The future of aid delivery to Afghanistan; the role of Europe and the diaspora

By Keith Best

Speech to the Afghanistan & Central Asian Association’s conference in Brussels 9 October 2023

Dear friends asalaamalekum. May God go with all the people of Afghanistan. It is an important country as a geopolitical hub, has never truly been conquered by any other country, to which the fierce reputation of its fighters can attest, and needs help in progressing to the future which the current Taliban regime has so sadly interrupted.

Aid to Afghanistan is not just a matter of humanitarian concern; it is a matter of moral responsibility, international co-operation and strategic importance. Providing aid to Afghanistan has never been straightforward. The country’s unique blend of historical, political, and security challenges has made delivering humanitarian relief and development assistance an incredibly complex endeavour.

The country’s economy has been severely impacted by decades of conflict, and many Afghans struggle to meet their basic needs. This, in turn, has made it challenging to implement long-term development projects and foster self-sufficiency. Moreover, bureaucratic hurdles and corruption within the Afghan government have hindered the efficient allocation of aid resources. It is essential that aid funds reach their intended recipients and are not siphoned off by corrupt officials or diverted for other purposes.

Both UNHCR and UNICEF are appealing for funds for Afghanistan. The latterestimates that there are 29.2m people in need of humanitarian assistance with nearly 16m children in need requiring US$1.4 billion. These are big numbers. The country suffers from drought-like conditions, floods, insecurity, harsh winters, political and economic instability, and displacement, all of which pose serious risks. 64% of households are unable to meet their basic needs as vulnerable populations are pushed to the brink.Afghan women and girls face a worsening systematic rights crisis. Their exclusion from secondary and tertiary education, coupled with the ban on Afghan women from working with non-governmental organizations and the United Nations, has significantly increased protection risks for vulnerable women and children. UNICEF comments that the impacts will be felt for generations to come.

The Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI), of which one of the three Commissioners is my former Parliamentary colleague Sir Hugh Bayley, scrutinises UK aid spending. It operates independently of government and reports to Parliament through the House of Commons International Development Committee (IDC). Last year it published a country portfolio review assessing all UK aid to Afghanistan from 2014, when British troops ended their combat role in Helmand province, to the Taliban takeover in August 2021.

It states that there is no unified international strategy towards Afghanistan. While the international community continues to demonstrate unity in its response to specific crises in Afghanistan (such as the 2022 earthquake and the December 2022 and April 2023 edicts narrowing women’s rights), the volatility of the situation and increasingly repressive Taliban policies have prevented donors and the UN from defining key drivers of needs and articulating a clear pathway for sustained support. In a context such as Afghanistan, moving beyond providing humanitarian assistance towards building more durable domestic capabilities in the country’s economy and institutions would be a typical objective for donors and international agencies in order to avoid a protracted crisis.

European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations states that EU humanitarian aid focuses on food security, health care, nutritional support, rapid response to natural hazardsand education and protection assistance, among other areaswith a priority to provide life-saving assistance.The EU has funded humanitarian operations in Afghanistan since 1994, providing over €1.5 billion in humanitarian funding. Close to 20 million people – 45% of the Afghan population – suffer from hunger, and nearly 6 million survive on less than 1 meal per day.In 2022, the EU allocated more than €174 million in humanitarian support to aid organisations operating in Afghanistan and the region. This comes on top of €222 million in humanitarian funding in 2021.

More than5.7 million Afghans and host communities in 5 neighbouring countries are currently in need of support. Many of them have no means to earn a living. The World Food Programme (WFP) this week announced that, due to a “crippling funding crisis”, they have had to make further cuts to their food assistance across Afghanistan, resulting in a projected two million Afghan people now being unable to access the emergency support they so desperately need. As a result of the dwindling international funding for this humanitarian crisis, in 2023 the WFP has now been unable to deliver life-saving aid to a total of ten million people who were identified as in need of urgent food assistance at the beginning of the year. The UN’s humanitarian response plan for 2023, based on rigorous analysis which quantifies the need for lifesaving assistance in the country, set a funding goal of $3.23 billion, yet three quarters of the way through the year, only 26% of this amount has been raised.

Growing restrictions on women and girls also means that these funding gaps will affect the female population the hardest. Meanwhile, estimates indicate that close to 6.5 million Afghans still live as refugees in neighbouring Iran and Pakistan – many without registration or legal status.Pakistan has now ordered those without legal documentation to voluntarily leave the country by the beginning of November or face deportation. Although around one million Afghans in Pakistan are legally registered as refugees and a further 880,000 have legal status to remain it is estimated a further 1.7 million Afghans have been living in Pakistan without any documented status. Their return to Afghanistan would further exacerbate the crisis.

The current impasse between Western governments and the Taliban regime has to be overcome if the people of Afghanistan are to be saved. There is mistrust and allegations on both sides of breaches of the Doha Agreement.The Taliban point out that the United States has wilfully ignored former US president Donald Trump’s administration’s commitment to help rebuild Afghanistan after the US withdrawal and, for its part, the United States considers the presence of members of anti-Western organisations in Afghanistan, such as Al Qaeda, a key violation. It will take courage and a long-term strategic vision to get back to the negotiating table.

