Aiding Afghanistan: a work in progress

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As the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan reaches catastrophic levels, do we need to re-assess whether current structures of foreign aid are working for its people?

The images that poured out of Afghanistan back in August sent many recoiling in shock. As people desperately clung onto the undercarriages of moving aeroplanes, assault-rifle-adorned Taliban paraded the streets of Kabul, and floods of distressed families fled to neighbouring countries, the rest of the world became painfully aware of the challenges facing the country.

It did not take long, though, for the streams of Instagram posts to #SaveAfghanistan and flurries of media reports to fade, and for most of us, our gaze had diverted elsewhere. Unfortunately for Afghans, on the other hand, the situation did not wane concurrent with such headlines, and instead the level of suffering has since only intensified.

Martin Griffiths, the UN Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator warned recently that “a full-blown humanitarian catastrophe looms” in Afghanistan. This warning also echoes the stark figures that 22 million (over half the country’s population) now face acute hunger. What is more, as Afghanistan battles through the bitterness of winter the plight is growing evermore bleak. The average daytime temperatures in Kabul hovering around zero and numbing snowfall across much of the country are certainly not welcomed by the 3.5 million living under flimsy, temporary shelters. 

The UN has already reported to the international community that $5bn of aid is necessary to diffuse the suffering of Afghans for the upcoming year alone

It is therefore unsurprising that calls for greater foreign humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan are mounting while suffering deepens. The UN has already reported to the international community that $5bn of aid is necessary to diffuse the suffering of Afghans for the upcoming year alone. Many aid organisations like the Red Cross are also similarly busy issuing crisis appeals, recognising that now an unfathomable number of lives hang in the balance.

These current pleas for aid are actually being raised in addition to various assistance the country is already receiving. The US remains the largest single national donor of aid, with the Biden administration already having pledged an initial $308m for the year, bringing its total to $727m since October.

The EU has also maintained significant contributions in attempts to address the situation, while various NGOs are managing to navigate the new political landscape and distribute some aid across the country. Aid is thus managing to make it into Afghanistan, but the sheer scale of poverty that persists proves that existing structures of aid-giving are woefully inadequate to the current situation. 

The solution, however, does not necessarily lie in simply increasing current levels of aid being sent into the country, and some question whether the pumping of millions has even helped at all. The potential for aid-corruption in areas of conflict is always huge – a challenge only amplified in the case of Afghanistan given the fact its ruling forces are outwardly highly hostile.

Even before the Taliban took power, foreign aid’s responsibility in causing corruption in the country was tenable. Despite billions in aid being poured in over past decades, Afghanistan still ranked a woeful 166 out of the 184 countries in the recent Corruption Perceptions Index. The 2010 Kabul Bank Scandal is also an obvious illustration of the danger that aid may fall into the wrong hands. The scandal saw hundreds of millions donated by various international bodies doled-out to corrupt Afghan elites, including $160m spent on 35 luxury villas in Dubai. The futile diversion of such aid would surely be even more excruciating now given the unprecedented misery so many face. 

Despite its obvious pitfalls, it simply would not be humane for foreign powers to further cut their aid budgets to Afghanistan

As always though, in times of extreme crisis the solutions to the situation must be weighed up in balance. Despite its obvious pitfalls, it simply would not be humane (nor economically advisable) for foreign powers to further cut their aid budgets to Afghanistan. The dangers do not lie within the premise of aid itself, but largely within the form in which it is given. The most constructive methods of aiding Afghanistan lie in the donation of non-monetary provisions, such as healthcare, housing, or food – all less appealing to the menacing hands of kleptocratic elites compared to hard cash.

Though it may seem ludicrous, there is also great need for foreign governments to cooperate with the Taliban to deliver aid. Whether it likes it or not, the West must recognise the Taliban now holds hegemony over the logistical operations within the country, and thus cannot expect the effective widescale distribution of aid without collaborating with those in charge. Though direct diplomacy is an unlikely resolution, potential lies in creating a council-like body of mutually trusted Afghans to intermediate discussion between the Taliban and outside bodies such as the UN.

Hope also still exists due to the various trusted institutions which remain prominent within Afghan circles of power. These groups survived the takeover as (despite being militant in many respects) the Taliban understands it lacks the knowledge, resources, and skills to effectively govern on its own. Emphasis should thus be placed on facilitating discussions surrounding aid with such established, reliable nodes of Afghan power, and we must carefully steer away from the dangerous rhetoric touted by some Western nations to cut all political ties related to the country.

Ultimately, the path of aid chosen by foreign powers will meet difficulties, and the sheer scale and complexity of the humanitarian, economic, and political crisis in Afghanistan cannot be underestimated. However, what is also clear is that the structures and methods chosen to deal with aid within the country are crucial to its success, and we cannot afford to lose sight of the potential to give genuine, constructive assistance to those now so desperately in need.

Image: U.S. Marine Corps photo by MCIPAC Combat Camera Lance Cpl. Hernan Vidana

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