Afghanistan: Can aid agencies prop up an entire country?

Afghanistan: Can aid agencies prop up an entire country?

Imogen Foulkes
This week in Geneva, the United Nations is appealing for more money for Afghanistan, in a bid to prevent what aid agencies say is an imminent humanitarian catastrophe. The UN estimates that 22 million of Afghanistan’s 39 million people need support, as well as further 5.7 million who have fled to neighbouring countries.
Launching the $5 billion (CHF4.6 billion) appeal, the UN’s emergency relief chief Martin Griffiths said: “My message is urgent: don’t shut the door on the people of Afghanistan. Humanitarian partners are on the ground, and they are delivering, despite the challenges. Help us scale up and stave off wide-spread hunger, disease, malnutrition and ultimately death by supporting the humanitarian plans we are launching.”
$5 billion sounds like a lot of money, but the UN views it as a ‘stop gap’ measure, designed to meet immediate humanitarian needs during 2022.
Some readers may already be sighing, wondering how long the international community can carry on coughing up cash for a country which sometimes seems as if it’s been in a humanitarian crisis for decades.
But here in Geneva, aid agencies are frustrated, even angry. For 20 years, until August 2021, the world’s big western powers invested thousands of troops, advisers, and trillions of dollars in a strategy that morphed from ridding Afghanistan of the Taliban to rebuilding the country according to specifications more attractive to western governments.
By mid 2021, at least 75% of the money to pay for Afghanistan’s public services came from foreign governments, in the form of development aid. The salaries for nurses, doctors, teachers, water, sanitation and electricity workers, postal workers, police, and security services.
Overnight, when the Taliban took over, economic sanctions were imposed, and that money stopped flowing. Millions of Afghan families found themselves without a regular income.
“The international troops left in August,” said the ICRC’s director of operations Dominik Stillhart. “And it’s like they turned off the generator and threw away the key.”
Aid, development, and dilemmas
Dominik Stillhart is my guest on our Inside Geneva podcast this week, together with Vicki Aken, Afghanistan country director for the International Rescue Committee. Both expressed real concern at the escalating needs during the five months since August. Vicki Aken told me she had seen more severely malnourished children in the last three to four months than she had ever seen in Afghanistan, and described the ‘negative coping mechanisms’ families are now resorting to.
“You see girls being essentially sold, girls as young as six, seven, eight. You see children being sold into labour.”
And Dominik Stillhart described himself as ‘livid’ at what he witnessed on his visit to Afghanistan at the end of last year, accusing the international community of ‘turning its back as the country teeters on the precipice of a man-made catastrophe.’
The dilemma for western governments of course, is that the billions they once channelled through the Afghan government (and let’s be honest, although that government may have been acceptable to the west, the international funds did not always end up exactly where they should have) would now have to go through the Taliban. And memories are long: when the Taliban was last in power in the 1990’s, it was notorious for its brutal oppression of women, and many other violent human rights abuses.
Understandably, no government wants to hand over large sums of a cash to a regime like that.
Creative solutions
“Then don’t”, says Vicki Aken. She tells Inside Geneva that at the moment the Taliban isn’t asking for aid money to be funnelled through its departments. Instead, aid agencies control the funds, and are paying for goods, services, and staff directly.
The ICRC is leading the way in what Dominik Stillhart calls ‘creative solutions’ to the crisis. Seeing that Afghanistan’s health service was on the verge of collapse because health workers had not been paid for months, the red cross has begun paying the salaries of thousands of nurses and doctors in 23 hospitals and clinics across the country.
It’s a step Domink Stillhart describes as ‘unprecedented’, but necessary, and he would like donor countries to start considering such solutions themselves.
Meanwhile Vicki Aken explains that while working with the Taliban is ‘not easy…it has never been easy in Afghanistan’, the comparative peace across the country means aid agencies can access all parts of Afghanistan, something that was impossible before August.
And Vicki Aken says her female colleagues have had no problem returning to work, although, all aid agencies stress, the freedoms women have vary across the country, with some regions more restrictive than others. This, aid workers point out, was also the case before the Taliban take over.
Avert a crisis, and then what?
Just before Christmas, the UN Security Council passed a resolution authorising a slight easing of the economic sanctions, in order to try to meet what it called ‘basic human needs.’ This was good news for aid agencies who had shown UN member states stark evidence that at least a million Afghan children faced starvation.
But that resolution is very limited in scope, it lasts just one year, and appears to cover only the most basic humanitarian aid – when in fact development money is what supported public services up until August.
And this week’s UN appeal, remember, is also a ‘stop gap’ measure, with UN diplomats believing much more will be needed, and not just cash, but commitment to supporting Afghanistan’s public service infrastructure long term.
“No matter much aid we deliver, we cannot have a country entirely dependent on the goods we bring into the country. It’s just impossible to deliver at that scale,” says Vicki Aken.
“If we want to save Afghanistan and the Afghan population, it is not just by giving money to humanitarian organisations,” adds Dominik Stillhart. “Can the international community hold 39 million people hostage to the fact that they do not want to recognise the authorities that are now in place in Kabul and in Afghanistan?”
Domink Stillhart thinks it is still possible to avoid a humanitarian disaster, as long as donor governments understand they must act now, with generosity and flexibility.
If they don’t, he warns, “the free fall of Afghanistan will continue. We will see death, we will see desperation, and, perhaps even worse we will see the risk of a serious destabilisation.”
“Desperation will be such that groups such as Islamic State will have no problem recruiting people into their ranks. And that’s definitely not in the interests of the Afghan people, it’s not in the interests of Afghanistan’s neighbours, and it’s not in the interests of the international community.”

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