Aid And Assistance In Afghanistan: Challenges And Look Ahead – Analysis
By Observer Research Foundation
By Shivam Shekhawat
n a controversial op-ed, the Interim Foreign Minister of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA), Mawlawi Amir Khan Muttaqi wrote in hyperbole about the transformation of Afghanistan under the Taliban. With the country now ruled by an “independent, powerful, united, central and responsible government” willing to positively engage with the international community, he urged the rest of the world to also ‘turn a new leaf’ and look towards the future. The new Emirate will now focus on extricating Afghanistan from its over-reliance on foreign aid through ‘Afghanising’ the country. Blatantly omitting any mention of the status and rights of women, he called on countries to assist Kabul in standing on its feet while respecting its independence.
Beyond this farcical utopia about how the situation in Afghanistan has changed exponentially, the condition on the ground has continued to deteriorate. The number of people in need has seen a steep jump from 9.4 million in January 2020 to 28.3 million in 2023, with more and more people in the urban areas also now relying on aid for subsistence.
While there has been a stabilisation of some economic indicators, with the year-on-year headline inflation dropping to 3.5 percent, increased availability of food and non-food items and an appreciation of Afghani against foreign currencies, it has clearly not translated into reprieve for the people. A drop in agriculture and construction activities has dampened the demand for both skilled and unskilled labourers, consequently affecting household incomes and the aggregate demand. The difficulties are compounded further by recurrent droughts and famines, a steadily increasing population and frequent cross-border returnees owing to the worsening situation in Pakistan and Iran.
While all the actors—the international community, aid organisations and the Taliban—recognise the indispensability of aid to the country’s survival, the constant back and forth on what a common and coordinated approach should be to navigate through the crisis, along with the Taliban’s intransigence on certain policy issues complicates the situation further. Understanding these differences in approach and interpretation is imperative to address the aid conundrum effectively, while ensuring that the Taliban do not use incoming foreign aid as a tool to strengthen their hold on power.
Funding shortfall: A case of donor fatigue?
The UN World Food Programme (UNWFP) recently made an urgent appeal for funds to be injected in Afghanistan. Warning about an additional 9 million people losing access to food aid in April, it revealed that the rations for around 4 million people were slashed by half in March because of lack of funds. It identified a gap of US$93 million for April and US$800 million for the subsequent six months and urged the donor countries to respond to the funding appeal made in the Humanitarian Response Plan, 2023 to stop the situation from escalating further. While attributing a single factor for this fall in funding is difficult, the policy decisions of the Taliban and how they choose to spend their revenue, apart from the vacillation in the international community about how best to respond to the group and its actions can explain the trend.
Taliban’s policy decisions on women’s participation in public spaces have a direct bearing on the functions of the NGOs and their ability to reach the last mile. Accounting for 30-40 percent of the total NGO workforce, women are indispensable in ensuring that the most vulnerable groups receive their share of aid and assistance. So, when it banned women from working in local and international NGOs, the aid programmes were severely hit with around 150 organisations halting their operations. While officials from the UN were successful in winning exemptions for critical sectors like education and health, it showed how the Taliban’s regressive policies have a knock-on effect on the disbursal and allocation of aid. As more women are robbed of their rights, fewer resources are now available for other vulnerable groups, resulting in scaling down in other sectors like WASH, etc.
Apprehensions about the aid reaching the intended population have also affected donor decisions. Recently, the legal advisor of the Afghanistan mission in Geneva accused the Emirate of interfering with aid deliveries by asking NGOs to register and provide information. Reports about funds diverted to the Taliban’s supporters or the group misusing the hawala system which has become important in the absence of formal banking channels have also surfaced. Even during the Republic, aid was used as a tool to aggrandise political capital, with distribution happening on the basis of political factors like ethnicity. The lack of a formal sustainable payment channel, with the Da Afghanistan Bank in limbo, capital control and confusion over what is permissible under the sanctions also dampens the ability of aid organisations to continue their funding as there is no one sustainable channel.
Even though revenue collection has increased under the Taliban, with the IEA collecting 173.9 Billion AFN (US$1.95 billion) in the last fiscal year (March 22, 2022-February 21, 2023), the expenditure patterns of the group do not reflect a positive trend, with a big slice of their budget being assigned to the security and its allied sectors and only 8 percent on developmental initiatives. Thus, the continuous flow of aid to Kabul may give the group the space to continue using its revenue collections on areas related to security while leaving human development and investment in socio-economic areas on external aid alone.
Trying to address the aid conundrum
The aid that a country receives is either humanitarian or developmental—humanitarian aid concerns itself with more critical, short-term crises whereas developmental aid is focused more on long term projects to help prevent a future crisis, focusing on reforming governance or building capacity. Since August 2021, the proportion of aid spent on developmental areas has reduced, with donors now looking at saving the most vulnerable. While in the short run, this aid is crucial, it isn’t necessarily addressing the underlying infirmities of the country.
The proportion of aid that Kabul has received over the years has been instrumental in shaping its economy and institutions. Owing to its strategic location, Afghanistan’s neighbours as well as countries outside the region have used the provision of aid to secure their strategic interests vis-à-vis other countries. These dynamics are also at play currently, with a rapid transition in ‘global geopolitical flashpoints’ giving more space to the Taliban to entrench their rule. Concluding his monologue, Muttaqi warned that a weakened Taliban would lead to new and unexpected security, refugee and economic challenges for the region and will not just be concentrated inside the country.
To adopt a common approach, the members of the UN Security Council (UNSC) unanimously passed two resolutions on Afghanistan on 16 March 2023. The first extended the mandate of the UNAMA by another year, i.e., till 17 March, 2024, whereas the second urged the Secretary General to conduct an assessment and come out with ‘forward looking recommendations’ for developing an integrated approach towards Afghanistan. While the success of the members to arrive at a consensus is in itself a reason to rejoice, reservations about their utility in ameliorating the situation still stand.
Mirroring the fault lines that now define the relationship between the countries of the West and Russia and China, the member states’ explanation of how they interpret what is it that will be ‘assessed’ or which factors should be given more importance differed significantly. While the US was initially reluctant to approve an assessment as it would signal an undermining of the mandate of the UNAMA, China and Russia wanted it to include broader questions of engagement with the Taliban, arguing that it should be highlighting the ‘true’ issues facing the country like the impact of a freeze on assets and the unilateral sanctions.
The biggest roadblock in forming a coherent approach is the question of who the ‘relevant stakeholders’ in Afghanistan are and whether they include the Taliban as a legitimate political actor in the country. Figuring out how to support the Afghan people without strengthening the Taliban has been the Gordian knot. With countries differing in their approaches, the possibility of the Emirate taking advantage of the divisions to solidify their brutal regime can’t be ruled out.
Moving forward, it will be interesting to see whether the countries are able to conduct a successful assessment and what possible recommendations it could highlight to address the problems of the nation. The trajectory of aid disbursement will also depend on the future policy directives of the regime and the spill over effect it will have on other aspects of life in the country. Calling it a ‘Catastrophe of Choice’, the Norwegian Refugee Council warned that the failure to address this year’s funding requirements will push next year’s demands to around US$ 10 million. To avoid such a situation, the donor countries need to respond to the humanitarian appeal and prepare a risk sharing approach with the NGOs.
*About the author: Shivam Shekhawat is a Research Assistant with ORF’s Strategic Studies Programme.
Source: This article was published by Observer Research Foundation