Afghan bound

Being Christian Aid’s sole lawyer is no conventional role. Advocacy officer Matt Hobson is on the front line of the reconstruction of post-war Afghanistan. Husnara Begum reports

Even though Matt Hobson, Christian Aid’s advocacy officer for Afghanistan and Central Asia, is the only lawyer at the not-for-profit organisation, he spends very little time drafting documents or at the negotiating table.

Instead, Hobson’s day-to-day responsibilities include research and formulating policy. He also spends a lot of his time lobbying the UK and Irish governments, civil servants and the EU to influence the reconstruction of post-war Afghanistan.

“My days are no longer filled with lengthy meetings about how much compensation was due to my client, but rather how people’s lives and liberties were at stake,” says Hobson.

As part of his work, Hobson has visited Afghanistan several times to meet with Christian Aid’s Afghan partners and he plans to make further trips to the country. “Despite the fact that there’s been a war in Afghanistan for 23 years, it’s an incredibly beautiful country,” he says. “The countryside is an amazing contrast of bone-dry, arid, table-top deserts and lush, green, fertile valleys and mountains. Afghans are some of the most kind, hospitable people I’ve ever met. Visiting the most desolate and cut-off villages in the remote parts of the country, I’m constantly bowled over by the generosity from villagers who earn much less than the daily average Afghan wage, and yet will always provide food, drink and shelter for you.”

Christian Aid is a non-governmental organisation (NGO) sponsored and sustained by churches and religious organisations, and its work extends to some of the poorest regions in the world. It enters into contracts with local partners in developing countries to run projects that it finances or co-finances, often with additional funds coming from the EU or the Department for International Development. These contracts are based on Christian Aid funding projects or programmes designed by the locals and aimed at helping developing

countries to become self-sufficient. “Our aim is to help these people to stand on their own feet to ensure they have a self-sustaining livelihood and therefore don’t have to rely on international aid and agencies,” says Hobson.

Security is a major problem in post-conflict Afghanistan, particularly outside the capital Kabul, where warlords rule the roost. Hobson says: “Security is the enabling environment that allows everything else to develop. Without security, all the projects that we’re involved in can’t happen.”

Last November, the UK Government came up with a strategy to push out security beyond Kabul. It artificially split Afghanistan, which is the size of France, into eight regions and allocated between 50 and 100 troops in each. In addition to providing security, these embedded troops were also expected to conduct reconstruction work.

Hobson says Christian Aid did not think the proposal was disastrous, but considered it to be fundamentally flawed in that it was a Western-imposed view of what security

should be. He also says it created more insecurity because it questioned the army’s relationship with the local population.

“The main problem with the army doing reconstruction work is that it negatively affects our relationship with the communities on the ground,” Hobson argues. “The whole humanitarian project becomes much more politicised and one of the cornerstones of any NGO is that it’s neutral, impartial and upholds the humanitarian imperative.”

Christian Aid consequently lobbied the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development to persuade them to change their proposal. As a result, the Government has amended its policy so that the troops going into the regions no longer have to carry out any reconstruction work.

Afghanistan is known for producing between 85 and 90 per cent of Europe’s heroin through its notorious opium production farms. The bulk of this opium is produced under the control and direct support of Afghan warlords, who control 90 per cent of the country. The UK provides some significant funding to Afghanistan and has taken the international lead in ensuring that the production of opium is stamped out. Despite this, the levels of opium produced last year increased by 1,600 per cent.

Hobson says: “Due to the high profit margins, little alternative and easy work, some villagers grow opium to survive.”

Christian Aid is providing alternative livelihood programmes aimed at combating the number of farmers who are tempted to produce opium. It has also introduced a conditionality clause into the agreements that it enters into with local partners, stipulating that the partner will agree not to fund opium-producing villages. “If villages choose to grow opium, then Christian Aid won’t fund any projects there,” says Hobson. “This puts the onus of responsibility onto the villagers themselves to choose between a legitimate livelihood or one that it illegitimate.”

Not surprisingly, Christian Aid outsources the bulk of its legal work. The organisation has a longstanding relationship with Bedford Row-based firm Gregory Rowcliffe Milners, which advises on property law and miscellaneous matters. More recently, it has instructed Bates Wells & Braithwaite on charity, intellectual property and marketing issues. Christian Aid’s finance director Martin Lynch is responsible for instructing external lawyers.

Historically, Christian Aid has not relied on legal advice on a pro bono basis, but as Hobson says: “We’d be very keen to explore any pro bono work that lawyers may be able to offer, as and when the need or situation arises, particularly in international law.”

Before joining Christian Aid 18 months ago, Hobson worked at Amnesty International in the Parliamentary and Policy Office, then later as a campaign coordinator. Before that, he held the position of commercial litigator at Westminster-based firm Bircham Dyson & Bell.

“The work I do now certainly has a different emphasis than it used to,” he says. “It is no longer focused on the bottom line and profit margins. It’s more people-focused and about how world economic systems can be challenged to enable sustainable development to occur in countries like Afghanistan and human rights to be respected.”

Matt Hobson
Advocacy officer
Christian Aid

Organisation Christian Aid
Sector Not-for-profit
Total income for 2002 Approx £50m
Employees Approx 250, plus 20 volunteers based in the Waterloo HQ
Legal capability One
Advocacy officer Matt Hobson
Reporting to Afghanistan and Central Asia regional manager Robin Greenwood
Main law firms Bates Wells & Braithwaite and Gregory Rowcliffe Milners