U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged nations on Monday to show their solidarity with the people of Afghanistan and contribute hundreds of millions of dollars for an urgent and expansive humanitarian response in the country.
“The people of Afghanistan need a lifeline,” Guterres told nations gathered in Geneva.
“This conference is not simply about what we will give to the people of Afghanistan, it is about what we owe,” he added.
The U.N. is appealing for $606 million for the remainder of this year for food, health care, shelter and other vital needs to assist 11 million people.
Initial contributions were generous and exceeded $1 billion, but the U.N. chief said that a full tally of what pledges are specifically for the flash appeal and what is designated for other purposes was yet to come.
Guterres said that in addition to immediate funding, humanitarians need safe and unimpeded access across the country. He also appealed for the safeguarding of the rights of women and girls and the protection of people’s livelihoods in order to prevent a total collapse of the economy.
Marching to the Brink of Starvation
Afghanistan was already in a dire humanitarian situation before the Taliban swept into the capital, Kabul, on August 15, and took control of the government. Years of conflict, severe drought and COVID-19 have pushed the country to the brink.
The poverty rate is spiraling, public services are close to collapse, and the U.N. says many people could run out of food by the end of this month as prices climb and salaries and savings dry up. With winter approaching, humanitarians urgently need to preposition food and other supplies in areas where access will become difficult due to bad weather.
“Fourteen million people — one out of three — are marching to the brink of starvation,” World Food Program Executive Director David Beasley told the conference. “They don't know where their next meal is.”
He said that an additional 14 million people are a step behind them “knocking on that same door.”
“If we are not very careful, we could truly, truly enter into the abyss into catastrophic conditions — worse than what we see now,” Beasley warned.
The situation of children is especially grim.
“Nearly 10 million girls and boys depend on humanitarian assistance just to survive,” UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore told the meeting. “At least one million children will suffer from severe acute malnutrition this year and could die without treatment.”
The United Nations announced that it is releasing $20 million from its own emergency fund.
The U.N. also fears a growing displacement crisis in the country. There are already 3.5 million internally displaced persons — including a half a million people who have moved from their homes in recent months. Neighbors fear an exodus out of Afghanistan. The U.N. high commissioner for refugees landed in Kabul on Monday to assess the situation.
“I fear that the collapse of services and the economy — that has already been described as a risk — coupled perhaps with increased violence and tension could lead to a much greater displacement — internal and external — and this may happen very soon,” Filippo Grandi told the conference via a video link.
This morning I have landed in Kabul.— Filippo Grandi (@FilippoGrandi) September 13, 2021
During my visit I will assess the country’s acute humanitarian needs and the situation of 3.5 million displaced Afghans.
I am grateful to all UN, NGO and other humanitarian workers who are working hard on the ground to meet those needs. pic.twitter.com/8i8FDuVHoa
Despite an uncertain operating environment, humanitarian assistance is continuing and is being scaled up. On Sunday, the essential U.N.-run humanitarian air service, which moves aid workers and cargo — resumed flights from neighboring Islamabad, Pakistan into Kabul. Flights into Kandahar, Mazar-i-Sharif and Herat have been running since the end of August.
U.N. aid chief Martin Griffiths traveled to Kabul last week and met with Taliban leadership. He said they pledged to cooperate to ensure aid deliveries and protect humanitarian workers. On Monday, he read from a letter they subsequently sent him, laying out their assurances in writing.
“We assure you that we will remove previous and current impediments in front of your assistance and all related projects working under supervision of U.N. and other international organizations in Afghanistan, and all partners will be fully allowed to help the vulnerable people in Afghanistan in the current situation,” Griffiths quoted from the letter.
The letter included guarantees from the Taliban, reiterating their public commitments on the rights of women and minorities.
Griffiths said the Taliban asked for international support in reconstruction, countering narcotics, economic assistance, and in helping Afghans safely return home.
Some donors expressed skepticism about dealing with the new authorities in Kabul.
“We will not give aid directly to the Taliban, and therefore, it is going to be absolutely crucial that aid agencies are going to be able to operate securely and freely in Afghanistan,” British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told the meeting.
Members of the Taliban’s Haqqani network are designated as terrorists on U.N. sanctions lists, worrying humanitarians that many in the international community may not be eager to be perceived as dealing with or supporting the new government.
“The lives of millions of Afghan civilians are at stake, so any sanctions or counter-terrorism measures applied by member states must always exclude, exempt impartial humanitarian activities from their scope,” Griffiths reminded participants.