Priority Programmes. The Taliban takeover does not change this. Indeed, the Taliban supported mine action during their previous reign, and have been allowing access to demining teams since their takeover. The relevance of MAPA activities to the Afghan citizens affected by explosive ordnance is obvious given the universal public support of EO clearance operations.
9. EFFICIENCY OF MINE ACTION IN AFGHANISTAN HAS INCREASED STEADILY OVER 30 YEARS
MAPA resources were used more efficiently over time, through a down-sizing of the organisation, an increased productivity linked to technological progress, and a more precise knowledge of the state of the problem on the ground. Cost per square metre cleared under MAPA decreased from $3 in the 1990s to below $1 in the 2020s. Improved capacity and equipment enhanced the programme’s efficiency. At the same time, institutional changes also lowered costs incurred: between 2008 and 2014, DMAC’s predecessor UNMACCA reduced its workforce by more than half. The efficiency of MAPA was further driven by projectisation and managed competition, as a competitive process was set up in 2016 for clearance contracts.
10. MINE ACTION HAS HAD SUSTAINABLE IMPACT, BUT THE SUSTAINABILITY OF OPERATIONS IS NOT GUARANTEED
It is indisputable that MAPA has made a sustainable difference to thousands of communities across Afghanistan over the past decades. The elimination of an explosive hazard represents a sustainably neutralised danger benefitting everyone in the community. Since 1989, humanitarian mine action partners in Afghanistan have destroyed more than 18.8 million items of explosive remnants of war, some 750,000 anti-personnel mines, and some 31,000 anti-vehicle mines. Every one of these represents a sustainable contribution to the well-being of Afghans. Benefits derived from the clearance will continue or even increase as productive land use accelerates. MAPA also represents a model study on localization. After the transition of responsibilities from UNMAS to the Directorate of Mine Action Coordination (DMAC), it became fully Afghan-run and has built sustainable expertise of international renown. However, from a financial perspective, the sustainability of MAPA is not guaranteed — without financial support from the international community, the programme will not be able to continue operations.
§ WHAT IS NEXT FOR MINE ACTION IN AFGHANISTAN?
MINE ACTION IN AFGHANISTAN IS AN UNEQUIVOCAL SUCCESS STORY WHICH CAN AND MUST CONTINUE UNDER THE TALIBAN
Donors can see the results of their support: EO clearance in Afghanistan has saved countless lives and improved mental well-being and community cohesion. It has given Afghans the ability to move around in safety. It allows children to go to school and play outside without fear. It has opened pathways to markets, made areas available to build shelter, graze animals, and grow crops. It has paved the way for massive-scale development projects. Not many donor-funded endeavours in the Afghan context can tell a similarly unequivocal success story.
After the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, MAPA continued its important work, with implementing partners conducting the range of mine action activities including explosive ordnance clearance and EORE. Some challenges appear set to ease if the conflict abates: the absence of shifting frontlines of fighting means that security, access, and expanding explosive ordnance use are no longer as problematic. The Taliban takeover thus opens a window of opportunity in terms of access. Donors should not consider the Taliban surge a reason to decrease support to MAPA; on the contrary, they should consider that MAPA, as a respected and decades-old structure with humanitarian goals, is likely to be able to continue operating in the current context, and indeed could leverage the opportunity to realize the vision of a mine-free Afghanistan.
A SPECIAL FOCUS SHOULD LIE ON THE REMOVAL OF ABANDONED IMPROVISED MINES, WHICH WILL REQUIRE INVESTMENT IN CAPACITY BUILDING
Anti-personnel mines of improvised nature (APM/IN) or Victim Operated Improvised Explosive Devices have caused over half of all EO civilian casualties in Afghanistan over the past half decade. Humanitarian clearance of such devices is still in its early stages in Afghanistan, after their recent rise in prominence and the issues around the politics of clearance, access, and operations or capacity. It is recommended that there be continued engagement and action on APM/IN. This will need to include investment in capacity building for MAPA stakeholders at different levels, as the programme evolves from focusing on factory-made mines towards clearing improvised devices.
MINE ACTION IN AFGHANISTAN MUST REVISIT PRIORITY-SETTING CRITERIA
In Afghanistan, determining the priority of hazardous areas for clearance is based on specified impact indicators, with a scoring system assessing blockages, type of device, the size of the contaminated areas, distance from settlements, etc. The goal of the current system is to determine where the greatest positive change can be effected for the largest number of people, with the potential number of civilian casualties considered the primary planning indicator. While MAPA had ambitions to adjust site selection to maximize not only the humanitarian but also the development impact of its intervention, it will likely be necessary to keep a purely humanitarian focus for the time being in light of the Taliban rejection of development interventions.
MINE ACTION SHOULD CONTINUE TO MITIGATE NEGATIVE EXTERNALITIES
This evaluation found that communities understand that infrastructure may, in rare cases, get damaged over the course of demining operations, and still consider that the benefits greatly outweigh the costs. Tension ensues mainly where reconstruction is expected but not delivered in a timely manner. It is recommended that plans to rebuild be made before mine clearance commences, in full transparency and in collaboration with partners who will be in charge of the process. MAPA organisations should ensure that community liaison addresses issues on land disputes, inadvertent or inherent damages relating to mine action, and remaining explosive ordnance. Enhanced community liaison can include explanations, clear timelines, complaint resolution mechanisms, and referral pathways to address unintended consequences of MAPA activities.
MINE ACTION IN AFGHANISTAN SHOULD INCREASE ITS FOCUS ON MENTAL HEALTH
Beyond people’s physical lives and limbs, MAPA should further focus on people’s mental health and psychosocial wellbeing. People experience deep mental trauma from explosive ordnance, overlaid with mental health concerns from conflict. Explosive ordnance clearance is an important first step in addressing these concerns. MAPA partners should ensure that post-clearance community liaison includes activities around mental health, ensuring for instance that the information on areas cleared reaches women (who often receive only partial information second hand). All monitoring should include a mental health component. And finally, EO risk education protocols should be adjusted to ensure that the sessions do not inadvertently cause unnecessary stress to children in particular.
MINE ACTION IN AFGHANISTAN SHOULD CONTINUE TO SHOWCASE ITS SUCCESS TO THE BENEFIT OF THE WIDER COMMUNITY OF PRACTICE
MAPA has an extensive list of achievements over more than 30 years of mine action in Afghanistan. The gains made across various spheres — humanitarian, economic, and social — were immediately beneficial to people and are also set to persist beyond political changes in the country. MAPA and associated mine action stakeholders should continue to advocate their positions, supported by evidence, for people affected by explosive ordnance in Afghanistan and beyond. It is well-placed to engage in this work alone, and to strategically partner with other organisations that work on these pressing issues — where it is safe to do so, and where it will not compromise MAPA’s humanitarian mine action work.
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