Sunday, October 17News That Matters

UN seeks $600m for Afghans facing ‘most perilous hour’

The United Nations has urged the world to raise $606m for Afghanistan, where poverty and hunger are spiralling since the Taliban took power and billions in foreign aid have dried up amid Western distrust of the new rulers.

After decades of war, suffering and insecurity, Afghans are facing “perhaps their most perilous hour”, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Monday in his opening remarks to a conference in Geneva seeking aid for Afghanistan, adding that “the people of Afghanistan need a lifeline.

“Let us be clear: This conference is not simply about what we will give to the people of Afghanistan. It is about what we owe.”

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Martin Griffiths talk before the aid conference [Denis Balibouse/Reuters]

He said food supplies could run out by the end of the month.

The Taliban previously ruled Afghanistan between 1996-2001, barring women from work and teenage girls from school, and were toppled in an invasion led by the United States, which accused them of sheltering al-Qaeda members behind the September 11 attacks.

The Taliban swept back to power last month in a lightning advance as the last US-led NATO troops pulled out and the forces of the Western-backed government melted away.

With aid flows abruptly ending, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said international donors had a “moral obligation” to continue helping Afghans after their 20-year engagement.

Labourers wait in the street to be hired, in Kabul [Bernat Armangue/AP Photo]

Neighbours China and Pakistan have already offered help.

Beijing announced last week that it would send $31m worth of food and health supplies to Afghanistan. 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 Mehmood 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.”

Al Jazeera’s Diplomatic Editor James Bays, reporting from Geneva, said some countries were “reluctant” to give money at this stage.

“They don’t want the money going into the hands of the Taliban,” he added.

Speaking to Al Jazeera in Geneva, UN humanitarian coordinator Martin Griffiths said the agency wanted to make sure the money went directly to those humanitarians on the ground who are delivering services to the Afghan people, calling the situation “very dire”.

US pledges $64m

The US ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, told the conference Washington was providing nearly $64 million 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.

Even before the Taliban’s seizure of Kabul last month, half the 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.

Afghans wait in front of a bank as they try to withdraw money in Kabul [Bernat Armangue/AP Photo]

About a third of the $606m being sought would be used by the UN World Food Programme, which found that 93 percent of the 1,600 Afghans it surveyed in August and September were not consuming 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 given 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.”