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Afghanistan: Economic Crisis Behind Mass Hunger

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(Washington, DC) – The humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan cannot be effectively addressed unless the United States and other governments relax restrictions on the country’s banking sector to facilitate legitimate economic activity and humanitarian assistance, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch has released an updated question and answer document outlining the economic crisis and steps to overcome it.

The US, other governments, and the World Bank Group revoked the credentials of the Central Bank of Afghanistan after the Taliban seized power on August 15, 2021. The US airstrike on July 30, 2022, killing al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, should not derail ongoing discussions between the US and Afghanistan To urgently reach an agreement that would allow ordinary Afghans to engage in legitimate business.

“Afghanistan’s deepening hunger and health crisis is a banking crisis at its root,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Regardless of the Taliban’s standing or credibility with outside governments, international economic restrictions continue to drive the country’s disaster and hurt the Afghan people.”

Despite actions by the United States and others to authorize banking transactions with Afghan entities, the Central Bank of Afghanistan remains unable to access its foreign currency reserves or process or receive most international transactions. As a result, the country continues to suffer from a major liquidity crisis and a shortage of banknotes. Companies, humanitarian groups, and private banks continue to report widespread limitations on their operational capabilities. At the same time, because external donors have severely cut funding to support Afghanistan in health, education and other essential sectors, millions of Afghans have lost their incomes.

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Severe malnutrition is prevalent throughout Afghanistan, although food and basic supplies are available in markets across the country. An Afghan humanitarian official told Human Rights Watch in mid-July, “People have nothing to eat. You might not imagine it, but the children are starving…. The situation is terrible, especially if you go to the villages.” He said he knows one family who has lost two children, ages 5 and 2, to starvation in the past two months: “It’s unbelievable in 2022.” He said he was aware that there was no shortage of food supplies and that the causes of the crisis were economic: “An effective banking system is an immediate and crucial need to address the humanitarian crisis.”

Nearly 20 million people – half of the population – suffer from either a Level 3 “crisis” or Level 4 “emergency” level of food insecurity under the WFP assessment system. More than one million children under the age of five – especially at risk of death when they are deprived of food – suffer from prolonged acute malnutrition, which means that even if they survive, they face major health problems, including stunting. The World Food Program recently reported that tens of thousands of people in one county, Gore, have slipped into “catastrophic” level 5 acute malnutrition, a precursor to famine.

Overall, more than 90 percent of Afghans have experienced some form of food insecurity since last August, skipping meals or entire days of eating and engaging in extreme coping mechanisms to pay for food, including sending children to work. The economic collapse in Afghanistan was partly caused by a collapse in the incomes of most families following the Taliban takeover and decisions by foreign donors to suspend external budget support for many government, humanitarian, and development sectors, including education and health.

Decisions by the United States and the World Bank to restrict the banking sector in Afghanistan have greatly amplified the crisis by impeding most legitimate economic activities, including humanitarian efforts. The Central Bank of Afghanistan is unable to carry out basic central banking functions, including currency auctions, importing banknotes, and processing or settling legitimate commercial and humanitarian transactions. Because of these shortcomings, even basic economic activities are still severely restricted.

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“Importers are struggling to pay for goods, humanitarian organizations are having problems with basic operations, and Afghan expats cannot send enough money to their relatives and friends,” Sifton said. “Millions of hungry Afghans are going through the horrific reality of seeing food in the market but unable to buy it.”

To make matters worse, the economic crisis in Afghanistan is occurring as inflation accelerates and costs increase, with a more than 50 percent increase in basic household items since July 2021. According to World Bank data, prices of staple foods such as rice and wheat have nearly doubled in the two months the last two. At the same time, prices for agricultural inputs like fertilizer and fuel have doubled and are in short supply, meaning that domestic food production in Afghanistan is set to decline in 2022.

The impact of the crisis on women and girls is particularly severe. Afghan woman working for a Civil society The group said that restrictions on women’s basic rights to free movement and work made it difficult “even for educated women who were financially independent,” and especially hard for widows. Pregnant women are actually affected by the situation, particularly due to limited access to health care. I know dozens of widows who send me letters every day asking for help.”

Human Rights Watch said that the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan would have been worse had the United Nations and other aid providers not increased their operations significantly in 2022. As the World Food Program stated in its June-November 2022 Food Security Assessment, “the severity of the situation has not It is only partially mitigated by the unprecedented increase in humanitarian aid, which covers 38 percent of the total population of Afghanistan in the current period. In the absence of such assistance, the scale and severity of the needs would be significantly higher.”

The Taliban leadership should acknowledge that its poor human rights record threatens hopes of any agreements to resolve the banking crisis, Human Rights Watch said. Since last August, the authorities have imposed severe restrictions on women and girls that violate their rights to education, work, health care, freedom of movement and expression. The Taliban authorities also cracked down on the media and arbitrarily detained and sometimes executed critics or opponents.

The Taliban authorities are reportedly willing to accept independent monitoring of the central bank by external auditors, a key requirement of the US government and the World Bank. But they still reject key demands from governments to remove sanctioned officials from central bank leadership and reverse their stance that denies girls and women secondary education.

“The Taliban appears to be more interested in restricting the human rights of Afghan women and girls than in preventing famine,” Sifton said. “If their leadership is seeking legitimacy, they should rethink their priorities.”