Mar 14, 2022 - World

Taliban provides opening for aid workers in Afghanistan

Women with children gather outside a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office as they wait to receive non-food items in Kandahar

Women with children gather outside a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office as they wait to receive non-food items in Kandahar. Photo: Javed Tanveer/AFP via Getty Images

Aid workers in Afghanistan tell Axios the Taliban has granted them an unexpected level of access to do their work, but that they still lack resources needed to combat wide-spread hunger.

Why it matters: Afghans will die without humanitarian assistance and aid groups say that to provide that assistance, they must engage with the Taliban — no matter whether the group tries to use them to prove its international legitimacy.

The big picture: More than half of the country has recently experienced serious food insecurity, with millions at risk of starvation. The economy has crashed as many countries have cut or frozen funding, unwilling to work with the Taliban.

  • There is "serious, serious food insecurity across the country," International Rescue Committee's Bob Kitchen told Axios.
  • That is "balanced off by genuinely weird, but hopeful meetings with the Taliban government, who are really playing the long game, trying to empower NGOs."
  • The Taliban has a history of brutality and subjugation of women, including since taking power last August. But the militant group is also seeking international legitimacy.

Between the lines: The aid workers expressed surprise about the Taliban's willingness to cooperate, at least so far — including a commitment to allow girls to return to school this month.

  • The group still clearly intends to enforce its strict interpretation of Islam in daily life, but Kitchen says the Taliban is also considering the needs to the population and the views of the international community "because they want to stay in power."
  • That has provided an opening that could help prevent at least some humanitarian worst-case-scenarios.

What's happening: Save the Children negotiated with the Taliban to allow female staff to work in provinces across the country.

  • "If you want to talk about kids, you have to talk to women. If you have to talk to women, you have to do so with female staff," Save the Children President & CEO Janti Soeripto told Axios over Zoom from Kabul.
  • Without female data collectors and community leaders you will get a skewed view of the situation on the ground, she added. The group is currently teaching 900 Afghan girls to be teachers.

At the same time, working in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan comes with additional dangers and hurdles for aid workers.

  • Female staff members for Save the Children are now required to have a male staff member accompany them, even to travel to the office or into communities.
  • The economic devastation and lack of a national bank in a cash-based economy has severely hurt efforts to provide support to Afghan families — whether through cash transfers from humanitarian groups, or remittances from Afghan family members elsewhere.
  • That forces families to make "terrible decisions," Soeripto said: "Do I send my girl to school? Do I send her to work? Or do I marry her off ?"

By the numbers: Millions of Afghans, including children, lived on the brink of starvation during the winter season. There are reports of families only being able to eat once every three days — whether because they cannot afford food or do not have access to more.

  • "The scale of the need in Afghanistan — it's just quite difficult to comprehend," Kitchen said.
  • In January, the U.N. called for $5 billion in humanitarian funds to help Afghanistan — the largest single country aid appeal ever.
  • Still, the appeal "is a fraction of what the world spent on the war every year," Soeripto said.
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