Sean Ridge is a senior humanitarian affairs officer with UNOCHA – the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and is also based in Kabul. A former Army officer, he served the State with distinction in missions in the Middle East including in Syria and in Lebanon. He is also a LLM graduate, specialising in peace operations, international humanitarian law and conflict studies (2013).
He’s been in Afghanistan since 2015, though undoubtedly the last few months have been the most difficult. He heads up a unit that works liaising and deconflicting with the international military and the Taliban, including, he says, “in developing and utilising strong networks within the opposing entities for the safety, security, protection and access to beneficiaries by humanitarian aid workers”.
The two greatest worries facing the Afghan people, he says, are the threat of a breakdown and a return to violence, and the concurrent near total collapse of the economy due to economic sanctions, since the Taliban seized power following the withdrawal of the US and international military coalition in August.
“The Afghan population has endured 43 years of war and in 2021, a year of unprecedented upheaval with the withdrawal of US and International military forces, military and political successes of the Taliban overlaid by Covid 19. Having reached this point of the war ending, the overall sense is a one of a pyrrhic victory for peace as although peace has arrived through a massive reduction in violence, peace in the hearts of Afghans remains elusive mainly because of the memory of life under the Taliban government of 1996 to 2001,” he says.
Like Mary-Ellen, he says that the collapse in the Afghan economy has set the country on course for imminent humanitarian disaster. “The ordinary people, like any poor county I have worked in, are the salt of the earth, doing whatever is necessary to survive. The fact that it’s made up of multiple ethnicities and surrounded by so many world powers – China, Pakistan, India, Iran, Russia and the US ( albeit over the horizon) all lend itself to internal instability and outside interference.
“However, the freezing of Afghan financial assets, the ongoing absence of the World Bank and the day–to–day financial impediments has set Afghanistan on a course for a humanitarian catastrophe,” he says.
While the role has been busy, undoubtedly it’s become a whole lot more challenging since August and the return of the Taliban. So what does a typical day look like?
“The day varies depending on the location and the prevailing dynamics. It can involve planning and preparing meetings for emergencies, coordination meetings with Taliban interlocutors to secure safe access to areas in need, coordinating missions with multiple agencies, providing advice to aid workers on the ground, and providing advice to the chief humanitarian coordinator on courses of action, trends, likely scenarios and priorities.
“For Afghans it’s tough – more than 20 million people live on less than a dollar a day. For me and the team, the days are full, responding to multiple emergencies as they develop and evolve.”
An experienced Irish Army officer, Sean is no stranger to building relationships with communities – including armed groups and in conflict zones. That ‘honest broker’ training from his Defence Forces days will be needed as he continues that work with Taliban chiefs.
“Our main role at the moment is building on our networks with the Taliban as they are the de-facto government and without their support, we cannot hope to reach people in need. Building these networks and relationships will open up access to populations not accessed previously. This is working well and the Taliban have been very amenable to supporting our efforts to reach affected populations with food, water, health, seeds etc,” he adds.