ICRC chief says reluctance to support Afghan economy to become 'self-fulfilling prophecy'

Afghan society is facing a multitude of problems with those who have been caught up in warfare

President of the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) Peter Maurer has said that the international community’s reluctance to help the Afghan economy get restarted after the precipitous American withdrawal could become a “self-fulfilling prophecy”.

In an interview with The National on Wednesday during his visit to the UAE, Mr Maurer said that the international community “appears to have settled on the formula that humanitarian aid is OK, but nothing more”.

However, he stressed that “humanitarian aid has never been designed to substitute a dysfunctional system. It is meant to cope with momentarily disrupted situations”, not be a substitute for government structure and an economy.

Mr Maurer’s concern over Afghanistan was apparent. “Afghanistan is coming out of 40 years of conflict and every country that comes out of 40 years of conflict is in a very difficult situation,” he said.

Afghan society is facing a multitude of problems with those who have been caught up in warfare, those who have lost loved ones and others who are maimed, missing or displaced.

With economic sanctions blocking banking services and holding up direct aid that Afghanistan is so reliant on, the humanitarian crisis in the country is quickly escalating.

“We have seen a uniquely unrooted transition from one government to another, which not only has shaken the society but it has completely stopped the aid and support system in Afghanistan,” he said.

Since August 15, “the European, Americans and international institutions, because of the non-recognition of the new power structure in Afghanistan stopped their programmes”, he added.

Between 70 and 80 per cent of basic services delivered in Afghanistan has been paid by foreign aid, including from the World Bank, the UN, the Red Cross and others.

“I don’t remember such a country so dependent on aid which in so short a time has lost 70 or 80 per cent of its income in absolutely critical areas for the survival of society.”

All aspects of life, including health, water, sanitation, education, electricity — essentially “the basic social services” — in addition to the banking and economic systems have been severely disrupted.

“Paradoxically, ICRC is always responding to the impact of war and violence; now we are responding to the impact of the postwar and that has intricacies we must foresee,” he said.

Mr Maurer reflected on how swiftly the power transition happened in Afghanistan and how unprepared the international community was.

The expectation had been for “more or less a recognised government” which would have allowed for continued aid, resources and money to flow into the country.

However, the swift withdrawal of the US, the collapse of the Afghan government and the Taliban's total grip on power in Kabul has left the country as well as humanitarian actors facing a major crisis.

“The convergence of a cash crisis, financial crisis, political legitimacy crisis has led us into a uniquely fragile situation,” he said.

One of the biggest challenges in Afghanistan is the non-payment of salaries, primarily to bureaucrats. Mr Maurer clarified that “while the top of the political leadership of the country fundamentally changed, those who deliver services didn’t”, and yet their salaries have been cut off.

Stressing the severity of the situation, Mr Maurer called on the international community “to be reasonable”.

“There is an imperative of stabilising the situation in Afghanistan, which is a humanitarian imperative, and if some countries prefer, it is at the same time a security imperative.”

Mr Maurer added that “if we do not stabilise the situation, this will become a self-fulfilling prophecy of instability, further radicalisation, of further use of Afghan territory for illicit trade and operations against other destinations worldwide”.

He cautioned that if the international community does not “come to the conclusion early enough that this is important, I fear we will see more destabilisation with a massive potential of irregular migration, the potential of the break-up of the country, with the potential of further violence — that is the alternative”.

The most compelling need, Mr Maurer said, is the “injection of cash” into the economy: “It is crippling.”

When asked what is holding up aid and that injection of cash, Mr Maurer said: “Very frankly, what is holding up aid is a very strange combination of not seeing the seriousness of the situation, not understanding the fragility of the situation and political resentment.

“The supporters of the former Afghan government don’t want to support the Taliban, massive security concerns that some countries have of the Taliban and which seem to withhold the logic that you have to stabilise the situation.”

