Donors have pledged more than $1bn to help Afghanistan, where poverty and hunger have spiralled since the Taliban took power and foreign aid has dried up, raising the spectre of a mass humanitarian crisis.
Afghanistan, which has already suffered through four decades of wars and instability, is facing a humanitarian crisis of enormous proportions, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Monday in his opening remarks to the high-level ministerial conference on Afghanistan.
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Speaking to the media after the conference in Geneva, Guterres said the UN could not yet determine how much money had been pledged in response to its direct appeal for $606m and how much was promised to support other efforts or neighbouring countries.
Al Jazeera’s Diplomatic Editor James Bays, reporting from Geneva, said that while the UN chief was “very pleased” with the response of the international community, he had warned the prospect of an economic collapse was a “serious possibility”.
Millions ‘on the brink’ of starvation
Guterres said many Afghans could run out of food by the end of this month, while the World Food Programme (WFP) said 14 million people are on the brink of starvation.
The Taliban was previously in power in Afghanistan from 1996 to the US-led invasion of 2001, which ended their hardline government based on a strict interpretation of Islamic law that proscribed almost all public activity for women and girls.
It swept back to power last month as the US-led NATO troops withdrew, with little to no resistance from the Western-backed government’s forces.
But the Taliban is facing a major challenge as it has not been officially recognised by the international community, and Western countries and international financial organisations suspended aid to Afghanistan, depriving it of billions of dollars needed to finance vital food imports.
Guterres remarked to journalists on the sidelines that it would be “impossible” to provide humanitarian assistance inside Afghanistan without engaging with the Taliban.
“I do believe it is very important to engage with the Taliban at the present moment for all aspects that concern the international community,” he said.
Speaking to Al Jazeera in Geneva, UN humanitarian coordinator Martin Griffiths said the UN wanted to make sure the money went directly to humanitarians on the ground who are delivering services to the Afghan people, calling the situation “very dire”.
Neighbours China and Pakistan have already offered help.
Beijing last week promised $31m worth of food and health supplies and, on Friday, said it would send a first batch of three million coronavirus vaccines.
Pakistan sent supplies such as cooking oil and medicine to authorities in Kabul and called for the unfreezing of Afghanistan’s assets.
“Past mistakes must not be repeated. The Afghan people must not be abandoned,” said Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, whose country would most likely bear the brunt of any exodus of refugees.
“Sustained engagement with Afghanistan in meeting its humanitarian needs is essential.”
Both China and Russia said the main burden of helping Afghanistan out of crisis should lie with Western countries.
“The US and its allies have a greater obligation to extend economic, humanitarian and livelihood assistance,” said Chen Xu, China’s UN ambassador in Geneva.
‘At their side in this ordeal’
The US ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, told the conference Washington was providing nearly $64m in new humanitarian assistance for Afghanistan.
“Let us commit today to meeting this urgent appeal for financial support, commit to standing by humanitarian workers as they do their all-important work, and to stepping up humanitarian action in Afghanistan so we can save the lives of Afghans in need,” she said.
Meanwhile, France said it will contribute 100 million euros ($118 million) to the UN’s flash appeal.
“Half of the (Afghan) population is now at risk, including more than four million women and around 10 million children. It is our responsibility to be at their side in this new ordeal,” Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told a high-level ministerial meeting in Geneva on Monday.
Even before the Taliban’s seizure of Kabul last month, about half the Afghan population – or 18 million people – were dependent on aid. That figure looks set to increase due to drought and shortages of cash and food, UN officials and aid groups have warned.
About a third of the $606m being sought would be used by the WFP, which found that 93 percent of the 1,600 Afghans it surveyed in August and September did not have sufficient food, mostly because they could not get access to cash to pay for it.
“It’s now a race against time and the snow to deliver life-saving assistance to the Afghan people who need it most,” said WFP Deputy Regional Director Anthea Webb.
“We are quite literally begging and borrowing to avoid food stocks running out.”
The World Health Organization, another UN agency that is part of the appeal, is seeking to shore up hundreds of health facilities at risk of closure after donors backed out.
Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford, reporting from Kabul, said the situation at health clinics in the country was “completely shocking”.
“We visited a few days ago a rural clinic just outside of Kabul that had a number of women who were expecting to give birth any day. They didn’t even have rubber gloves. There were no antibiotics, no antiseptics,” he said.
“There were people coming in with colds and sore throats and the nurses and doctors could not even give them simple painkillers.”