Unimaginable choices are hitting the people of Afghanistan as they try to avoid starvation: does a father sell a kidney or his daughter to eke out enough for the rest of his family to eat this month? Unpalatable, and now urgent, choices are also facing western governments. Those choices also carry life-or-death repercussions for ordinary Afghans. The latter is more likely the more the west procrastinates.
A plea from the UN before Christmas for $4.4bn in emergency aid for Afghanistan has largely gone ignored, despite the UN and US granting humanitarian carve-outs to sanctions. Inaction must be addressed. An idea by Gordon Brown, the former UK prime minister, for a pledging conference among nations should be taken up without delay.
But even if all $4.4bn reached aid agencies and NGOs, it is a sticking plaster at best. Humanitarian assistance must be matched with an effort, led by the World Bank, to thaw an economy frozen by sanctions. Aid agencies are not equipped to do that. They cannot rebuild healthcare or education systems that previously depended on development funds, which disappeared as hastily as allied troops when the Taliban regained power in August. The $4.4bn is not much use without a functioning banking system. But the prospect of seemingly legitimising the Taliban is preventing the west from exercising its moral duty not to let millions of people starve unnecessarily.
The Taliban is a brutal and repressive regime that has proven itself utterly inept at trying to halt an advancing famine. The Islamist group should not receive the rest of the world’s validation. But it is morally repugnant, particularly for the US and its allies that occupied Afghanistan, to leave 40mn people to their fate out of principle. If morality alone is not persuasive, then self-interest may be: allowing Afghanistan to become even more of a failed state will prompt mass migration, bolster the narcotics trade as the country’s only sector where money is to be made, and leave it vulnerable to even more extreme groups than the Taliban. These groups can then point to western callousness in the face of Afghan desperation.
The UN has called on the World Bank to unfreeze $1.2bn in development funding for the country. The bank and its key sponsors, including the US, the EU and the UK, have equivocated. It has promised to look at the matter at a board meeting later this month. Delays are no longer tolerable. The $1.2bn is less than the annual amount Afghanistan was previously receiving under the bank’s special trust fund. It will nonetheless be vital in paying public sector workers who were the lifeblood of Afghanistan’s economy and are key to the country’s survival.
Paying these wages can bypass the Taliban: there are other examples in some of the world’s most desperate places, such as Yemen or Somalia, where the World Bank has paid public-sector salaries through intermediaries such as UN agencies without having to deal with vicious regimes.
Weaning Afghanistan off its near-total dependence on development aid is necessary in the long term. In future discussions over how the country rebuilds its economy, it will be right to impose conditions on the Taliban in exchange for foreign funds. It is understandable that the west may wish to take a stand on insisting that the Taliban allow girls a full education. But letting mothers and babies starve to death now because the alternative means dealing with a misogynistic regime is doing nothing for women’s rights. There should be no conditions on helping to prevent people from dying of hunger.