The United Nations chief said Thursday that nearly all Afghans don’t have enough to eat and some have resorted to “selling their children and their body parts” to get money for food.
Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ statement was part of a dramatic appeal Thursday from the world body and several rich countries that want to help beleaguered Afghans whose fate has worsened since the Taliban returned to power last year.
Guterres kicked off a virtual pledging conference led by the U.N.’s aid coordination office and backed by Britain, Germany, and Qatar, seeking to make inroads on its biggest-ever appeal for funds for a single country: $4.4 billion. It is a decidedly ambitious call when much of the world’s attention is on Russia’s war in Ukraine, and some wealthy nations have tried to squeeze the Taliban.
He called on the world to “spare” Afghans who have had their rights stripped — like many women and girls — after the ouster of the internationally-backed government last summer, prompting some rich countries to freeze nearly $9 billion in Afghan assets overseas so the Taliban can’t access them.
“Wealthy, powerful countries cannot ignore the consequences of their decisions on the most vulnerable,” Guterres said. “Some 95 percent of people do not have enough to eat, and 9 million people are at risk of famine,” he added, citing UNICEF estimates that over a million severely malnourished children “are on the verge of death without immediate action.”
“Without immediate action we face a starvation and malnutrition crisis in Afghanistan,” he said. “People are already selling their children and their body parts in order to feed their families.”
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said Britain will renew this year its 286 million pounds ($380 million) of support from 2021. Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock of Germany said her country had stepped up with 200 million euros ($220 million). Qatar said it had contributed $50 million in recent months, and pledged another $25 million for 2022.
Afghanistan is buckling beneath a debilitating humanitarian crisis and an economy in free fall. Some 23 million people face acute food insecurity, the U.N. says.
Aside from the freeze on funds, the situation for Afghans has grown worse amid the worst drought in years, and skyrocketing prices for food caused by fallout from Russia’s war in Ukraine, a key European breadbasket.
“Ukraine is of vital importance, but Afghanistan, you know, calls to our soul for commitment and loyalty,” said Martin Griffiths, who heads the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, ahead of Thursday’s pledge drive. “In simple terms, the humanitarian program that we are appealing for is to save lives.”
The appeal for funds is three times what the agency sought for Afghanistan a year earlier, a request that was exceeded once donors saw the needs that would have to be met after the Taliban takeover.
“I have no doubt that we will not achieve the target of $4.4 billion tomorrow in pledges, but we will work on it,” Griffiths said.
Since a leadership meeting in the southern city of Kandahar in early March, Taliban hardliners have issued repressive edicts almost daily, harkening to their harsh rule of the late 1990s, further alienating a wary international community and infuriating many Afghans.
The edicts include a ban on women flying alone; a ban on women in parks on certain days; a requirement that male workers wear a beard and the traditional turban. International media broadcasts like the BBC’s Persian and Pashto services have been banned and foreign TV series have been taken off the air.
A last-minute ban on girls returning to school after the sixth grade shocked the international community and many Afghans. In schools across the country, girls returned to classrooms on March 23 — the first day of the new Afghan school year — only to be sent home.
“It broke my — I guess it broke everybody’s heart — to see the images of these girls crying in front of their closed schools,” Baerbock said. “We urgently call upon the Taliban to grant equal access to education everywhere in the country.”
“The plight of girls is a dark illustration of the suffering of the Afghan people,” she added.
Many donor countries are seeking to help beleaguered Afghans while largely shunning the Taliban — but the aid agency suggested that political and economic engagement from abroad should return one day, too.
“It’s very important for the international community to engage with the Taliban over time on issues beyond the humanitarian,” said Griffiths. “The humanitarian assistance is no replacement for other forms of engagement.”