Washington/ Kabul: The head of the United Nations has said that Afghanistan needs $4.4bn to avoid a food crisis in the country, as he launched the UN aid office’s biggest-ever funding drive for a single country.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Thursday that some Afghans have resorted to “selling their children and their body parts” to get money for food and that nearly all Afghans do not have enough food to eat.
Guterres’s statement was part of a dramatic appeal from the world body to help beleaguered Afghans, whose fate has worsened since the Taliban returned to power last year.
Guterres kicked off a virtual pledging conference backed by the United Kingdom, Germany and Qatar, seeking to make progress toward the $4.4bn goal.
The number is ambitious, especially as much of the world’s attention is on Russia’s war in Ukraine, and some wealthy nations have frozen nearly $9bn in Afghan assets overseas so the Taliban cannot access them.
In recent weeks, senior UN officials have made visits to Afghanistan, even meeting top Taliban officials to assure them that the country has not been forgotten. With Afghanistan buckling beneath a debilitating humanitarian crisis and an economy in free fall, some 23 million people face acute food insecurity, according to the UN.
Guterres called on the world to “spare” Afghans who have had their rights stripped – like many women and girls – after the Taliban’s overthrow of the country’s internationally-backed government last August.
Rich nations have tried to put a financial squeeze on the Taliban in hopes of spurring desired reforms.
“Wealthy, powerful countries cannot ignore the consequences of their decisions on the most vulnerable,” Guterres said. “Some 95 per cent of people do not have enough to eat, and nine million people are at risk of famine,” he added, citing UNICEF estimated that more than a million severely malnourished children “are on the verge of death without immediate action”.
“Without immediate action, we face a starvation and malnutrition crisis in Afghanistan,” he said. “People are already selling their children and their body parts in order to feed their families.”
In many parts of rural Afghanistan and among the country’s poorest, girls are often married off at puberty, sometimes earlier, and their families receive a dowry. Aid groups have documented a few cases of children being sold by desperate parents, but such practices are not believed to be widespread.
As the UN worked to secure pledges, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said the UK will renew this year its $380m of support from 2021. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said her country had stepped up with $220m, while Qatar said it had contributed $50m in recent months, and pledged another $25m for 2022.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, said the US had announced nearly $204m in new humanitarian assistance funding to help Afghans.
“This humanitarian aid, like all aid from the United States, will go directly to NGOs and the United Nations,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “The Taliban will not control our humanitarian funding.”
In total, donor countries have so far pledged $2.4bn, just over half Guterres’ request at the conference.
The amount of Thursday’s appeal for funds is three times what the UN aid agency sought for Afghanistan a year ago, a request that was exceeded once donors saw the needs that would have to be met after the Taliban takeover.
Since a leadership meeting in the southern city of Kandahar in early March, Taliban hardliners have issued repressive edicts almost daily, harkening to their harsh rule of the late 1990s. The edicts have further alienated a wary international community and infuriated many Afghans.
The decrees include a ban on women flying alone; a ban on women in parks on certain days; and a requirement that male workers wear a beard and the traditional turban. International media broadcasts like the BBC’s Persian and Pashto services have been banned, and foreign TV series have been taken off the air.
A surprising last-minute ban on girls returning to school after the sixth grade shocked the international community and many Afghans. In schools across the country, girls returned to classrooms on March 23, the first day of the new Afghan school year, only to be sent home.
Many donor countries are seeking to help beleaguered Afghans while largely shunning the Taliban, but the UN agency suggested that political and economic engagement from abroad should return one day, too.
“It’s very important for the international community to engage with the Taliban overtime on issues beyond the humanitarian,” said the UN’s relief chief, Martin Griffiths. “The humanitarian assistance is no replacement for other forms of engagement.”