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How a law change could soon allow Canadian aid to return to Afghanistan

The UN says the world’s largest humanitarian crisis is also the least well funded response globally.

A wideshot of a Taliban helicopter carrying aid above a crowd of people. It is landing in an earthquake affected area in Gayan, Afghanistan, June 23, 2022. Ali Khara/Reuters
A Taliban helicopter lands in Gayan district in eastern Paktika province carrying aid for survivors of an earthquake on 21 June 2022 that claimed more than 1,000 lives and left thousands of families homeless.

After a 20-month hiatus, an amendment to Canada’s anti-terrorism law could soon permit aid to flow once again from Ottawa to Kabul, as the UN says the world’s largest humanitarian crisis is also the least well funded response globally, at less than 5%.


Because Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban government is listed as a terrorist organisation, Canadian aid organisations and private citizens have effectively been barred from providing assistance to Afghans since the August 2021 Taliban takeover. 


For years, Canada ranked among the top 10 donors to Afghanistan, providing more than $3.9 billion from 2001 to August 2021. At least $179.7 million of that was humanitarian aid sent from 2014 to August 2021. In the final year of the Western occupation, Afghanistan was the second-largest recipient of Canada’s international aid. 


Two thirds of Afghans – some 28.3 million people – are expected to need humanitarian and protection assistance this year, and an estimated 95% of Afghans are going hungry. 


Conflict has abated since the withdrawal of US-led forces, but the economic implosion since has pushed millions more Afghans into poverty even as the country’s foreign reserves have been frozen and most international aid suspended. A multi-year drought, a brutally cold winter, massive earthquakes, and severe floods have only compounded the humanitarian crisis, which is now considered the largest in the world.


“Despite Afghanistan being world’s largest & most severe humanitarian crisis, the 2023 appeal has received less than 5% of its requirement, making it the lowest funded aid operation globally.”


Advocates of Bill C-41 – the criminal code amendment – consider it vital for Canada to reclaim its position as a key donor to Afghanistan as quickly as possible.


The bill was sent to parliament in early March and supporters are hopeful it will be addressed before the summer recess in June. If passed, it would allow Canadian organisations to apply for exemptions in order to provide Afghans with humanitarian aid.


Last month, the UN launched an appeal for $4.6 billion in additional assistance for tens of millions of people who remain in need across the country, but donor appetite is low given Taliban restrictions on Afghan women working for NGOs and pressing needs in other countries like Ukraine, Syria, and Türkiye.


“Despite Afghanistan being world’s largest & most severe humanitarian crisis, the 2023 appeal has received less than 5% of its requirement, making it the lowest funded aid operation globally,” the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, tweeted today, adding that millions risked missing out on lifesaving food and other assistance.


Reyhana Patel, director of communications and government relations for Islamic Relief Canada, told The New Humanitarian the amendment was a “positive first step” by Ottawa. 


Because it is an international organisation, Islamic Relief has been able to operate without issue, but the group has still been part of the lengthy campaign to push the government to modify the law.


Patel credits the proposed amendment to an increasing sentiment in Ottawa that the Canadian government must “do more and provide more funding” to Afghanistan.


The Islamic Emirate has been touting financial gains due to crackdowns on corruption and increasing trade, customs revenue, and tax collection, but Kabul is still facing an uphill economic battle. Much of the Taliban leadership remains under international sanctions and billions in Central Bank assets are still being kept frozen abroad.


Helping Afghan women and girls has become more costly

In accordance with its “Feminist International Assistance Policy”, Canada has prioritised help for women and girls. With the Taliban continuing to increase restrictions on them, including barring women NGO staffers, such funding is now more needed than ever.


However, the director of one Afghan nonprofit said Canadian NGOs looking to resume work should be aware of the added expense involved – the Taliban directives now mean added costs in terms of male guardians, special transportation for women, and a preference for women working from home.


“Countries like Canada keep talking about ‘feminist’ foreign policies, but they need to realise that working with women-led NGOs just costs more now,” the director, who asked for anonymity so as not to jeopardise sensitive talks with representatives of the international community and Islamic Emirate officials, told The New Humanitarian.


The director said this had led to male-run NGOs too often receiving contracts and partnerships with international donors simply because “they just cost less to operate” under the current conditions.


He said the amendment appears to fit into a broader trend of international donors recognising the importance of continuing their work despite the Taliban restrictions, recounting two recent meetings between NGOs and international donors – including Canada – during which donor representatives sought details on how difficult it was to operate in Afghanistan, what the security situation was like, and the status of women.


He said such questions were evidence that the international community is still interested in providing humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, but showed that they “want to be careful that the work they are funding does not compromise greater humanitarian values”.


The long road to aid restoration

When the Taliban arrived in Kabul and the leaders of the former Western-backed Islamic Republic fled in August 2021, Canada joined the rest of the world in immediately imposing a series of restrictions on their Islamic Emirate, including the suspension of direct aid to Afghanistan. 


Seeing the looming humanitarian crisis, both Washington and London quickly created provisions allowing their citizens to keep providing assistance to Afghanistan. For instance, last September, the United States and Ireland co-drafted a UN resolution that ensured food, medicine, and other humanitarian assistance would be exempt from UN and US sanctions.


“Under the current criminal code, NGOs operating in Afghanistan could technically break Canadian anti-terrorism laws simply by paying taxes, rent, airport fees, visas charges, and salaries in Afghanistan.”


That was followed by a series of Treasury Department licences in December that allowed humanitarian and commercial actors to provide assistance to Afghanistan without fear of running afoul of Washington’s embargoes.


Ottawa, however, has so far dragged its heels.


Under the current criminal code, NGOs operating in Afghanistan could technically break Canadian anti-terrorism laws simply by paying taxes, rent, airport fees, visas charges, and salaries in Afghanistan. Currently, Ottawa fears that at least some of the money it provides to an organisation could end up in the hands of the Islamic Emirate, which it still considers a terrorist group.


The passing of the amendment would allow for aid organisations to apply for exemptions, but the law change wouldn’t alter Canada’s stance on the Islamic Emirate itself.  


The amendment does not in any way “change the legality of providing material support for the purposes of facilitating a terrorist activity – this remains prohibited”, said Jordan MacInnis, director for domestic programmes at Journalists for Human Rights, an international media development organisation based in Canada.


The bill, she explained, simply allows individuals inside or outside Canada to apply for authorisation to “conduct certain charitable or humanitarian aid work even where they cannot be positive that the aid will not eventually end up being used by the terrorist group that controls the geographic area”.


Edited by Abby Seiff.

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