When the physical safety, socioeconomic well-being or physical and mental health of a large section of a population is threatened, it is generally termed a humanitarian crisis. Its causes can be various factors such as natural disasters, chronic diseases, famine, genocide and civil war. The individuals that are usually most affected by a humanitarian crisis include children, women and the elderly. In the last thirty or so years, many countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia have faced various types of humanitarian crises. For instance, there was a massive humanitarian crisis witnessed in Rwanda during the mid-1990s. Importantly, during the same period, Afghanistan faced not only political instability but also socioeconomic and human insecurity ─ stirred by prolonged warfare in the 1980s.
Tragically, Afghanistan’s woes are not yet over and the country is currently facing a serious humanitarian crisis. Having realised the situation, UN General Secretary António Guterres warned the world on Afghanistan earlier this month while delivering opening remarks to journalists in New York. He said a “nightmare [is] unfolding in Afghanistan… Babies [are] being sold to feed their siblings. Freezing health facilities [are] overflowing with malnourished children. People [are] burning their possessions to keep warm. Livelihoods across the country have been lost.”
While urging the international financial community and major powers with political and economic clout, he said, “international funding should be allowed to pay the salaries of public-sector workers, and to help Afghan institutions deliver healthcare, education and other vital services.” Guterres lauded the Security Council for taking a ‘humanitarian exception’ to the sanctions on the Taliban regime in December of last year. This may help financial institutions and commercial stakeholders, with legal assurances, to engage with humanitarian operators and work in Afghanistan, without having to worry about breaching sanctions. Under the creatively authorised arrangements, various UN bodies are striving to inject cash into the Afghan economy. However, the scale of such efforts has been very limited.
Islamabad has already pledged around US$28 million worth of humanitarian aid, including 50,000 metric tons of wheat, as well as winter shelter and emergency medical supplies.
In this respect, other international organisations have cut a role out for themselves. For example, the World Bank has established the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF) through which some US$280 million have been transferred to finance the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and World Food Programme (WFP) operations. Guterres said, “I hope the remaining resources, more than $1.2 billion, will become available to help Afghanistan’s people survive the winter”.
Along with international appeals, the UN chief strongly urged Taliban leadership to, “recognise and protect the fundamental human rights of women and girls…across Afghanistan, women and girls are missing from offices and classrooms… Women scientists, lawyers and teachers are locked out, wasting skills and talents that will benefit the entire country and, indeed, the world…no country can thrive while denying the rights of half its population.”
While the UN and other global institutions are in the limelight to help alleviate the humanitarian crisis in war-ravaged Afghanistan, the country’s neighbours, especially Pakistan, also have a role to play. Islamabad has already pledged around US$28 million worth of humanitarian aid, including 50,000 metric tons of wheat, as well as winter shelter and emergency medical supplies.
Pakistani authorities believe that worsening humanitarian and economic conditions could again force Afghans to seek shelter in neighbouring countries as refugees. Pakistan already hosts an estimated 3 million Afghan refugees and economic migrants, and is reluctant to host more refugees given the economic hardships for its own population. The UN estimates that about 23 million or 55 per cent of Afghans could face extreme hunger, and nearly 9 million of them are at risk of famine on account of prolonged civil war and international economic sanctions.
Pakistan needs to follow up with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in terms of managing money for the recently established Humanitarian Fund for Afghanistan.
The humanitarian situation worsened following the Taliban takeover of the country in August last year. Due to political and policy differences with the Taliban, the US suspended cash flow to Afghanistan; the country has depended on foreign financial assistance for the past twenty years. The Biden administration has also seized Afghanistan’s roughly $9.5 billion worth of assets and imposed financial sanctions on the Taliban regime, thus, plunging the economy into a canyon of high inflation, joblessness and exponential proliferation of drug cartels ─ which are minting money in strategic alliance with the Taliban whose major source of financial survival is opium.
Pakistan has urged the United States and other western countries to engage with the Taliban on a humanitarian basis, in order to prevent the country from falling into a protracted humanitarian crisis. Islamabad ought to engage the US and its allies more meaningfully to seek financial, if not political, support for the poverty-stricken Afghanistan. Moreover, Pakistan needs to follow up with the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in terms of managing money for the recently established Humanitarian Fund for Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s own economy is not in a good shape, but despite that it ought to diplomatically urge rich Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia to lead this initiative. The Saudis, having strategic competition with Qatar, may find an opportunity to establish a meaningful presence in this part of Asia. Last but not the least, Pakistan ought to urge Russia and China to financially support the Afghans. Pakistan must prioritise bilateral and multilateral trade with Afghanistan. Both Kabul and Islamabad need to understand each other’s sensibilities. Finally, Pakistan needs to focus on the Central Asian states, which recently indicated their geo-economic interests in India, which is the largest market in the region after China. To help Afghanistan ameliorate its humanitarian crisis, there is no harm in engaging the Central Asian countries via Moscow or Beijing. Until Afghanistan’s neighbours come on board, structural issues will only linger.