Speech at the Afghanistan Humanitarian Senior Officials Meeting
Speech at the Afghanistan Humanitarian Senior Officials Meeting
Speech / Asia 4 minutes

Speech at the Afghanistan Humanitarian Senior Officials Meeting

On 13 September, Crisis Group Asia Program Director Pierre Prakash spoke at the Afghanistan Humanitarian Senior Officials Meeting (SOM) at Brussels.

Thank you for the opportunity to address this important gathering today. I know that many of you have witnessed the situation firsthand and that you do not need reminding that Afghans are suffering through one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises. But perhaps I can offer a bit of context as to what is driving the current crisis.

It is worth remembering the panicked days immediately after the Taliban takeover two years ago, when we all feared that millions of Afghans would not survive the winter. The Afghan state was on the brink of collapse. International aid that had covered 75 per cent of government expenditures had disappeared overnight. Hundreds of thousands of civil servants weren’t being paid. Asset freezes disabled the central bank, and afghani banknotes lost 30 per cent of their value in a matter of months. The largest non-agricultural industry – that is, the business of war – had ended with the departure of the last international troops. Truckers, labourers, and countless others lost their jobs as gross domestic product shrank by more than 20 per cent that year. 

Many of you deserve credit for what happened next. While most of the world was shocked to see the Taliban back in power, major donors did not abandon the Afghan people. In 2022, billions of dollars arrived in humanitarian aid, and donors demonstrated flexibility by going beyond what is usually considered emergency relief in order to finance basic services, especially the healthcare system. The currency stabilised, and Afghans benefited from the most sweeping set of exemptions ever carved out of U.S. sanctions.

The chill of sanctions remains, of course. The central bank assets are still frozen, raising questions about whether Da Afghanistan Bank can maintain stability in the financial system in the coming years. But for the moment a very fragile equilibrium has emerged. The Afghan economy is not shrinking. Exports and government revenues have recovered, and government staff are receiving their salaries again.

International actors need to help Afghans through another withdrawal: your own departure.

But while humanitarian assistance helped millions of Afghans survive the pullout of international forces, the challenge now is different. International actors need to help Afghans through another withdrawal: your own departure. Because it is clear that the humanitarians are scaling down. We all know budgets are stretched globally, but the UN response in Afghanistan ranks among the worst-funded in 2023. The main reason for this is that many donors feel disappointed – understandably – by the Taliban’s refusal to compromise on their heterodox vision of religious and cultural purity, especially on gender issues. Most of the outside world is rightly appalled by the Taliban’s discrimination against women and girls, and they are reacting by cutting budgets. 

I am sorry to tell you that those circumstances will get worse, not better. Our research team on the ground has been warning for years that the Taliban are particularly stubborn. They survived two decades of raids and air strikes, and will not reverse their edicts because they fear a pullout of foreign aid workers.  

The result is that, more likely than not, humanitarians will do less and less, either because the donors cut funding or because the Taliban interfere with their operations. This will be painful because the needs are still enormous. It will be hard to explain to a girl in a village that her family no longer gets a ration of flour, oil, beans, and salt as a result of decisions by Western officials who want to defend her rights. Those of us who have worked in Afghanistan know that that girl will likely be the last in her family to eat. And that she risks becoming a child bride when the money runs out.

What can you do? I know you’ll be discussing the nexus later today, and I think the answer lies in great part in that discussion because at this point, donors need to pivot from humanitarian to development aid. This is not a traditional humanitarian crisis, in the sense that it was neither triggered by a natural disaster or by conflict. Rather, it is in large part political decisions in the aftermath of a conflict that have triggered the current crisis, and humanitarians alone are not equipped or sufficiently funded to address the needs that result from Afghanistan’s international isolation.

Donors should ... place greater emphasis on restoring essential services and promoting efforts to restart the economy.

Donors should, in particular, place greater emphasis on restoring essential services and promoting efforts to restart the economy. But realising this shift is not just about reallocating aid from short- to long-term projects. It requires talking to the Taliban, to make plans for a sustainable economic recovery that has buy-in from the de facto authorities. Japan and the European Union have set a good example by stationing officials in the country to restore day to day dialogue with Kabul. Others should follow suit, also so that aid workers spend less time on politically sensitive tasks and leave diplomacy in the hands of diplomats.  

Some donors will prefer to signal disapproval of the Taliban by limiting aid to the barest necessities, but the fact is that it has not worked – and these political restrictions on aid will get more self-defeating as the humanitarian funding dries up.

Nobody is proposing another state-building project in Afghanistan. But a limited degree of collaboration with the regime will be necessary to help Afghans survive the off-ramp of diminishing aid. Schools, hospitals, electrical grids, irrigation systems, and currency markets must continue to function if the world wants a relatively stable Afghanistan – and we should want a stable Afghanistan, for the sake of its own people of course, but also for the sake of regional and global security. 

Thank you, again, for the kind invitation.

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