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'An economic implosion': Afghanistan's hunger crisis explained

Some 55% of the Afghan population is now suffering from hunger, according to the United Nations.

editorial-use-only-afghanistan-is-on-the-verge-of-becoming-the-worlds-worst-humanitarian-crisis-that-could-lead-to-unprecedented-famine-distributions-of-basic-foodstuffs-here-oil-and-flour-are-s Distributions of basic foodstuffs (here oil and flour) are set up by various NGOs in Kabul Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

BETWEEN A DETERIORATING economic situation, widespread hunger and the need for further international aid, Afghanistan is currently in the middle of a deepening humanitarian crisis. 

Since the Taliban regained control in Afghanistan in late August last year, more than half a million people in the country have lost their jobs, according to a report by the International Labour Organisation. 

Most international aid assistance was cut off following the takeover. 

The crisis has paralysed the economy and slammed the labour market. 

The situation is especially devastating for women and for people working in farming, government posts, social services and construction, with many people losing their jobs or not receiving their wages.

Some 55% of the Afghan population is now suffering from hunger, according to the United Nations.

So, let’s take a look at how the situation has deteriorated so drastically since August.

What was the humanitarian situation like before the Taliban regained power in August? 

In short, the economy was already teetering after four decades of war, a severe drought and the Covid-19 pandemic. 

In the months leading up to 15 August, when the Taliban regained power in Kabul amid a chaotic withdrawal of US and Nato troops, there had been ongoing conflict right across rural areas of Afghanistan. 

Thousands of people were displaced throughout 2021. 

Afghanistan last year faced into its second drought in just four years, the worst drought in about three decades. On 22 June 2021, the country’s then-President Ashraf Ghani declared drought in 23% of Afghanistan’s districts. 

The Afghanistan government had been relying heavily on international aid, with dozens of humanitarian organisations from overseas providing assistance. 

One such organisation is the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), which has been present in Afghanistan since 1963. Donegal woman Mary-Ellen McGroarty is WFP’s Afghanistan director. 

The WFP has over 600 distribution sites in Afghanistan. It plans to deliver emergency food and nutrition assistance to 23 million people in the country this year. 

“We already had a very difficult situation before 15 August, but on 15 August, once the Taliban took over, international development support was turned off. 75% of the national budget, the government budget, came from overseas aid. That was all stopped,” McGroarty told The Journal. 

unhcr-workers-push-wheelbarrows-loaded-with-aid-supplies-for-displaced-afghan-families-as-a-taliban-fighter-secures-the-area-outside-the-distribution-center-on-the-outskirts-of-kabul-afghanistan-octo UNHCR workers push wheelbarrows loaded with aid supplies for displaced Afghan families as a Taliban fighter secures the area outside the distribution centre on the outskirts of Kabul Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

How did the situation deteriorate so rapidly since the Taliban takeover? 

Since the 15 August, Western powers have refused to recognise the Taliban government officially.

Billions of dollars of assets were frozen by Washington, and aid supplies were heavily disrupted.

Washington seized nearly $9.5 billion in assets belonging to the Afghan central bank.

The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank also suspended activities in Afghanistan, withholding aid as well as $340 million in new reserves issued by the IMF in August.

McGroarty explained that when the overseas assets were frozen, banks in Afghanistan closed their doors and the country “fell into a massive liquidity crisis”.

“People couldn’t access cash, they couldn’t access their savings in the bank. Trade became impacted,” she said. 

“You just had an economic implosion because of the liquidity crisis,” McGroarty said. 

a-woman-walks-past-a-second-hand-clothes-vendor-in-kabul-afghanistan-november-5-2021-reuterszohra-bensemra A woman walks past a second-hand clothes vendor in Kabul, Afghanistan Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Following the Taliban takeover, much of the international community quickly left Afghanistan. 

“Along with the departure of the international community, there was also an economic impact because there was a lot of economic livelihood around the international community,” McGroarty said. 

The Afghan currency quickly depreciated and food prices soared. 

“You have people losing their jobs, both in the formal economy and the informal economy. You have the impact of the drought, so loss of food, but also loss of labour in the agricultural sector. You have high food prices, markets being impacted and the whole thing colliding together,” McGroarty explained. 

“It just absolutely collapsed very, very quickly. We started to see malnutrition rates climb up as early as October.” 

According to the WFP, around 23 million people – half the population in Afghanistan – are food insecure, with 8.7 million people at risk of starvation.  

McGroarty also noted that because the aid funds weren’t coming into the country, “the health service was crumbling before our eyes”. She said just about 17% of health centres are functions today. 

“If the health system and the education system continues to collapse, the humanitarian situation is going to get worse.” 

