Day 6

Afghans urgently need financial aid to survive winter, says longtime humanitarian

Much of Afghanistan's international aid was cut off in mid-August when the Taliban took hold of the country. Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, warns of dire consequences if aid doesn't flow into the country immediately.

Jan Egeland warns of dire consequences as many Afghans struggle to pay for food, shelter amid economic crisis

Afghans wait in front of a bank as they try to withdraw money in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sept. 12, 2021. (Bernat Armangue/The Associated Press)

Without an immediate infusion of financial aid to Afghanistan, long-time humanitarian and refugee advocate Jan Egeland says there could be "no bottom to this socioeconomic collapse" in the country.

"We don't have weeks. We have days to avoid this catastrophic collapse," said Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Much of Afghanistan's international aid was cut off in mid-August when the Taliban took hold of the country. Without aid flowing in, and little domestic currency in circulation, many Afghans are struggling to buy food and pay for shelter amid a growing economic crisis.

UNICEF said last month it estimates one million children could die from malnutrition if immediate action isn't taken. 

The European Union pledged a total of €1 billion ($1.43 billion Cdn) in aid earlier this month. On Thursday, the UN announced it set up a trust fund to provide urgently needed funds directly to Afghans. 

Egeland visited Afghanistan earlier this month. He tells Day 6 host Peter Armstrong without immediate support, the situation Afghans are facing is dire. 

Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, says that the international community has days, not weeks, to provide financial aid to Afghanistan and prevent an economic collapse. (Martial Trezzini/Keystone/The Associated Press)

Here is part of that conversation.

What struck you most about what is happening there now?

What struck me the most is this free fall that the civilian population now is in. I've been there many times before. There has been war, violence, disasters, horrors there — always. But this time, there is no bottom to this socioeconomic collapse around the civilian population.

So when I sat down with women in the displacement camps around Kabul — and these are women who fled with the children, many of them are widows — they basically say we are going to starve and freeze to death this winter unless there is some income, unless there is a resumption of aid, because at the moment there is nothing.

Humanitarian and economic disasters often go hand in hand, but this one is particularly acute. I wonder if you could tell us what changes you saw since the so-called end of the war and the takeover by the Taliban?

What really happened this summer is that from May until the Taliban took over in August, the public sector really stopped functioning. And now, with the Taliban in power, there is no economy.

Seventy percent or so of the public sector — which is teachers, nurses, doctors, garbage collectors, water engineers — had their last salary in May. The aid groups, we cannot pay our own staff. There are no functioning banks. You cannot transfer money to Afghanistan.

So really, the NATO countries, including Canada, that left must realize it's the same civilian population, it's the same women and children. There has to be a resumption of these public services. The World Bank money, which was dedicated for all of these people that were keeping public services alive, needs to be paid directly to the people. Nothing through the Taliban.

It can be done directly through the UN and through other organizations, and we need money to help people survive the winter.

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The EU has pledged one billion euros saying that money is meant to "avert a major humanitarian socioeconomic collapse." And a billion euros sounds like a lot. Is it even remotely enough?

I think [Afghanistan needs] more money than that. Remember, the NATO countries spent trillions of dollars over those 20 years. There was no end to what politicians were willing to give to the military political project.

I hope they will be able to give billions to keep the civilian population alive, even though the enemy took power and everything went in the direction that nobody expected. But the realities are these people are in power, and the same civilian population is now suffering beyond belief.

The World Bank has frozen its spending on health care [aid for Afghanistan]. The U.S. government has frozen Afghanistan's access to its own central bank reserves that are being held in American banks. The idea there is they don't want the Taliban accessing the money, which you can understand.

But the result is that health-care workers aren't getting paid. People are going hungry. How do you get out of that trap?

I came out of Afghanistan committed to listen to the women that I met on the ground and who say our children would die this winter unless something happened. So I wrote a letter to the secretary general of the UN and to the World Bank president urging that they set up United Nations trust funds.

Funds sitting with the UN agencies in Afghanistan — UNICEF, World Health Organization, United Nations Development Fund and UNHCR and others — the list of the employees are there. The money from the World Bank then goes from Washington [D.C.] where it is sitting, to these trust funds and straight to the teacher so that she or he will resume teaching children, including girls, doctors and nurses and so on, will be paid.

An Afghan child holds a banner during a demonstration organised by the Afghan Society of Muslim Youth, demanding the release of frozen international money in Kabul on Sept. 24, 2021. (Bernat Armangue/The Associated Press)

Let's also remember, really, that Canada and Norway are sitting on the World Bank board and have the voice in Washington, so we can urge them to take the lead in lifting sanctions on financial transfers so aid work can resume, humanitarian work can resume.

For anyone trying to make life even a little bit better in Afghanistan, the key question is balancing getting help to people who need it without feeling like we're aiding and abetting the Taliban. How do you strike that balance?

In very many donor capitals, the politicians and the bureaucrats [are] sitting on the fence now and saying, "Oh, we have to wait because we must not do the mistake of in any way legitimizing the new leadership nor giving them any tools for what could become repression."

[The] answer back to that is if there is zero funding, if there is zero money, if there is zero financial transfers, if there is no employment, if we cannot buy anything, there will be a free fall with no end. And they will have the fingerprints all over that.

No money will go to Taliban. I'm pretty sure we can really guarantee that and we will be monitored and evaluated every corner from now on.


Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Pedro Sanchez. This Q&A was edited for length and clarity.

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