Afghanistan donor summit: Aid shortfalls loom as emergency needs rise

Afghan municipality workers inspect the scene of an explosion that targeted a police checkpoint in Herat, Afghanistan, 01 November 2020. Credit: EPA / Jalil Rezayee

The conference comes at a pivotal time for the country as aid shortfalls loom and emergency needs rise.

Donors and Afghan officials are meeting in Geneva for a key summit that could determine Afghanistan’s financial future, as aid groups warn of funding cuts and soaring humanitarian needs.

The 23-24 November pledging conference, which is largely online, comes at a pivotal moment for aid-dependent Afghanistan. At the opening side-event on sustainable peacebuilding today, Afghanistan’s state minister of peace, Sayed Sadat Mansoor Naderi, stated: “This conference sends a message of solidarity to Afghanistan during a time of immense hardship.”

The country faces a second wave of Covid-19, warnings of widespread hunger in the coming winter months, political turmoil on home soil and abroad, and rising conflict violence – including a barrage of rockets that killed at least eight people and injured dozens in the capital, Kabul, on Saturday.

Here are some key issues:

Money: Funding pitfalls. Afghanistan’s pledging conferences take place every four years, but “donor fatigue” and a global aid system stretched by the coronavirus pandemic could see financial commitments fall short.

Afghanistan’s largest donor, the United States, has indicated it could make substantial cuts. Other major donors are stressing conditions to their contributions - some of which appear to be partially beyond the current government’s control, such as ensuring aid access and “a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire”. The government’s peace talks with the Taliban are underway, but violence continues.

“Now is not the time for international donors to be scaling down or stepping back,” Omar Waraich, Amnesty International’s head in South Asia, said in a statement.

Afghanistan depends on donors to fund at least half its annual budget, and this is unlikely to change for the foreseeable future. The World Bank projects the economy could contract by between 5.5 and 7.4 per cent this year due to the coronavirus - sending poverty rates soaring and squeezing the budget further.

In a March analysis, the United States Institute of Peace called funding a “critical ingredient” for Afghanistan’s stability: “Not having a strong public finance foundation might well undercut the government’s credibility, as well as reducing its capability to govern and manage its activities during what is sure to be a long, hard peace process.”

Politics: Peace talks and troop withdrawals. There’s political uncertainty within Afghanistan and on the world stage, which drives volatility on the battlefield.

Taliban peace talks started in September, but conflict continues to simmer, including ongoing fighting that shuttered health clinics and displaced 35,000 civilians in the Taliban southern heartland in Helmand Province in October, and reportedly 16,000 in Kandahar.

The continuing violence, described as “intolerably high” by Norway’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ine Eriksen Søreide, at the conference’s side-event on sustainable peacebuilding today, threatens gains made over the last 20 years. Despite this, Rula Ghani, Afghanistan’s first lady, said: “A sustainable peace is possible and we will do our utmost to achieve it.”

As the Taliban ramps up its first major offensive since the peace talks began, US President Donald Trump has said he will accelerate troop withdrawals - beyond levels agreed to in February’s US-Taliban agreement, which paved the way for the current Afghan-led negotiations.

Civil society: A greater role for women. Rights groups and humanitarian organisations say civil society must have a clear role in Afghanistan's future, and in any agreements to come out of Geneva this week.

This is particularly important for local women's groups working on peace and development. A statement by groups including the Kabul-based Equality for Peace and Democracy, which is scheduled to address this week's conference, said more women need to be at the negotiating table.

“Peace cannot come at the cost of women's rights and peace will not be successful if women are ignored in this conversation,” the groups said. There are four women on Afghanistan's 21-member peace negotiating team, but aid group CARE said women and girls are essentially “excluded from meaningful participation” in the peace process. CARE is calling on donors to make women's participation in negotiations “a requirement for any future financial assistance”.

A member of the peace negotiating team, Habiba Sarābi, told the conference on Monday that “we“ hold ourselves accountable to the whole of our society ”, and participation is key to this. The team regularly engages with “people of all walks of life…especially victims of war, minorities from across the country”, and women, she said.

There are fears that funding shortfalls could eat away at humanitarian programs for people displaced by conflict and disasters. This year, nearly one million Afghans were displaced or forced to return from abroad.

NGOs provide the bulk of humanitarian aid and supplement basic health services, especially in areas the government doesn't control. Local aid workers , and subcontracted local NGOs in particular, say bare-bones funding already forces them to take on greater risks.

The immediate future: Humanitarian worries. This week's summit aims to raise cash pledges for the next four years, but humanitarian concerns are building now.

Coronavirus ripples have drained Afghanistan's economy and raised food prices .

At least a third of the population faces crisis or emergency levels of hunger through March 2021, according to early warning projections, just as the country hurtles toward a second coronavirus wave .

“Many people have exhausted their savings and supplies. Their overriding concern is now surviving the meagre winter months, ” said Thomas ten Boer, who heads German NGO Welthungerhilfe in Afghanistan.

Conflict, climate, and disasters are compounding the food insecurity. The La Niña weather phenomenon could bring hotter, drier conditions to Afghanistan. The last severe drought in 2018 displaced more people than the war, and tens of thousands who fled then still haven't returned home.