In the past five years in Afghanistan, there have been impressive gains in key health indicators, and a dramatic decrease in infant and child mortality rates due to the efforts of the Afghan Ministry of Public Health, with the support of the United States and the international community. Now many more Afghan women survive pregnancy and childbirth. These dramatic improvements serve as a good reminder to the international community that with sound investments to tackle Afghanistan's still-daunting humanitarian and development needs, progress has been and will continue to be achieved.
Today, I had the honor of joining with the Afghan Minister of Public Health, Dr. Suraya Dalil, who has a very impressive resume, working most recently at UNICEF, to sign a Memorandum of Understanding that serves as another step forward for Afghanistan. In the Memorandum, our countries have agreed to collaborate to provide services to some of the most underprivileged and at-risk populations in Afghanistan: returning refugees. Nearly six million refugees -- who constitute as much as a quarter of Afghanistan's total population -- have returned to Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban and often have special health needs.
PRM's NGO partners currently run 26 clinics for returned refugees in Nangarhar, Laghman, and Kunar provinces, with funding from the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM). The agreement I signed today between PRM and the Afghan Ministry of Public Health provides for the transition of 22 clinics -- and the essential services they provide -- to the Ministry of Public Health by July 2013. In the lead up to the transition, the collaboration between the Afghan government and PRM will enable the clinics to ensure that returning Afghan refugees receive the full range of services offered by the Afghan Government's Basic Package of Health Services -- a model program that aims to provide Afghans with a minimum standard of care, and an early success of the Ministry of Public Health. Former refugees and the communities in which they live will continue to receive this standard of care as these clinics are incorporated into the Ministry of Public Health.
The transition we celebrated today is a part of the overall transition that has been taking place throughout Afghanistan. Our collaboration in healthcare for returning refugees is just one piece of the United States' enduring partnership with Afghanistan that strengthens Afghan sovereignty, stability, and prosperity.
When people flee persecution and conflict, their first and most immediate needs are basic: food, shelter, protection. Addressing those needs is our primary concern at PRM, but as displaced people return to their homes and their lives, governments should address the long-term development needs of their citizens. The link between relief and development is especially important in increasing the self-reliance of conflict victims after their displacement.
The signing of this agreement demonstrates our efforts to link assistance programs to development strategies in Afghanistan. The responsible transition of these clinics to the Ministry of Public Health has come about with the cooperation of both our governments and can serve as an example of how U.S. aid can support Afghan leadership and good development policy.