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Afghanistan: ‘38 million people are suffering because a few hundred are in power’

A year after the Taliban took power, humanitarian needs are rising even as foreign aid has dried up.

An Afghan man rides a bicycle carrying Taliban flags through the streets of the capital, Kabul, on 2 September 2021. Stringer/REUTERS
An Afghan man rides a bicycle carrying Taliban flags through the streets of the capital, Kabul, on 2 September 2021.

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When the Taliban returned to power last August, it presented a conundrum to the rest of the world. Though Washington had signed a peace agreement with the group in February 2020, the Islamic Emirate — as the Taliban calls its government — was being led by several men on international terrorist lists, including some with multi-million-dollar bounties on their head.

Unable to recognise the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, the United States and other world powers quickly placed the country under sanctions. The US and Britain also refused to relinquish more than $9 billion in assets belonging to the Central Bank. Meanwhile, the international community cut back aid efforts, despite the fact that the former Western-backed Islamic Republic was highly dependent on foreign assistance to function.

These tactics – intended to put pressure on the Taliban, who continue to face accusations of rights abuses, retaliatory killings, and curbs on freedom of expression – have compounded a humanitarian crisis affecting tens of millions of Afghans.

During the former Islamic Republic, foreign aid grants funded 75 percent of public spending. Since the Taliban takeover in August 2021, the United States has provided $775 million in humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan, but the UN says at least $4.4 billion is needed to address the emergency needs of more than 24 million Afghans – 60 percent of the population.

Humanitarian workers say what funding is reaching the country isn’t arriving quickly enough.

“A lot of money has been committed, but it’s trickling down quite slowly,” said Samira Sayed Rahman, the Afghanistan-based communication and advocacy coordinator for the International Rescue Committee (IRC). “What’s happening right now is that 38 million people are suffering because a few hundred are in power.”

That suffering includes hunger driven by the fast-rising cost of food. The higher prices are the result of a perfect storm of declining currency values, high unemployment, and export restrictions on key products like wheat and sunflower oil due to the conflict in Ukraine.

According to the Red Cross, the price of cooking oil alone has surged by 55 percent over the last year. Wheat flour is up by 68 percent. 

This has led to a situation where 70 percent of Afghan households are unable to provide basic needs for their families, according to the World Bank. The UN says nearly 23 million people, including 3.2 million children, are at risk of malnutrition. That’s an increase of at least 100,000 children from early 2021.

Sayed Rahman said joblessness was a key factor driving up the rising number of Afghans in need of humanitarian assistance. “It’s starkly more in the urban communities, because that’s where unemployment is at its highest,” she noted.

This means families with little previous experience of poverty and shortages are also starting to seek food aid, even in the cities.

By October 2021, two months after the Taliban returned to power, at least 50,000 newly displaced people were living in Kabul. More than 700,000 Afghans were displaced by conflict in 2021. Thousands more are being pushed to the cities each year by drought and uncertain harvests.

“Right now, much of the Afghan healthcare system is being run by the goodwill of the Afghan doctors and nurses who are essentially working for free.”

As with other public services, healthcare in Afghanistan was also highly reliant on foreign aid. Hospitals have been heavily impacted by the sanctions and aid cutbacks, with thousands of healthcare workers across the country going without wages for months at a time.

“Right now, much of the Afghan healthcare system is being run by the goodwill of the Afghan doctors and nurses who are essentially working for free,” said Sayed Rahman, who has visited health centres in the south and southeast of the country in recent months. “But that’s not sustainable,” she said. “No one can continue to work without pay for this long.” 

In January, the World Health Organization was already warning that the healthcare system was “on the brink of collapse” and was in desperate need of additional funding from the World Bank, the European Commission, and USAID.

Afghanistan’s new poor

Increasing food prices have made the threat of hunger an ever-present danger even for many Afghans who a year ago had been leading relatively comfortable lives. More than one million people are out of work. Some children feel forced to do hard labour to make ends meet.

Naimatullah, 24, left his native Balkh province in late July to come to Kabul and work as a brickmaker. But the economic downturn has hit the construction industry hard. With fewer businesspeople erecting multi-storey premises and opening store fronts, Naimatullah told The New Humanitarian the demand for bricks is down compared to even a year ago.

“In the past, we relied on business-owners or richer families who wanted to build or remodel their homes, but no one has the money for new building nowadays,” he said.

With rising food costs and having to split his daily wages with the other brickmakers, Naimatullah is barely making enough to feed himself each day.

Workers from the former Western-backed government are also struggling. Those who are still trying to earn a living in the public sector say their wages have been slashed, with most making a fraction of what they once did.

“In the past, we relied on business-owners or richer families who wanted to build or remodel their homes, but no one has the money for new building nowadays.”

Taliban officials say the reduced government wages are due to funding shortfalls resulting from the sanctions and aid cutbacks.

Workers from two ministries in the provinces of Kabul and Logar told The New Humanitarian their incomes have been reduced by as much as 80 percent over the last year. The situation is even worse for women who used to work in the government.

Though female employees of the Ministries of Public Health, Education, and Interior have been allowed to return to work, thousands more women have been told to stay at home while also being paid a reduced salary. The Taliban has promised that female government workers will eventually be able to return to work, but no date has been announced.

Private businesses are also suffering. The owners of textile and publishing factories told The New Humanitarian many of their skilled workers have left for Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey. 

Nawab Niazi, the owner of a textile company in Kabul, said he’s finding it extremely difficult to replace dozens of workers who went abroad over the last year. To prepare for what new orders the business does get, they have to really rely on their older, longer-term employees.

“[We] have to train new workers as quickly as possible,” he said.

Due to the limited cash flow in Afghanistan, Niazi said his company now insists on at least 50 percent of payment up front.

“It’s made it difficult, because a lot of people that initially approach us can’t meet that threshold, so we lose some potential business,” he said. “But it also gives us a little more peace of mind because we know that the companies and organisations we’re dealing with now have enough money to pay us.” 

Even businesses catering to more well-to-do Afghans say they’ve had to cut their workers’ wages. The owner of two high-end restaurants in central Kabul told The New Humanitarian he was forced to reduce his workers’ salaries by 10 to 30 percent over the last year.

The decline in the value of the afghani has put staple foods out of reach of most Afghans. In January, it reached a record low of 105 against the US dollar, behind only the Turkish lira in terms of the worst performing currencies in the world. Currently, it’s between 89 and 91. In the days before the Taliban takeover, it hovered around 80.

And it’s not just the afghani’s value that’s suffering. For most of its history, the Afghan currency was printed outside the country, mostly in Europe. Even prior to the Taliban takeover, new notes hadn’t reached Afghanistan in months. But now Da Afghanistan Bank, the Central Bank, has been forced to recirculate old, damaged notes back into the economy. This reliance on worn-out notes has affected the nation’s money exchangers, who say they’re now facing difficulties trying to get banks to accept the damaged currency.

Edited by Andrew Gully.

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