Brutal environmental conditions and an economy hit hard with sanctions has left Afghanistan’s people on the brink of famine.
Holly Rosenkrantz | USA TODAY
Afghanistan has faced grave hunger crises before. Two decades ago, people in the country were so hungry they resorted to eating wild grass.
But the situation in the country now is unprecedented.
Exacerbated by an unusually cold winter and the worst drought in decades, the economic upheaval that came with the Taliban takeover has left 95% of Afghans without enough food. Nine million people are at risk of starvation. Hospitals are full of premature and dying babies, some weighing less than two pounds. And a new class of urban people are hungry for the first time, as civil servants and teachers stand in line for food and cash assistance.
“Afghans are facing the toxic combination of a brutal winter, a frozen economy and famine risk,” said Amanda Catanzano, the International Rescue Committee’s acting vice president of policy and advocacy.
“With each month that goes by, more Afghans are forced to resort to the unimaginable to survive,” she said. “Parents are being forced to make decisions no one should have to consider, including selling off young daughters so they can buy food for the rest of their children.”
“It is catastrophic,” said Laila Haidari, a former restaurant owner in Kabul who is now working with girls on their education. “You can see malnutrition in the children everywhere. There are dozens and dozens of people standing in front of bakeries, just begging for help and begging for some basic bread. They line the roads.”
A shattered economy
When the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan, the U.S. and other countries halted international aid and froze Afghanistan’s assets – sending the country’s economy into a free fall.
Marzia lost her job washing clothes in people’s houses, and her husband lost his job in a bakery. With nine mouths to feed in her home – including four children and several other relatives – Marzia’s family often eats just one meal a day. The family has turned to donations from the International Rescue Committee to help them stay alive.
Marzia received 26,000 afghanis as part of the IRC’s winter cash program to help her prepare for the winter. (That equals about $294.)
USA TODAY is not using Marzia’s full name for safety reasons.
But it’s not enough to feed everyone, and there is not any money to buy extra food. With parents sick and sometimes unable to walk, it is hard to make the funds cover the barest of needs.
“There are so many challenges preparing food for our family,” she said in a phone interview from Kabul.
And when a finance executive in Kabul – also not named for his protection – went to visit some relatives recently, he found the young children in the family unable to talk. “They hadn’t eaten anything in 48 hours,” he said.
A record number of Afghans are going hungry
The number of people who don’t have enough to eat is the highest recorded in Afghanistan and the largest globally. Food prices have soared. Since June, the price of wheat flour jumped 53%, cooking oil rose 39% and sugar climbed 36%, according to the U.N.’s World Food Program. The country’s wheat harvest is expected to be as much as 25% below average this year, hurt by the drought and farmers abandoning their land in rural areas due to extreme weather conditions.
Heavy snow blankets the country, making it tough to gather wood daily to burn for cooking. Basic staples of nutrition – dairy, meat, green vegetables and fruit – are nearly impossible to obtain. People are skipping meals so they can save what food they do have for the family members who need it the most. Babies are particularly hard hit; 1 million children are in danger of dying from malnutrition.
“It is the speed, scale, and source of the crisis that is so extreme,” said Jacob Kurtzer, director and senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Humanitarian Agenda. “Previous hunger emergencies in Afghanistan and elsewhere have been the result of climate factors which are a slow onset, but you can see it coming.”
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Michael Kugelman, deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center, agrees.
“What makes Afghanistan’s situation so tragic is that its humanitarian crisis, as bad as it is, doesn’t represent the full extent of the problem,” he says. “Afghanistan has a broken economy that’s on the verge of collapse. The country is dangerously low on liquidity, there’s little money in the country, and not much relief is in sight because the international financial aid on which Afghanistan heavily depends has been reduced to a trickle, because of sanctions.
“This means that even if the humanitarian crisis abates, a bigger problem looms. And in fact so long as the liquidity problems aren’t addressed, the humanitarian situation won’t truly improve. In effect, food aid and other humanitarian support, as vital as they are, won’t amount to more than a band-aid if more isn’t done.”
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Foreign aid disappears as sanctions punish Afghanistan
In this case, much of the crisis stems from political factors that unfolded quickly. Afghanistan’s shaky economy collapsed when the Taliban took over in August, and Western counties followed with punishing sanctions. The U.S. froze central bank assets in Afghanistan and imposed financial penalties, paralyzing the country’s banking system. Salaries paid through foreign aid – for soldiers, civil servants, teachers, health workers, and other public employees – disappeared.
Afghanistan had been dependent on western support for 20 years. Six months ago, more than 40% of the economy – and 75% of the government’s public spending – came from international aid from countries including the U.S., Catanzano said.
“The international community, overnight, halted its development support while freezing Afghan assets overseas,” Catanzano said. Sanctions, which are meant to target the Taliban, have chilled almost all economic activity.
“While those in power in Afghanistan have much to answer for, it is these policy choices of the international community that are the proximate cause of the crisis we face today,” she said.
And relief workers say the aid they can provide is not enough.
Haidari, the former restaurant owner who now focuses on educating girls, noted that in the height of the winter, she was working with a group that was providing coal for families to heat their homes. But taxis did not have enough fuel to help her transport the coal.
“We had to get a cart,” she said. “When we asked people to help with the cart, they begged for food. One very young man said he had not even been able to take a single wheat bread home for three days.”
The role of the Biden administration
Catanzano and others are calling on the Biden administration to counter the unfolding crisis after it froze $9 billion that belonged to the Afghan government, most of which was in foreign reserves. Military commanders, ambassadors who used to work in the country and aid groups are pushing President Joe Biden to consider relaxing the policy, and lawmakers from both political parties have implored him to provide new aid.
While Biden signed an executive order on Feb. 11 to free up more money from the frozen assets for Afghanistan aid, it’s not enough to address one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, said Shah Mehrabi, a member of Afghan central bank’s board. He suggests that the Biden administration authorize a limited and monitored release of about $150 million a month from the bank’s overseas reserves.
“The reserves belong to the Afghan people,” Mehrabi said. “Many more people will be driven to starvation unless the reserves are released.” The funds can also help stabilize the country’s currency, he said. Otherwise, “higher prices will exacerbate the poverty situation.”
The U.N. Development Programme projects that 97% of Afghans could be living below the poverty line by mid-2022. The effects will be felt for generations in the country; almost half of all people in Afghanistan are younger than 15, one of the world’s youngest populations.
In some areas, the Biden administration has been helpful, Catanzano said. For example, the Treasury Department has clarified the range of humanitarian activities that are not subject to sanctions.
“But there is little clarity about commercial activities,” she said. “Afghanistan depends on imports for 80% of its electricity and nearly all fuel. The chilling effect, on suppliers and their financial backers, is obvious.”
Both Mehrabi and Catanzano said Afghanistan needs more than humanitarian aid.
“Humanitarian aid is not a substitute for a functional economy or banking system,” Catanzano said. “Aid cannot make up for an economy deprived of oxygen and the needs will outstrip our ability to respond without a change in policy.”
Afghan experts emphasize that the reasons for the hunger crisis are multifaceted. But the impact of this particularly harsh winter should not be underestimated.
“There are large parts of the country that become functionally unreachable in the winter,” Kurtzer says. “What we have to do is take the preparations now so that when conditions permit, the humanitarian and economic activity can resume. That sprin g is on the horizon. That is a sign of hope.”