By Akmal Dawi
More than 10 months after the United Nations launched its largest ever single-country appeal to mitigate the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, less than half of the appeal has been funded, with Muslim governments conspicuously missing on the list of major donors.
“Afghanistan is facing a harsh winter,” Tomas Niklasson, European Union special envoy for Afghanistan, warned in a Twitter thread after his visit to Afghanistan in early October. “I urge China, Russia and the OIC [Organization of Islamic Cooperation] to follow the example of the U.K., the U.S., the EU and others by significantly stepping up humanitarian assistance.”
While it has been one of the poorest countries in the world for decades, Afghanistan has fallen deeper into poverty since the country’s U.S.-backed government collapsed last year and the de facto Taliban regime was met with crippling international economic sanctions.
Nearly all Afghans now live below the poverty line, according to the U.N.
“There has certainly been a lot of competition over humanitarian resources in the last year, with the war in Ukraine taking a lot of attention and finances from the West. There is some concern that Afghanistan will become a neglected crisis in the future,” Neil Turner, director of the Norwegian Refugee Council in Afghanistan, told VOA.
Last week, Saudi Arabia announced it was giving $400 million in humanitarian aid to Ukraine. The announcement, while welcomed by aid agencies, stands in contrast with the $11 million the oil-rich Muslim kingdom has pledged in humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan this year.
Other relatively wealthy Muslim countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Turkey are also either absent or lagging in the list of donors to the Afghanistan humanitarian appeal.
So far this year, the UAE has given more than $309 million in response to U.N. humanitarian appeals in 23 countries, of which $171 is to Ethiopia and only $1.9 million to Afghanistan.
Qatar, which has one of the highest GDP per capita rates in the world, has given less than $1 million to the U.N. global humanitarian appeals system in 2022, of which about $500,000 was for Cameroon.
In December 2021, foreign ministers attending an OIC conference in Islamabad agreed to set up a special humanitarian trust fund at the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) in response to the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.
In August, the IsDB announced giving $525,000 to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to spend on immediate humanitarian activities in Afghanistan.
Spokespersons at both the OIC and the IsDB did not respond to queries about what additional funding the trust fund has delivered since August.
Several calls and emails from VOA to the embassies of Saudi Arabia and the UAE received no reply.
Donors’ geopolitical interests
“Most humanitarian response plans and appeals are underfunded,” Maryam Z. Deloffre, an associate professor of international affairs at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, told VOA.
The $4.29 billion humanitarian appeal for Ukraine, second only to that for Afghanistan by about $200 million, has received 68% of the required funding.
The Afghanistan appeal has a 55% funding gap in which a lack of major contributions from Muslim donors is noticeable.
“Geopolitically, Saudi Arabia, since 9/11, has cut off ties with the Taliban, has accused them of defaming Islam and harboring terrorists … so there’s some concerns of running afoul of U.N. sanctions, U.S. sanctions, U.S. laws,” Deloffre said.
While imposing sanctions on Taliban leaders and institutions, the United States has offered waivers for humanitarian funding for the Afghan people. The U.S. and some other countries have also frozen about $9 billion of Afghanistan central bank assets on the premise that de facto Taliban rulers might use the money to sponsor terrorism.
There is also some criticism of the U.N.-led humanitarian response system for not categorizing the most urgent needs where more funding should be channeled.
“We have a system which is a bit like having the beggars lining up outside the door of the mosque and the worshipper goes in and can choose which beggar he or she will give a coin to, thinking one beggar is more worthy than others,” Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University, told VOA.
The U.N. system, de Waal said, has traditionally been funded mostly by Western donors while Muslim donors have acted selectively.
“It’s entirely a transaction that depends upon the whim of the donor,” he said.
Skepticism of the U.N.-led aid system is not limited to majority-Muslim countries that have no permanent seat at the Security Council. Powerful countries China and Russia, both permanent members of the Security Council, have also criticized the U.N. system as ineffective and manipulated.
“Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States are generally wary of the U.N.-led system. There is a perception that the U.N. and international nongovernmental organizations are more interested in organizational survival than helping. There’s also a perception that most of the funds go to staff costs and consultants who are from Western countries rather than to local economies,” Deloffre said.
For almost two decades, development and humanitarian activities in Afghanistan have been bankrolled mostly by the U.S. and European countries.
“As the war in Ukraine continues and other humanitarian crises evolve across the globe, we may find donors less and less willing to commit funding to Afghanistan, particularly in the backdrop of domestic economic crises amongst many long-standing donors,” said the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Turner.
For the estimated 1.8 billion Muslims in the world, Afghanistan is not the only humanitarian emergency in need of assistance. From Yemen to Syria to Somalia, many majority Muslim countries face natural and/or human-caused disasters requiring urgent humanitarian responses.
The U.N. and other international aid organizations are more effective in asking for funds in the Western countries than in countries where the civil society is restricted or controlled by the state, according to Jens Rudbeck, a professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs.
“It’s easier for Western countries to provide funds because they already have organizational infrastructure in place, so they can direct the money into that,” Rudbeck told VOA, adding that despite the existence of some international Islamic relief organizations, their funding and infrastructural resources are limited.
The shortage of funding in response to the needs in Afghanistan is likely to compound human suffering there. Out of desperation, some Afghans have reportedly sold their organs and even their children.