Afghanistan: Economic crisis underpins mass hunger
(Washington, DC) – The humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan can only be effectively resolved if the United States and other governments ease restrictions on the country’s banking sector to facilitate legitimate economic activity and humanitarian assistance, a said Human Rights Watch today. Human Rights Watch has released an updated Q&A document outlining the economic crisis and steps to overcome it.
The United States and other governments and the World Bank Group revoked the powers of the Central Bank of Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover on August 15, 2021. The July 30, 2022 U.S. airstrike killing the al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri, must not derail ongoing discussions between the United States and Afghanistan to urgently reach an agreement that allows ordinary Afghans to engage in legitimate business activities.
“The escalating hunger and health crisis in Afghanistan is urgent and is driving a banking crisis,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Regardless of the Taliban’s status or credibility with outside governments, international economic restrictions are still causing the country’s disaster and hurting the Afghan people.
Despite actions by the United States and others to allow banking transactions with Afghan entities, the Afghan central bank remains unable to access its foreign currency reserves or process or receive most international transactions. As a result, the country continues to suffer from a severe liquidity crisis and a shortage of banknotes. Businesses, aid groups and private banks continue to report significant restrictions on their operational capabilities. At the same time, because external donors have dramatically cut funding to support health, education and other essential sectors in Afghanistan, millions of Afghans have lost their income.
Acute malnutrition is entrenched throughout Afghanistan, even though food and basic necessities are available in markets across the country. An Afghan aid official told Human Rights Watch in mid-July, “People have nothing to eat. You may not imagine it, but children are starving…. The situation is dire, especially if you go to the villages. He said he knew of a family who had lost two children, aged 5 and 2, to starvation in the past two months: “It’s amazing in 2022.” He said he was unaware of any food shortages and that the causes of the crisis were economic: “A functioning banking system is an immediate and crucial need to deal with the humanitarian crisis.
According to the World Food Program (WFP) assessment system, nearly 20 million people, or half of the population, suffer from level 3 “crisis” or level 4 “emergency” food insecurity. More than a million children under the age of 5 – particularly at risk of dying if they are deprived of food – suffer from prolonged acute malnutrition, which means that even if they survive, they face significant health problems, including stunted growth. Recently, the WFP reported that tens of thousands of people in one province, Ghor, had fallen into “catastrophic” level 5 acute malnutrition, a precursor to famine.
Overall, more than 90% of Afghans have been suffering from some form of food insecurity since last August, skipping meals or entire days of meals and engaging in extreme coping mechanisms to pay for food, including including sending children to work. Afghanistan’s economic collapse has been caused in part by a collapse in most families’ incomes following the Taliban takeover and decisions by foreign donors to suspend external budget support to many sectors governmental, humanitarian and development, including education and health.
The decisions of the United States and the World Bank to restrict the Afghan banking sector have greatly amplified the crisis by hampering most legitimate economic activities, including humanitarian efforts. The Central Bank of Afghanistan is unable to perform basic central bank functions, including holding foreign exchange auctions, importing banknotes, and processing or settling commercial and humanitarian transactions legitimate. Due to these disabilities, even basic economic activities remain severely curtailed.
“Importers are struggling to pay for goods, humanitarian groups are facing problems with basic operations, and the Afghan diaspora cannot send enough money to their relatives and friends,” Sifton said. “Millions of starving Afghans live the excruciating reality of seeing food in the market but not being able to buy it.”
Worse still, the economic crisis in Afghanistan is occurring as inflation and rising costs accelerate, with an increase of more than 50% for basic household items since July 2021. According to World Bank data , the prices of basic products such as rice and wheat have almost doubled in the last two months. At the same time, prices for agricultural inputs like fertilizer and fuel have doubled, and they are in short supply, meaning Afghanistan’s domestic food production is expected to decline in 2022.
The impact of the crisis on women and girls is particularly severe. An Afghan woman working for a civil society The group said restrictions on women’s basic rights to freedom of movement and work have made it difficult “even for educated women who were financially independent”, and are particularly difficult for widows. “Pregnant women are really affected by the situation, especially because of the limited access to health care. I know dozens of widowed women who text me every day asking for help.
The humanitarian situation in Afghanistan would be even worse had the United Nations and other aid providers not dramatically scaled up operations in 2022, Human Rights Watch said. As the World Food Program stated in a food security assessment from June to November 2022, “The gravity of the situation is only partially mitigated by the unprecedented increase in humanitarian assistance which covers 38% of the total population of Afghanistan in the current period. In the absence of such assistance, the scale and gravity of the needs would be considerably higher.
Taliban leaders should recognize that their poor human rights record is jeopardizing hopes of reaching agreements to resolve the banking crisis, Human Rights Watch said. Since last August, authorities have imposed strict restrictions on women and girls who violate their rights to education, work, health care, and freedom of movement and expression. Taliban authorities have also cracked down on the media and arbitrarily detained and sometimes executed critics or suspected opponents.
Taliban authorities are reportedly willing to accept independent oversight of the central bank by external auditors, a key requirement of the US government and the World Bank. But they continue to reject key demands from governments to remove sanctioned officials from central bank leadership and reverse their position of denying secondary education to girls and women.
“The Taliban seem more interested in restricting the human rights of Afghan women and girls than preventing starvation,” Sifton said. “If their leadership is looking for legitimacy, they need to rethink their priorities.”