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. …