FFIRST THE the children have lost their bedridden father. Then they lost their grief-stricken mother. Then they were left to fend for themselves in western Kabul. Normally, their fate would have been tragic. In today’s Afghanistan, where more than half of the population goes without food, it was deadly. Neighbors said they helped with bread and water where they could, but it was not enough. Earlier this month, all eight children starved to death. The youngest was less than two years old.
Afghanistan is on the brink of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, the UN said on October 25, even surpassing the misery in Syria and Yemen. A new report from UN Agencies estimate that some 23 million of the country’s 38 million people will not have enough food to make it through the winter unless aid is quickly increased.
The crisis has been a long time coming. Drought and war had already left many destitute. The fallout from covid-19 blockades has further weighed on household finances. Since the Taliban took control of the country in August, the economy has collapsed. The UN estimates that half the country was living on less than $ 1.90 a day when Kabul fell. By the middle of 2022, that number could reach 97%. “We have not seen this near universal level of poverty in any country in recent history,” said Kanni Wigaraja of the UN Development program October 21.
The immediate reason for the crisis is the loss of foreign aid, on which the Afghan economy previously depended. Before the Taliban took power, the country was receiving around $ 8.5 billion a year, or two-fifths of its GDP. Three-quarters of the government’s budget has been funded by foreign donors, including almost all of health and education. The central bank has also relied on regular injections of liquidity from abroad.
It all ended on August 15, when the previous government fled the country. Aid payments have been suspended and the country’s $ 9 billion in foreign exchange reserves have been frozen to prevent the Taliban from getting their hands on it. The government’s hefty wage bill, which included the salaries of 220,000 teachers, has since gone unpaid.
With no dollars shipped, the hard currency needed to buy foreign goods dried up. Fear of sanctions has in any case largely stopped transactions related to foreign trade. Foreign correspondent banks, which provide foreign exchange and money transfer assistance services, cut ties with Afghan banks. They fear punishment for dealing with the new regime, many of whose members are under UN punishments. The currency is in free fall; basic necessities are scarce; inflation is increasing.
Because much of the economy is informal, it’s hard to know exactly how badly things are going. Informal money transfers and the black market can be part of the pressure. Yet many people are apparently unable to afford even the bare essentials. Residents of Kabul have started selling their goods by the side of the road to buy food. The IMF estimates GDP could contract by 30% in the coming months.
There is little hope that things will improve anytime soon. The Taliban, who this month found the money to host a reception celebrating their suicide bombers, appear to have no other plan for dealing with the disaster than to blame foreigners. Afghanistan’s former donors, meanwhile, are turning their attention elsewhere. Despite promises made at a recent donor conference in Geneva, aid plans are only one-third funded. Moreover, says Robert Mardini, the boss of the Red Cross, “no humanitarian organization can replace the economy of a country”.
Attitudes towards the regime, which shows little sign of keeping its promises to form an inclusive government or respect women’s rights, are hardening. After letting the Taliban take over the country, Western leaders seem poised to watch its economic collapse from afar.■
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “The Next Crisis”