UN raises millions in international aid for Afghanistan

Afghans help distribute relief supplies from USAID to families displaced by fighting between Afghan security forces and the Taliban in Kandahar, Afghanistan, July 2021. (Credit: Keystone/EPA/M. SADIQ)

The United Nations has raised millions of dollars in emergency aid for Afghanistan during a donor conference held in Geneva on Monday.

Addressing states at the opening of the conference, Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned that urgent funds were needed to support Afghans in “perhaps their most perilous hour” following the Taliban’s takeover last month.

“The people of Afghanistan need a lifeline,” Guterres told the conference. “After decades of war, suffering and insecurity, they face perhaps their most perilous hour. Now is the time for the international community to stand with them.”

Read also: UN rights boss warns of looming crisis in Afghanistan

A UN flash appeal called for $606 million to provide “vital relief” to 11 million Afghans in the country where 18.4 million people – half of the population – are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance.

Addressing reporters in Geneva before the conference concluded, Gutteres said the event had “fully met [his] expectations in relation to the solidarity with the people of Afghanistan”. Although he said it was difficult to specify the exact amount that had been raised for the flash appeal alone, over $1bn had been committed by participants, which he said represented “a quantum leap in relation to the financial commitment of the international community towards the Afghan people.”

In his opening statement, Guterres called the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan a "looming catastrophe" and said people there were in desperate need of support.

"Today one in three Afghans do not know where their next meal will come from, the poverty rate is spiralling and basic public services are close to collapse,” he warned. "Hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to flee their homes and at the same time, Afghanistan faces a severe drought – the second to hit the country in four years. Many people could run out of food by the end of this month just as winter approaches.”

Guterres also asked for help boosting humanitarian access to the country, safeguarding the rights of women and girls and ensuring funds would support Afghan livelihoods as well as lives, to “protect the development progress of the last decade”.

“The international community must find ways to make cash available to allow the Afghan economy to breathe – a total collapse would have devastating consequences to the people and risk [destabilising] the neighbouring countries with a massive outflow,” he said.

There have been concerns that UN and US sanctions could hold up the flow of aid into Afghanistan, with many NGOs worried that they could face fines from the US Treasury if they were seen to be supporting Taliban-affiliated organisations such as government ministries. The country's roughly $10bn in foreign assets, held abroad, are also frozen.

The US has so far been reluctant to provide funds to Afghanistan until it gets clearer commitments from the Taliban that it will uphold human rights, particularly the rights of women. However, the US ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, told the conference Washington was providing nearly $64m in new humanitarian assistance to the country.

"Let us commit today to meeting this urgent appeal for financial support, commit to standing by humanitarian workers as they do their all-important work, and to stepping up humanitarian action in Afghanistan so we can save the lives of Afghans in need," she said.

However, she warned “aid agencies cannot do their job unless the Taliban uphold their promises. All aid operations need to be independently monitored, reported upon and be secure”. Thomas-Greenfield added recent reports of the Taliban interfering with aid operations were “frightening, unacceptable and destabilising”.

Also addressing the conference, the new under-secretary for humanitarian affairs Martin Griffiths said the UN had just received written assurances from the Taliban on the safe passage and freedom of movement for humanitarian workers operating in the country.

Griffiths said he had also received assurances from the Afghan deputy prime minister Mullah Baradar that aid agencies would be able to operate independently of the government and would be free to employ women, following talks he held with the Taliban in Kabul last week.

The aid chief's announcement came soon after UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet criticized the Taliban's human rights record since their seizure of power in August, noting they had not fulfilled many of their commitments – including regarding the status of women.

However, addressing reporters in Geneva on Monday afternoon, Secretary General Guterres said the new written commitments made by the Taliban were “encouraging”, although “we will have to see what happens on the ground”.

Around one third of the total $ 606m sought by the UN would be used by the World Food Program, which found that 93 per cent of the 1600 Afghans it surveyed in August and September were not consuming sufficient food.

"It's now a race against time and the snow to deliver life-saving assistance to the Afghan people who need it most," WFP deputy regional director Anthea Webb told the conference.

The World Health Organization (WHO) would also benefit from the appeal, using funds to support health facilities in Afghanistan that are facing closure after the withdrawal of international aid from countries including the US.

Many traditional donors have been caught between wanting to provide aid for Afghans and wanting to keep pressure on the Taliban to respect human rights. However, many governments announced additional aid for Afghanistan during the conference, with Germany pledging a further $ 500m of aid and France $ 100m.

Denmark said it would provide an extra $ 38m and Norway $ 11.5m. Meanwhile, China has already provided $ 30m to the country, and neighbour Pakistan has sent food and medical supplies.