How can it be that, in these first weeks of 2022, the world is allowing millions of Afghan children to face death from starvation? And this after months during which the UN, a score of governments, the EU and the Arab League, not to mention US ex-army commanders, ambassadors and humanitarians, have been publicly pleading for immediate action to stop the cascade of Afghan lives lost to famine and malnutrition.
On Tuesday, Martin Griffiths and Filippo Grandi, UN humanitarian and refugee coordinators, once again begged countries to send food and urgent supplies. They announced the biggest humanitarian appeal mounted since 1945 for a single country, a $4.5bn request to help more than 23 million Afghans on the edge of starvation.
For the devastation the world was warned about months ago is no longer a distant prospect. “Let us eat” was the stark banner under which protesters demonstrated a few days ago in Kabul, as the guarantees of assistance made by world powers in August have melted into a trail of broken promises. Dawn in Afghanistan sees long queues of women and children outside bakeries for the one food staple still available – bread – and even that is in short supply due to a 40% drop in wheat production after the worst drought in decades. Griffiths forecasts that if we do not act, 97% of Afghans could soon be living below the poverty line. In other words, to be Afghan today is to be sentenced to dire poverty or destitution.
Aid workers are finding children huddled together under threadbare blankets in temporary camps and hovels or lying wrapped in their mothers’ burqas outside hospitals waiting for treatment that is simply not available. Until August, 30 million Afghans depended on World Bank-managed healthcare. Now, more than 90% of the country’s health clinics lack the funds to stay open. Only 11% of Afghans have had a Covid vaccine.
International aid workers are courageously doing their best to keep some food aid moving, some clinics functioning and some schools open for boys and girls. But their work is undercut and any progress is cancelled out by the withdrawal of the aid money that previously accounted for 43% of Afghanistan’s GDP and funded 75% of public expenditure, and by the freezing of banking transactions and trade with Afghanistan, with the result that there is little private cash circulating either.
This is the new world order revealed at its most selfish and morally defective: countries are locked into the narrow nationalism of “America first”, “Britain first”, “China first”, “Russia first”, “my tribe first”, and trapped in a geopolitics that puts military and economic sanctions before food for the hungry. Even after America’s $308m contribution on 12 January, the 35-country, US-led coalition that ruled Afghanistan for 20 years under the banner of helping the Afghan people has still put up only a quarter of the money that would allow UN humanitarians to stop children dying this winter.
This is not an isolated incident. Our liberal world order is proving itself neither liberal nor orderly. What has also been destroying thousands of lives in the past year is an equally counterproductive failure to vaccinate, test and provide treatments for poor people across the world, with the result that we have spawned new Covid variants, endangering us all. Now we are witnessing a similarly shameful and self-defeating failure to prevent famine. Our reluctance to act is not only a moral outrage but will have real-world consequences. These may take the form of mass migration to the west, rising production of heroin and the recruitment of terrorists who will claim that the world’s failure to act proves coexistence is impossible.
The UN security council has finally agreed to offer financial institutions and commercial actors legal assurances that they will not be in breach of sanctions if they engage with humanitarian organisations. It is an important step, but one that does not yet guarantee that enough help will come. So we must make a success of the $4.5bn humanitarian appeal and augment it with all of the $1.5bn held in trust at the World Bank for Afghanistan (currently only $280m has been released).
But even these initiatives amount to just 30p a day per person in Afghanistan for all their food, shelter, healthcare and schooling, and are no more than stopgap measures to get us through the winter. Humanitarian programmes alone cannot replace that 75% of public expenditure that until August came from aid agencies abroad, or substitute the networks of governmental provision built before the Taliban takeover that are now collapsing.
And so, we must find a way to ensure dollars can come into the country, or for local banks to issue a stable Afghan currency, so food and salaries for teachers and health workers can be paid. Nothing should detract from our condemnation of the regime’s repression, abuses of human rights and extrajudicial killings. It must receive no political recognition from any aid we give to the Afghan people. But on condition of demonstrable progress, for example, on women’s and girls’ rights and with aid going through the UN and NGOs, some economic sanctions could be relaxed. If the killings stop and there is a more inclusive government, some development assistance could begin.
The next step must be a UN-backed pledging conference, and I have written to both the UK foreign secretary and the EU president asking them to co-convene it. The Gulf states – Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates – have the money and have made offers to provide assistance, but they fear an American backlash. Realistically, it will require the US to break the logjam and end the cycle of starvation and death.
To turn our backs now on ordinary Afghans in their hour of greatest need would be the final insult: a badge of shame that the free world would carry for ever. Visiting Kabul a few days ago, a colleague at the organisation I chair, Education Cannot Wait, met a young girl pleading to go back to school. Her name was Arezou. It is the Dari word for wish, indeed for hope. And it is hope that we must offer her and a despairing Afghan people. Now.
Gordon Brown is the WHO ambassador for global health financing, and was UK prime minister from 2007 to 2010