‘Let’s not make the same mistake again’
A human catastrophe is unfolding in plain sight. According to the International Rescue Committee, nearly 23 million Afghans are facing hunger and one million children are at risk of dying unless they receive immediate treatment for malnutrition. The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has left many desperately short of food. Widely shared social media images show infants and children suffering severe malnutrition.
Several Afghan organizations are scrambling to provide aid, as far as they can, but with the economy on the brink of collapse they are short on many things including funding, volunteers and coordination between different organizations on the ground. The high price of food, unavailability of cash from the banks and the harsh winter are also making their work harder.
‘It is difficult to get support to run activities on a voluntarily basis as hundreds of people need jobs and they also need to feed their families,’ explained Zabi, a founder of the Zamir Foundation.
The dire situation in Afghanistan has been exacerbated by bilateral sanctions leaving several thousands of individuals, organizations and communities who previously relied on aid money out of jobs. Before the Taliban took over, aid grants made up 43 per cent of Afghanistan’s GDP and about 75 per cent of its public spending. The US government has frozen around $9 billion in reserves in Da Afghanistan Bank, the central bank of Afghanistan – money with the potential to help desperate Afghans.
Millions of people in Afghanistan are now going to bed hungry and waking up hungry. In addition, the banking crisis had led to increased liquidity problems. Even when funds can be transmitted electronically the lack of cash in the banks means that money is not physically available to people, even after they stand in long queues to withdraw it.
The Meher organization is run entirely by young Afghan women, some of who are now based in different parts of the world. They told me that since the Taliban takeover they have stopped receiving any funds from international donors and are struggling to counter the hunger crisis faced by the families they have served in the past in and around Kabul.
‘We used to support 60 families just outside Kabul who are facing extreme poverty but now we can’t support them. We have no money,’ said Shabnam Bina, a co-founder of Meher
One of the other challenges faced by organizations like the Zamir Foundation is the lack of coordination between aid organizations.
‘Most of the Afghan staff who used to work in the UN have also left the country. The UN is bringing in more expats rather than recruiting local people and connecting with local organizations,’ added Zabi.
When I asked about this accusation in the popular Humanitarian Women’s Network Facebook a user with the profile name of a political affairs officer at the United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan responded in a later deleted post:
‘Yes, with one of the most complex humanitarian crisis, they should be hiring surge capacity with experiences in other complex contexts.’ She went on to say that a lot of experienced national staff had left the country while those that remain may not feel comfortable with taking part in ‘tough humanitarian negotiations with the Taliban’.
Due to its tight security procedures, the UN is known for keeping minimum or no contact with the local Afghans who they serve. Most UN staff find themselves trapped in a compound with very little or no contact to the outside world. I worked in Afghanistan for over 10 years with Afghan ministries, international NGOs and local organizations to address social, health and economic inequalities in rural areas – including some of the most insecure parts of the country. For security reasons, UN workers seldom travel to Afghan villages and districts and when they do visits are often rushed and people always travel in armoured vehicles.
‘If the UN wants to really help, they would need to go through the local organizations like ourselves with strong infrastructure in place and access to communities,’ said Zabi. ‘Organizations like us do exist. We are already on the ground and our food packages are in line with UN World Food Programme guidelines.
‘Afghans have local capacity to negotiate with the Taliban. We have lived these realities; we speak the language and have cultural and geographical understanding. Who would understand the conflict better than the ones who have lived it? Let’s not make the same mistake again.’
‘We don’t have funds’
As he tried to deflect any blame for the crisis, in his first address to the nation last month the Taliban prime minister, Mohammed Hassan Akhund, admonished people to pray for an end to the famine calling it a ‘test from God’.
Meanwhile, feeling helpless, many organizations are providing food, medicines and basic winter packages of food and blankets as best they can.
While everyone is suffering, ‘at least boys can go out to ask help,’ said Zabi. ‘Meanwhile, girls are trapped and can’t leave their houses and stay unheard.’
Recently, the Zamir Foundation prevented the child-marriage of 11-year-old Nazanin. A girl from Ghazni who was on the verge of being sold by her mother to put food on the plate for her younger siblings.
International aid organizations have also been sounding the alarm about the humanitarian crisis. WFP officials have raised concerns over the sanctions imposed on the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan impeding humanitarian organizations from operating with the de-facto government.
On one hand, the likes of the WFP who are struggling to operate due to sanctions and bureaucracy and, on the other hand, there are organizations like the Zamir Foundation who claim that they have been receiving funds using Sarafi or Hawala (informal international money transfer) within minutes – although they can’t match the funds they used to be able to receive when international payments were easier.
Amid freezing temperatures Afghans are facing starvation at a large scale. Mary-Ellen McGroarty, WFP’s country director for Afghanistan, has pleaded with the international community to ‘separate the humanitarian imperative from the political discussions’ to help stop the ‘tsunami of hunger’.
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