Key humanitarian group says Afghanistan’s most pressing need is cash

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – Afghanistan faces a looming humanitarian crisis as aid agencies struggle to find ways to pay doctors, nurses and others on the ground as there are no currently no way to transfer wages to bank accounts there, said the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The words of ICRC President Peter Maurer echo those of the UN Special Representative for Afghanistan, who this week warned that the country was “on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe” and that the collapse of its economy increased the risk of extremism. The country’s economy is estimated to have contracted by 40% since the Taliban took control in August.

The Geneva-based ICRC, which has operated in Afghanistan for more than 30 years, temporarily brings bags of money to the impoverished nation and converts dollars into the local currency, Afghani, in order to pay some of its employees. The ICRC was able to do so with regulatory approval from the Office of Foreign Assets Control of the US Treasury Department. The ICRC also has an agreement with the Taliban-led health ministry that allows donor-funded payments to go through the ICRC and bypass the Taliban, which has yet to be officially recognized internationally by any country.

“The main problem in Afghanistan is not hunger. The main problem is the lack of money to pay salaries and provide social services that existed before, ”ICRC president Peter Maurer told The Associated Press in an interview on Thursday. Maurer spoke to the AP during a visit to Dubai.

“Let’s not forget that most of these doctors, nurses, water and electricity network operators are still the same people. It is the leadership that has changed, but not these people, ”he added.

Aid-dependent Afghanistan’s economy was in deep turmoil following the Taliban takeover of the capital Kabul in August and the collapse of the US-backed Afghan government weeks before the U.S. United do not withdraw their last troops.

The Taliban leadership, which recently banned all foreign currency transactions, urged the US Congress to ease sanctions and release Afghan assets abroad so the government can pay teachers, doctors and other employees of the public sector. Following the Taliban takeover, the United States froze nearly $ 9.5 billion in assets belonging to the Afghan Central Bank and halted cash shipments.

Since the Taliban took power last summer, it has not been possible for international aid organizations to transfer payments to accounts in Afghanistan, as international currency cannot currently be changed to local currency. through a network of banks in the country.

Maurer said that aid agencies cannot “fix the implosion of a whole country” and that there has to be an agreement on a sufficient injection of cash, which he says is possible without necessarily recognizing formally the Taliban. The ICRC’s budget until mid-2022 has increased from $ 95 million to around $ 163 million to meet the increasingly urgent needs of Afghanistan.

Hunger is just one of the many problems facing millions of people in the country. The World Food Program has warned that nearly 9 million people in Afghanistan are at risk of “conditions bordering on famine.” 14.1 million more are acutely food insecure.

Maurer said the country could slide into a hunger crisis if the drought impacts food production and the disruption of the economy continues, but he stressed that the immediate crisis to which Afghanistan continues to pay salaries to keep basic services running.

“People who don’t get enough food will get sick,” Maurer said. “If the health system is unable to cope with fragile health, then it is again a problem. I am therefore concerned about the interconnectivity of food, health, water, sanitation, electricity and the education system.

The former Swiss-born diplomat visited Kandahar and other parts of Afghanistan in early September, just days after the US withdrawal. During this visit, he met with one of the main leaders of the Taliban, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.

The ICRC says Maurer’s visit to Afghanistan and his meeting with Baradar reflect the humanitarian organization’s principle of neutrality and aimed to send a clear message that the group would continue to provide services to those in need on the ground, regardless of the leader. The international aid organization has been providing assistance in Afghanistan since 1987, in close collaboration with the Afghan Red Crescent.

The ICRC has around 1,800 staff across Afghanistan, almost all of them local. They provided assistance to war victims in ICRC-supported hospitals, helped ensure that food and medicine reached those in need, and worked to reunite families following the hasty evacuation. more than 120,000 people by the United States in August. Hundreds of thousands more have fled to neighboring countries, such as Pakistan and Iran, which already host large populations of Afghan refugees.

The ICRC, founded in 1863, also works to protect prisoners of war. Maurer said the Taliban have been receptive to ICRC requests to visit detainees in Taliban-run prisons, an issue he raised during his meeting with Baradar.

“We didn’t have to knock on doors 20 times to gain access (to prisons) again,” he said. This is in part because the Taliban themselves were visited by the aid group when they were detained, Maurer added.

“I think this allowed us to argue that the kind of work that they could also benefit from (which) as detainees in the past would be a reasonable policy to develop as they come to power as well,” said Maurer.

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