Of all people around the world currently living under the shadow of imminent famine, Afghanistan is home to one eighth of them. Today, half the country’s population is hungry, and one in every six is at immediate risk of famine.
This time last year, Afghanistan was making headlines around the world. Chaotic airport scenes of people attempting to leave the country were on our television screens and newspaper front pages. The world watched as the international community abandoned Afghanistan and its people.
Twelve months on, coverage has largely fallen away, with just minimal and sporadic media attention to the recent earthquakes in the southeast of the country and deadly bombings in Kabul.
The massive food crisis in Afghanistan, worsening in the midst of spiralling economic crisis, gets little attention. Almost 20 million people are acutely food insecure, with six million people just one step away from that extreme phase of hunger we call famine.
The worst drought that the country has faced in decades – now in its second year – is resulting in below-average harvests. In June, the country entered into the World Food Programme’s list of ‘hunger hotspots’, signalling the severity of the food insecurity crisis.
In spite of rich capacities and determination, communities depend on humanitarian support as they suffer a combination of natural disasters, political upheaval, climate impacts, degradation of the environment, cycles of conflict and displacement and chronic poverty.
Afghanistan has also been hit by the Ukraine conflict with the availability and costs of food, fuel, and fertiliser being impacted. The needs are great and growing and, while humanitarian agencies are constantly increasing assistance, longer-term investment in development is urgently required to prevent economic and societal collapse.
The situation in the north east of the country is increasingly dire. Struggling to maintain livelihoods or access education, families in the provinces of Takhar and Badakhshan are losing hope. As children can no longer attend school, and women are mostly prevented from working, family incomes have plummeted as prices rocket.
Farmers are incurring severe debt in order to plant crops. They are selling their farms and families are selling their houses to buy basic supplies.
Groups of women can be seen huddled outside bakeries, begging for scraps of bread or whatever passers-by can spare them. Many are the sole providers for their families. Afghanistan has more widows per capita than any other country due to decades of conflict.
Concern staff members have witnessed parents at the end of their tether selling their children out of sheer desperation, just to put food on the table. The unrelenting hopelessness has led to an increase in suicide, particularly among men who can no longer provide for their families.
Humanitarian needs are outpacing the response, but humanitarian aid will never be the solution. The international community must act to save lives in the short term, but the country can only recover with long-term support to its development and economy.
The food crisis in Afghanistan is not a simple case of lack of food. Many people just do not have the cash they need to buy what food is available, whether because of widespread unemployment, unpaid salaries, or the suspension by donors and international financial institutions of development funding, which was a lifeline for many.
A critical issue is the ongoing liquidity crisis, due to a combination of factors, including the lack of availability of the national Afghani currency. Sanctions have slowed down or halted the transfer of funds through the banking system.
Even with humanitarian exemptions that allow aid to be delivered, banks and private sector companies are often reluctant to do business, for fear of falling foul of compliance requirements.
Billions of dollars’ worth of international financial and development aid has been suspended, with no concrete timeline for its release, meaning that humanitarian organisations must step in to fill the breach. The freezing of billions in assets belonging to the Da Afghanistan Bank has also had a devastating impact.
The financial stranglehold on the country is also affecting the humanitarian community. Non-governmental organisations have struggled to open bank accounts and make financial transfers.
All of this means that precious time and money is spent on solving administrative problems and less on serving the people who need assistance. All of this intensifies the strain on humanitarian workers, who are increasingly required to bridge the gap left by the cessation of development activities. This is simply not sustainable and the Afghan people are paying a heavy price.
Communities in Afghanistan and the people who aim to support them are struggling to maintain hope in a situation that is increasingly hopeless.
Donors and international financial institutions must urgently find appropriate means to solve the liquidity crisis, unfreeze Afghan assets, and ensure that sanctions do not prevent assistance from reaching the people who need it.
One year on, it is shameful that solutions have not been found. Greater urgency is needed to resolve this crisis.
The lives, livelihoods, and wellbeing of millions of Afghan people depend on it.
Graham Davison is the Afghanistan Country Director for Concern Worldwide. To learn more about Concern’s work visit www.concern.net