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UN Aid Chief: Afghan Economy Needs Restart Before Year-End

An Afghan woman wearing a burka exits a small shop in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021.
An Afghan woman wearing a burka exits a small shop in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021.

U.N. humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths says Afghanistan needs flexible and sustained international funding before the end of this year to prevent the further collapse of the economy, and he will press the United States to help during meetings in Washington next week.

“What we have become very painfully aware of in recent weeks is that the freefall of the economy is much more violent, severe and urgent than we feared,” Griffiths told VOA recently. “We thought we would manage to survive the winter with pure humanitarian assistance. We now know it's not enough. We need more.”

Over the past two decades, Afghanistan’s economy has heavily depended on foreign aid to survive. Some 75% of the former government’s budget was donor-funded, as was 40% of its GDP.

Since the Taliban took over on Aug. 15, the suspension of most international aid has contributed to the breakdown in most basic services, including electricity, health services and education. Inflation is rampant, and the price of ordinary goods is beyond the reach of most Afghans.

Griffiths says there is a solution – a currency swap -- but it must be finalized and fast.

“We need to provide a facility to allow dollars outside the country to be exchanged for Afghanis, the local currency inside Afghanistan. We need that to be dependable, sustainable and to scale,” he told VOA.

The aid chief said currently the cash required to run the massive humanitarian operation is not available inside the country. The United Nations has appealed for $4.4 billion to assist 23 million Afghans next year – to deal with what has become its largest humanitarian crisis.

On Dec. 21, Griffiths plans to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington. He said his key message will be that the U.N. needs flexible funding which will not land in the hands of the Taliban.

“We also want to send the same message to Congress: that the people of Afghanistan need support, and that supporting them is not support to the Taliban, it's support to the people of Afghanistan. These are two different things,” the U.N. humanitarian chief said.

Griffiths emphasized that the Americans have been very active in granting humanitarian exemptions to their sanctions and pushing for them at the U.N. Security Council, which has its own sanctions on Taliban elements. But the exemptions have not been enough to improve the confidence of international banks and businessmen, who fear inadvertently violating them if they do business with Afghanistan.

“So, we need a system which does not breach sanctions, which is approved essentially by U.S. leadership to allow for the economy to restart,” he said.

In one positive step, the World Bank said Friday that donors have agreed to release $280 million from its Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund by the end of this month. The bank had paused disbursements after the Taliban takeover.

The U.N. children’s fund, UNICEF, will receive $100 million of the money for health services, while the rest will go to the World Food Program to assist 2.7 million people with food aid.

In many parts of the world where the United Nations carries out large humanitarian operations, insecurity is often a major obstacle. But since fighting has largely ended since mid-August, except for counter-terror operations against Islamic State Khorasan, access has opened up to areas that were once previously too dangerous to work in and to reach by both road and air.

“Humanitarian space – operational space -- has largely prospered under the Taliban,” Griffiths said.

And while the world waits to see if the Taliban will honor commitments to respect human rights, especially those of women and girls, Griffiths says they have “largely” kept pledges to allow humanitarian groups broad access and to carry out their work, including female aid workers, as they see fit.

Griffiths was the most senior international official to visit Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover, traveling there in early September to meet with the senior leadership to negotiate terms for the United Nations to continue its massive aid operation.