Adding to the deepening humanitarian crisis, the rights of women and girls across Taliban have been stripped away. 

Desperate for international recognition to unlock frozen assets, the Taliban have largely refrained from issuing national policies that provoke outrage abroad.

Nonetheless, provincial officials have issued guidelines and edicts based on local interpretations of Islamic law and Afghan custom that have curbed women’s freedoms.

Girls in most provinces have not been allowed to return to secondary school, public universities are shuttered, and women have been banned from most public sector jobs.

Women must also be accompanied on long journeys by a close male relative, while posters have gone up in Kabul ordering them to cover up – illustrated by the all-covering burqa.

“It’s absolutely heartbreaking how the hope and aspirations of young women have just been wrenched away from them,” McGroarty said. 

“There are days I sometimes wish I hadn’t been here before 15 August because then you wouldn’t have seen the hope and the potential and the possibility.”

afghan-women-walk-past-a-taliban-fighter-standing-guard-at-the-market-in-kabul-afghanistan-october-24-2021-reuterszohra-bensemra Afghan women walk past a Taliban fighter standing guard at the market in Kabul Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

What efforts are being made to improve the situation and what is the outlook for the future? 

In December, international donors agreed to transfer $280 million from a frozen fund to UN food and health services in Afghanistan. 

On 11 January, the United Nations said it needed €4.4 billion in aid for Afghanistan in 2022 to avert a “humanitarian catastrophe” and offer the country a future. 

In its biggest-ever single-country appeal, the UN said €3.9 billion was needed within Afghanistan, while a further €549 million was required to support the millions of Afghans sheltering beyond its borders.

Following the UN appeal, US in January promised more than $308 million in an initial aid package for Afghanistan in 2022. 

The money will provide for food and nutrition for vulnerable people, health care facilities, winter programmes and logistics support, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) said in a statement.

Speaking in the Dáil on 27 January, Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney noted the UN appeal and said: “A donor-pledging conference on Afghanistan is likely to take place in March and Ireland will participate.”

A Taliban delegation travelled to Oslo, Norway last week for landmark talks focused on humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. This is the group’s first visit to Europe since returning to power.

The Taliban are seeking international recognition and financial aid.

The Taliban delegation, led by Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi, met senior French foreign ministry official Bertrand Lotholary, Britain’s special envoy Nigel Casey, and members of the Norwegian foreign ministry.

oslo-norway-20220125-taliban-representatives-mutiul-haq-nabi-kheel-and-amir-khan-muttaqi-during-the-meeting-between-norwegian-humanitarian-organizations-and-representatives-from-the-taliban-at-the-s Taliban representatives Mutiul Haq Nabi Kheel and Amir Khan Muttaqi during the meeting between Norwegian humanitarian organizations and representatives from the Taliban at the Soria Moria hotel in Oslo Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

The Taliban hailed last week’s talks – held in a hotel near Oslo – as a step toward international recognition.

However, Norway has insisted the talks do “not represent a legitimisation or recognition of the Taliban”.

But its decision to invite the group – and fly them over in a chartered jet at great expense – was heavily criticised by some experts, members of the diaspora and Afghan activists.

As noted, no country has yet recognised the fundamentalist regime, and the international community is waiting to see how the Taliban intend to govern before releasing further aid.

The Norwegian prime minister said he knew many were troubled by the meeting in Oslo, but said it was a first step to avoid “humanitarian disaster”.

“The alternative to leave Afghanistan, one million children, at the danger of starving … that is no option. We have to deal with the world as it is.”

Norwegian state secretary Henrik Thune earlier said: “This is not the beginning of an … open-ended process.”

“We are going to place tangible demands that we can follow up on and see if they have been met”, he told Norwegian news agency NTB ahead of his talks with the delegation.

The demands were to include the possibility of providing humanitarian aid directly to the Afghan people, according to NTB.

Norway was also to call for human rights to be respected, in particular those of women and minorities, such as access to education and health services, the right to work, and freedom of movement.

Following the talks, the Taliban left Norway without making any further statements.

However, this week the Taliban’s foreign minister told AFP that the regime is inching closer towards international recognition but any concessions will be made on their terms. 

Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi also urged Washington to unlock Afghanistan’s assets to help ease a humanitarian crisis.

Muttaqi told AFP on Wednesday that Afghanistan’s new rulers were slowly gaining international acceptance.

“On the process of getting recognition … we have come closer to that goal,” he said.

“That is our right, the right of the Afghans. We will continue our political struggle and efforts until we get our right.”

Muttaqi said any concessions the Taliban made in areas such as human rights would be on their terms and not as a result of international pressure.

Includes reporting by Press Association and © AFP 2022 

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