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Winter Famine Averted in Afghanistan, UN Envoy Says

FILE - Recipients of free bread, distributed as part of a campaign to combat hunger, are pictured in front of a bakery in Kabul, Afghanistan, Jan. 18, 2022.

Donors and relief agencies have helped temporarily stave off mass starvation and famine in Afghanistan this winter by assisting about 20 million needy Afghans, but the country still faces bleak economic prospects.

“We believe as the winter season comes to an end that we have perhaps averted our worst fears of famine and widespread starvation,” Deborah Lyons, the U.N. secretary-general’s special representative and head of the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), told the Security Council on Wednesday.

Relief agencies had warned about mass starvation during the cold season, which lasts through March. The landlocked country plunged into a massive humanitarian crisis and its economy nearly collapsed after the Taliban took power in August 2021.

While donors have ceased all development aid to Afghanistan since August 2021, U.S. and other donors have continued providing financial aid to U.N. agencies and NGOs to assist the most vulnerable Afghans. On Tuesday, the World Bank announced it would provide more than $1 billion to U.N. agencies and international NGOs to mitigate humanitarian needs in Afghanistan.

“Let's be realistic. What we have done has been only to buy a little time,” Lyons said, adding that Afghanistan’s economy was facing a tipping point as businesses close, unemployment rises and more Afghans fall into poverty.

“It is imperative that we not find ourselves six months from now in the situation we faced six months ago, with millions of Afghans facing another winter of starvation and the only tool at our disposal being expensive and unsustainable humanitarian handouts,” she said.

U.N. agencies have appealed for $4.4 billion to provide essential aid to 22 million people in Afghanistan in 2022. As of this week, less than 13% of the appeal has been met, according to a U.N. financial tracking service.

FILE - A woman sits next to her baby, who is being treated for malnutrition at a Doctors Without Borders nutrition center in Herat, Afghanistan, Nov. 22, 2021.
FILE - A woman sits next to her baby, who is being treated for malnutrition at a Doctors Without Borders nutrition center in Herat, Afghanistan, Nov. 22, 2021.

Work with Taliban

Afghanistan needs a path to rebuild its economy and achieve financial stability to prevent future humanitarian crises, but such efforts are handicapped by economic and political sanctions on Taliban leaders and their de facto government, aid agencies say.

Humanitarian assistance funds are designed to bypass Taliban authorities. The sanctions are imposed on the Taliban for terrorism concerns and to force the de facto government to respect the rights of women and minorities and form an inclusive Afghan government.

No government has yet recognized the Taliban’s Islamic emirate.

“Let me make it clear that we do not believe that we can truly assist the Afghan people without working with the de facto authorities. This must be difficult for some to accept, but it is essential for the future,” the U.N. envoy said.

The U.N. has reported a marked drop in armed security incidents and civilian casualties of war in Afghanistan since the Taliban took power, but there are growing concerns about worsening human rights.

“We cannot say peace before justice,” Rina Amiri, U.S. special envoy for Afghan women, girls and human rights, said during an event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on Wednesday.

“Everything is interwoven in Afghanistan — the humanitarian situation, the political situation, the human rights situation. You will not achieve political stability without inclusion,” she added.

Calling on all the 15 members of the U.N. Security Council to renew a strong political mandate for UNAMA, Lyons said the world body was facing a critical moment in its relationship with Afghanistan.