Afghanistan is heading towards a full humanitarian catastrophe, top ICRC official says

Fifty per cent of Afghans depend on aid, meaning 20 million are on the brink of famine

Afghanistan is heading towards a "full-fledged” humanitarian disaster if its economy is not saved from collapse, the vice president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said on Tuesday.

The country has been plunged into crisis by the abrupt end of billions of dollars in foreign assistance following the collapse of the western-backed government and the return to power of the Taliban last August.

Since then, the ICRC, which has operated in Afghanistan for 30 years, has increased its efforts in the country as the humanitarian situation worsens.

“Afghanistan is the most acute humanitarian crisis and it’s going towards a full-fledged humanitarian catastrophe. We see that the majority of Afghans, 39 million, are highly insecure because of a collapsing economy and high liquidity,” Gilles Carbonnier told The National during a visit to the UAE.

“We see that if the whole economy collapses, then no humanitarian organisation can respond.

“There is no humanitarian solution to such a humanitarian catastrophe.”

“Ordinary people don't have an opportunity to get an income and sustain their livelihoods,” Mr Carbonnier said.

The top ICRC official said the collapse could happen very quickly and it was important to find a temporary solution to avert a disaster.

"Fifty per cent of the Afghan population needs humanitarian assistance to survive, “so it’s already a sign of the gravity of the situation”, he said.

Afghanistan has a population of about 40 million people, meaning that approximately 20 million are on the brink of starvation.

“We need to buy time through the winter and hope that then a more sustainable solution can be found,” Mr Carbonnier said.

The official said his organisation is advocating some form of liquidity be made available so that payment systems can resume across the country to revive the economy.

“This is the first time we have had such a humanitarian catastrophe where we have to engage ministries of finance and others because the questions are not just humanitarian but also others.”

The ICRC supports 17 hospitals across Afghanistan and employs about 1,800 people — 100 are international staff while the other 1,700 are Afghans.

“These 17 hospitals, they are run by 5,500 civil servants, who are midwives, nurses, who were present before the arrival of the Taliban in Kabul and they have not received any salaries since August,” he said.

Portrait of ICRC Vice-President, Gilles Carbonnier, speaking on “Addressing Challenges in International Humanitarian Actions under New Circumstances: ICRC’s innovative Approaches” with a focus on partnership with the business sector. Photo: ICRC

The Taliban expelled many foreign aid groups when it was last in power from 1996-2001 but this time has welcomed foreign donors, saying will protect their rights and those of their staff.

But the group has faced criticism for failing to protect human rights — including access to education for girls.

Despite this, many international groups say aid should not be tied to conditions, especially given the impending humanitarian disaster.

“We have been advocating for unconditional humanitarian assistance to save lives so that humanitarian assistance is not made conditional on the number of targets and policies that should be implemented,” Mr Carbonnier said.

The response should be based on need and not anything else, he stressed.

Updated: January 19, 2022, 8:30 AM
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