KABUL: The number of Afghans in poverty nearly doubled to 34 million as the nation was racked by the collapse of the US-backed government and the Taliban takeover, the UN said Tuesday.
After the US-backed republic fell in 2021, vast foreign subsidies were halted and aid programmes dramatically cut back as many countries refused to deal with the Taliban authorities in Kabul.
In December last year, those NGOs still providing vital help were dealt a further blow by a Taliban government order barring Afghan women from working for them.
This month the curb was extended to the UN’s Afghan female employees and the organisation said it now faces an “appalling choice” over whether to continue its aid schemes.
On Tuesday, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) released a stark new assessment of 2022 data estimating 34 million Afghans were living below the poverty line.
The figure is a staggering increase of 15 million on 2020, the last full year of rule by the Western-backed government which crumbled during a matter of weeks the following summer.
There is no contemporary census data for Afghanistan, but the UN uses a population estimate of 40 million, meaning 85 percent of the nation is projected to be in poverty.
“Some have been compelled to sell their homes, land, or assets that generate income,” the UNDP report said. “Others have resorted to the distressing practice of commodifying their own family members, turning children into labourers and young daughters into brides.”
The UN airlifts vast sums of US dollars into Afghanistan to pay staff and operating costs – cash injections which have also been vital in shoring up the nation’s faltering economy.
Between December 2021 and January 2023 about $1.8 billion was imported this way, according to the UN’s mission in Afghanistan.
But at the start of this year it warned “if the volume of assistance that the UN is able to provide diminishes the amount of cash shipped will be reduced”.
That means if the UN winnows down its work owing to the Taliban government curbs, it will have the double effect of reducing aid and cutting a crucial economic lifeline for desperate Afghans.
The UN has also warned that restrictions may turn off the aid tap at the source, with donors wary of committing cash to projects which cannot be implemented.
The UN’s 2023 Afghanistan appeal has thus far raised only five percent of its $4.6 billion goal.
“If foreign aid is reduced this year, Afghanistan may fall from the cliff edge into the abyss,” the UNDP resident representative in Afghanistan, Abdallah Al Dardari, said in a statement.
After the December ban on NGOs employing Afghan women, many organisations suspended their operations in protest.
Following days of wrangling, an exemption was granted to those working in the health sector, but the UNDP said 150 NGOs and aid agencies “have suspended all or part of their work”.
Since Taliban authorities banned Afghan female UN staff from work two weeks ago, the UN has told all Afghan citizens, both men and women, to stay away from its offices.
The order is the latest in a slew of creeping restrictions on the freedoms of women since 2021 that have seen teenage girls barred from schools and women pushed out of many government jobs.
In a wide-ranging public statement ahead of the Muslim festival of Eid al-Fitr, Taliban supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada said “the development of Afghanistan is the responsibility of Afghans”.
“We should not rely on others,” he said.