Sadly, after the debacle of its rapid departure almost akin to the panic of leaving Vietnamthe United States seems to have lost interest in the country even though it is now becoming of increasing relevance to China. We need a British Embassy again in Kabul and if that were done it might encourage others to follow suit. That does not have to imply support for the Taliban or their policies but would signify the desire to engage with and, if possible, to influence through dialogue rather than megaphone diplomacy.

It is welcome that in December last year the UN Security Council removed an obstacle to humanitarian work and adopted a resolution establishing a cross-cutting exception to existing – and future – UN financial sanctions for funds or assets necessary for humanitarian assistance and activities to meet basic human needs. This effort at multilateralism was in spite ofthe Russian invasion of Ukraine which has caused paralysis in other areas.

A further Security Council resolution added the expression ‘activities to meet basic human needs.’  These go beyond humanitarian assistance and have been interpreted as including activities necessary to sustain essential social services such as health and education, preserve essential community systems, and promote livelihoods and social cohesion.The UN Secretary-General has been asked to draft a report on unintended adverse humanitarian consequences of all types of restrictions in UN sanctions and to include recommendations for minimizing such unintended consequences, including by the adoption of additional cross-cutting exceptions. It is now time for other states and the EU to consider similar measures as exceptions to their financial sanctions. Europe can and must play a central role in this in the face of increasingly likely isolationism and lack of interest from the United States. It is in its own interests to do so – the current antipathy towards migrants and asylum seekers would be exacerbated enormously if more Afghans fled their land and came to Europe – as a nationality they already represent one of the five main asylum producing countries. The only chance the EU has of averting a further massive influx of refugees from Afghanistan is to act now to support the people in the country itself.

One commentator has given the stark assessment that “During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, much of the irrigation infrastructure in rural areas was destroyed. This made it more economical to grow drought-resistant and monetisable poppies — the plant that produces opium paste — than food staples. Afghanistan’s booming population slowly became more dependent on imported foodstuffs as a result. The collapse of Afghanistan’s economy after the US withdrawal in 2021 has led to the current food shortage. The shortage partly stems from the end of Western funding support, severe drought and the rise in wheat prices due to the Ukraine war. But damaging policies pursued by the Taliban on the one hand and the United States and its European allies on the other have also played a part.” He avers that the Taliban have taken measures to remedy the effects of food shortages. They reduced taxes on food imports by 50%. Their largely successful campaign to reduce opium production in Afghanistan has had the immediate benefit of forcing farmers to grow food crops instead. They have also implemented a programme to pay civil servants with wheat purchased from India and Pakistan.

The Royal United Services Institute has called for a new policy approach to financial engagement with Afghanistan and has produced a series of video interviews featuring experts, journalists, international and local NGOs and financial experts to provide policy recommendations tailored to the situation. A RUSI commentator claims that “Dialogue must inevitably involve the Taliban as de facto rulers, and incoming funds must be allowed to alleviate the country’s dire situation without the necessary close scrutiny and monitoring undermining the humanitarian objectives.”

In conclusion, we need a multi-faceted approach. First, after engagement with the government in Afghanistan, must be co-ordination. It is ironic that this was called for in a paper commissioned by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs back in 2002. All those independent agencies and the UN must work with the donor governments to ensure that essential supplies of food, medicines and resources necessary to avoid starvation and deal with a harsh winter are directed with priorities where and when they are required.

There must be enhanced security measures: international actors must work together to ensure the safety of aid workers and supply routes. This might involve negotiations with conflicting parties or the deployment of peacekeeping forces. Also, stronger accountability: aid organizations should prioritize transparency and accountability in their operations. Independent monitoring and evaluation mechanisms can help ensure that aid reaches the intended beneficiaries. There should be local capacity building which can enhance the sustainability of aid efforts and empower Afghans to take charge of their own development. There needs to be a long-term vision: aid efforts should be designed with a long-term objective, focusing not only on immediate relief but also on sustainable development projects that can help Afghans rebuild their lives.

Finally, as I have indicated, there must be engagement with all parties: diplomatic efforts must be made to engage with all stakeholders in Afghanistan, including the government, opposition groups, and civil society, to create an environment conducive to aid delivery.

As someone who has travelled widely in Afghanistan and love the country and its people I very much hope that the UK can be pre-eminent in that co-ordination role. The UK has a long and not altogether happy historic relationship with Afghanistan but now is the time for it to step up and show leadership. Civil society pressure on government will be needed and I hope that the creation of a representative Diaspora Forum of Afghans in the UK will do that and may be a model for such in other countries. I am mindful of the slogan from central European origin of “nothing about us without us.” The solution to Afghanistan’s humanitarian and constitutional issues must be with the full involvement and consent of the Afghan people and with respect for their wishes. It is time that once again Afghanistan takes centre stage.