Another challenge to Afghanistan is the brain drain following the American withdrawal. Mr Maurer said that the paying of salaries was key to stopping the brain drain and stabilising the country.

The ICRC continues its work in Afghanistan and is working with the Taliban but “they are not touching money”, Mr Maurer said.

He added that the Taliban, “to my positive surprise”, have allowed for the visitation of detainees.

Mr Maurer explained that there are fewer detainees and “different detainees”, without going into further details.

The ICRC is also playing a role in establishing communication between family members: “We are trying to help people re-establish contacts.”

The organisation has hired more staff and increased its budget from $88 million to $150m.

“We immediately scaled up our budget, recruit people and do whatever we can,” he said. “We got reasonable assurances about the diversity of our team, we recruited women, minorities and we can continue this work.”

The local Afghan Red Crescent has its own faced challenges, however Mr Maurer said he has received assurances that the organisation can continue its work.

There a number of other crises in the region that the ICRC is working on, including those in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and beyond.

On Yemen, Mr Maurer said: “A lot can be done in terms of re-establishing a more functioning economy in Yemen.”

He said that Yemen, as with Afghanistan, “is uniquely dependent on the outside world”.

“As humanitarian organisations, we can appeal, we can fix the worst, but we cannot substitute an inexistent economy system … for that you need some political and military stability and that is what we don’t see.”

Mr Maurer was last in Yemen over the summer, at which time there were 49 active front lines, “which caused this massive instability which makes it enormously difficult to maintain even a minimal functioning economy”.

In what he described as “the protracted character of conflict”, it becomes impossible to develop an economic system which could allow for the stabilisation of the country. And yet, Yemen is seen as “better off” than Afghanistan because there was an internationally agreed upon funding mechanism.

On Syria, Mr Maurer said it has a different complexity. He explained that “Syria came from being an upper-middle country into becoming a poor country” while “Yemen and Afghanistan came from being poor countries into an awfully poor country”.

“With what remains from the country coming out of the war, [it] would have eventually been able to precariously rebuild a local, national economy,” he said.

“The critical issue in Syria is that the implosion of the Lebanese economy, which is so intricately linked to the Syrian economy, was the major event [that occurred] at the worst moment.”

When the Syrian front lines quietened down, “there was a precarious amount of military stability … ceasefires, while not perfect but precariously hold … in that moment comes Covid-19 and the implosion of the Lebanese economy”.

He added that the Syrian economy “got a double hit at the worst moment”, making “even basic rehabilitation” difficult.

Addressing the international community, Mr Maurer said: “Syria at the present moment needs more than bringing lorries of aid to some displaced communities in Syria … we have to advocate for more generous stabilisation of minimal infrastructure in terms of water, sanitation systems, health, education and electricity.”

He added that “it is not happening at the moment because there is political blockage of how Syria gets out of the conflict”.

Mr Maurer is engaging governments around the world to push for some progress — even without progress in the political situation.

He explained that “the international community seems uniquely paralysed in having a strategic vision on what should be done at least as a minimum”, and added that no action “means the situation gets worse by the day”.

He noted that the agreement between the US and Russia over the summer to allow for the UN cross-border crossings was a “positive step” that could be built on.

There are commonalities between the crises in Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria, said Mr Maurer. He added the “profound disagreements about the future of a country and a governance problem uncomfortably combined with an implosion of social systems”.

Mr Maurer said the three crises represent a “very dangerous situation” that requires the need to “envision future lives”, and that they will ultimately need a political solution, as the current situation is leading to “great resentments”.

He said that the people of all three countries had experienced “the international community not being helpful”, which means “less understanding for the international community, more social disruption and it will not go in the right direction”.

Mr Maurer said the international community needs to think about “a different approach”.

“I hope 2022 is a trend-changer, as I cannot imagine what we do if in all these contexts, and at least 20 others, the indicators go in a negative way.”

Updated: November 19th 2021, 7:44 AM
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