The Afghan people are starving; turning your back on them is morally reprehensible | Gordon brown
HHow could it be that, in these first weeks of 2022, the world is allowing millions of Afghan children to starve to death? And this after months in which the UN, some 20 governments, the EU and the Arab League, not to mention former US military commanders, ambassadors and humanitarians, have publicly pleaded for immediate action to stop the cascade of Afghan lives lost to starvation and malnutrition.
On Tuesday, Martin Griffiths and Filippo Grandi, UN humanitarian and refugee coordinators, once again begged the countries send urgent food and supplies. They announced the largest humanitarian appeal mounted since 1945 for a single country, a request for $4.5 billion to help more than 23 million Afghans on the verge of starvation.
For the devastation the world was warned of months ago is no longer a distant prospect. “let us eatwas the austere banner under which protesters demonstrated days ago in Kabul, as guarantees of assistance made by world powers in August faded into a trail of broken promises. Dawn in Afghanistan sees long queues of women and children outside bakeries for the only staple food still available – bread – and even this is in short supply due to a 40% drop in wheat production after the worst drought in decades. Griffiths predicts that if we don’t act, 97% of Afghans may soon be living below the poverty line. In other words, to be Afghan today is to be condemned to extreme poverty or destitution.
Aid workers are finding children crammed under threadbare blankets in camps and temporary or lying slums wrapped in their mothers’ burkas outside hospitals awaiting treatment that is simply not available. Until August, 30 million Afghans depended on health care managed by the World Bank. Today, more than 90% of the country’s health centers lack of funds to stay open. Only 11% of Afghans have had a Covid vaccine.
International aid workers are bravely doing their best to keep food aid flowing, some clinics running and schools open for boys and girls. But their work is undermined and any progress is reversed by the withdrawal of aid money which previously counted for 43% of Afghanistan’s GDP and financed 75% of public expenditure, and by the freezing of banking and commercial transactions with Afghanistan, so that little private money is circulating either.
This is the new world order revealed in its most selfish and morally flawed form: countries are locked into the narrow nationalism of “America first”, “Britain first”, “China first”. ‘first’, ‘Russia first’, ‘my tribe first’, and trapped in a geopolitics that puts military and economic sanctions ahead of food for the hungry. Even after America’s $308 million contribution On January 12, the US-led coalition of 35 countries that ruled Afghanistan for 20 years under the banner of helping the Afghan people has yet donated just a quarter of the money that would allow the UN humanitarian agencies to prevent child deaths this winter.
This is not an isolated incident. Our liberal world order is neither liberal nor orderly. What has also destroyed thousands of lives over the past year is an equally counterproductive failure to vaccinate, test and provide treatment to the world’s poor, with the result that we have spawned new variants of Covid , putting us all at risk. Today we are witnessing an equally shameful and self-defeating failure to prevent starvation. Our reluctance to act is not only a moral outrage, but will have real-world consequences. These can take the form of mass westward migration, increased heroin production and the recruitment of terrorists who will claim that the world’s inaction proves that coexistence is impossible.
The UN Security Council has finally agreed to offer financial institutions and commercial actors legal assurances that they will not violate sanctions if they engage with humanitarian organizations. This is an important step, but still does not guarantee that enough help will come. We must therefore succeed in the $4.5 billion humanitarian appeal and augment it with the full $1.5 billion held in trust at the World Bank for Afghanistan (currently only $280 million is out).
But even these initiatives only amount to 30p per day per person in Afghanistan for all their food, shelter, healthcare and schooling, and are only stopgap measures to get us through the winter. Humanitarian programs alone cannot replace the 75% of government spending that until August came from overseas aid agencies, nor replace the government supply networks built before the takeover of the Taliban and which are now collapsing.
And so, we need to find a way to ensure that dollars can come into the country, or that local banks issue stable Afghan currency, so that food and teachers’ and health workers’ salaries can be paid for. Nothing should divert our condemnation of the regime’s repression, human rights violations and extrajudicial executions. He must receive no political recognition for the aid we give to the Afghan people. But provided there is demonstrable progress, for example on the rights of women and girls, and with help channeled through the UN and NGOs, some economic sanctions could be eased. If the killings stop and there is a more inclusive government, development aid could begin.
The next step must be a UN-backed donors’ conference, and I have written to both the UK Foreign Secretary and the EU President asking them to co-convene it. The Gulf states – Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates – have the money and have made offers of aid, but fear a US backlash. Realistically, it will require the United States to break the impasse and end the cycle of starvation and death.
Turning our backs now on ordinary Afghans at a time when they need them most would be the ultimate insult: a badge of shame that the free world would wear forever. Visiting Kabul a few days ago, a colleague from the organization I chair, Education Cannot Wait, met a young girl begging to go back to school. Her name was Arezou. It is the Dari word for wish, even for hope. And that is the hope we must offer him and a desperate Afghan people. Now.