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UN: Afghanistan ‘on a countdown to catastrophe’ as millions face poverty

Internally displaced persons receive food aid distributed by the Turkish embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, 30 October 2021. The Taliban has said that the United Nations should help them in assisting nearly 3.5 million Afghans return to their homes after having been displaced inside the country due to violence. Keystone/EPA/STRINGER

Salima is a mother of five children living in a remote area of Kabul. After losing her husband two years ago, the responsibility to support the family fell on the shoulders of her eldest son, aged 13, who earns less than $2 a day. But now he is out of work, the family relies on the income of his 11-year-old brother, which is around $1 a day.

“My eldest son has been going to school in the morning and working as a butcher in the afternoon,” she tells Geneva Solutions by telephone from Kabul. “But he lost his job a month and a half ago. My second son is 11 years old and works as a peddler. He earns 100 - 150 Afghani [equivalent to $1-$1.56 per day.] With this money I can only provide some bread and onions or tomatoes for my children. It's been around a month since the last time I cooked.”

Gulmina is another mother living in Kabul. She used to work as a cleaner, but has not received her salary for the last four months. She is the only financial provider for her four children.

“I had to sell some of my home appliances to buy food for my children. Most nights, I give my children the small amount of food that we have, but I don't eat,” she told Geneva Solutions. “I have collected several pairs of old shoes and clothes. When the winter turns severe, I may be able to heat the room for a few days by burning them in the heater.”

Before the Taliban takeover in August, ongoing conflict, the Covid-19 pandemic and the impacts of climate change had already pushed millions of Afghans out of work and into poverty. But under the new regime, cash shortages, bank closures, rapid inflation and the non-payment of salaries have left millions more destitute.

In an open letter sent earlier this month, the Taliban foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi called on the United States Congress to unblock more than $9 billion in Afghan central bank assets and to end other financial sanctions against the country. Otherwise, he warned, the world would face a mass exodus of people forced to leave Afghanistan. “We are concerned that if the current situation prevails, the Afghan government and people will face problems and will become a cause for mass migration in the region and world,” wrote Muttaqi.

The United Nations has warned that Afghanistan is already on the brink of universal poverty, with 97 per cent of the country’s nearly 39 million population at risk of being plunged below the poverty line by mid-2022 due to the catastrophic deterioration of the country’s economy.

International funds which propped up the country’s heavily aid-dependent economy have been stopped since the Taliban takeover in August while the world debates how to deal with the regime. The Taliban spokesman has repeatedly called on the international community to release Afghanistan's allocated money, but to no avail.  Afghanistan's national budget for this year of about 473bn Afghani – the equivalent of around $4.9bn – was approved before the Taliban takeover, of which nearly half was due to be funded by foreign sources.

The World Bank said this week it was finalising a proposal to deliver $500m from a frozen Afghanistan aid fund to humanitarian agencies, but the plan reportedly leaves out tens of thousands of public sector workers and remains complicated by US sanctions.

The impact of the economic crisis has been catastrophic. Eighteen million people in Afghanistan are already in urgent need of humanitarian aid, with women and children hit the hardest by the crisis. Alongside destitution and the threat of violence, millions of Afghans are facing food scarcity and a lack of access to basic services as the country’s health system reaches breaking point, with the situation only predicted to deteriorate as winter takes hold.

“We are on a countdown to catastrophe as a humanitarian crisis of staggering proportions unfolds before our eyes,” Tomson Phiri, the World Food Program's global spokesperson, told Geneva Solutions. “We could see a major deterioration among the 8.7 million people facing emergency levels of food insecurity and 3.2 million children are suffering from malnutrition. ”

WFP's executive director David Beasley raised the alarm about the situation in Afghanistan after visiting the country earlier this month. “In Afghanistan alone, 23 million people are on the brink of starvation,” he tweeted. “When WFP doesn't have the money we need to feed them, we have to choose who eats and who doesn't.”

Beasley called on the international community and the world's biggest donors to step up to tackle severe hunger in the country.

WFP's Phiri told Geneva Solutions that the organization was asking for $ 2.6bn to support people in Afghanistan in 2022. “We need to reach 24 million people in 2022 and require $ 2.6bn to do this. The task is mammoth, but so is our determination, ”he said. “This winter, millions of Afghan people are counting on WFP for life-saving food. Without it, they will be forced to choose between migration and starvation. ”

In Afghanistan, over 12 million people have received assistance from WFP this year, which includes malnutrition treatment and prevention services. More than half of the assisted people were women and girls.

As the winter sets in and temperatures in Afghanistan drop, the situation facing millions of Afghans is dire. The UNDP has called for urgent measures to prevent the collapse of the country's ailing banking system, setting out a package of measures aimed at shoring up essential services and local livelihoods across the country.

It also warned that the dire financial situation in the country was preventing humanitarian organisations getting aid to people on the ground. “Without the banking sector, there's no humanitarian solution for Afghanistan,” the UNDP's representative in Afghanistan Abdallah Al Dardari told a press conference last week.