UN’s $5 billion aid appeal puts a number on Afghanistan’s ‘unfolding nightmare’

Afghans who are unable, or unwilling, to join the tide of refugees are left to scrape by amid the bleakest winter in recent memory, enduring chronic shortages of food, fuel and medicine. (©FAO/Alberto TrilloBarca/Alessio Romenzi)
Afghans who are unable, or unwilling, to join the tide of refugees are left to scrape by amid the bleakest winter in recent memory, enduring chronic shortages of food, fuel and medicine. (©FAO/Alberto TrilloBarca/Alessio Romenzi)
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Updated 27 January 2022

UN’s $5 billion aid appeal puts a number on Afghanistan’s ‘unfolding nightmare’

Afghans who are unable, or unwilling, to join the tide of refugees are left to scrape by amid the bleakest winter in recent memory, enduring chronic shortages of food, fuel and medicine. (©FAO/Alberto TrilloBarca/Alessio Romenzi)
  • When the Taliban seized power last summer, the country lost access to aid, loans and assets worth $9.5 billion 
  • Many international donors remain reluctant to send aid to Afghanistan, fearing it might empower the Taliban

DUBAI: Since the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan in August last year amid a chaotic US military withdrawal, the war-battered country has slid deeper into disaster, sparking fresh waves of displacement and raising the specter of mass hunger.

Deprived of billions of dollars in aid, loans and assets by an international community reluctant to recognize the new, ultraconservative government in Kabul, Afghanistan is fast becoming the world’s worst and most complex humanitarian emergency.

Afghans who are unable, or unwilling, to join the tide of refugees are left to scrape by amid the bleakest winter in recent memory, enduring chronic shortages of food, fuel and medicine.

But even the 5.7 million Afghans who have fled to five neighboring countries (Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan) still need vital relief.

The gloom deepened when at least 22 people died and hundreds of buildings were damaged after twin earthquakes struck the isolated western province of Badghis on Jan. 17.

In response to the deteriorating situation from every perspective, the UN launched a $5 billion aid appeal on Jan. 11 — the largest ever for a country experiencing a humanitarian crisis — to help shore up basic services during the bitterly cold winter.

In an urgent plea on Jan. 13, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned of “a nightmare unfolding” in Afghanistan unless further funding is released. “Virtually every man, woman and child could face acute poverty,” he said.

Many in the international community have been reluctant to send aid to Afghanistan, fearing it might empower the Taliban, a group whose extreme interpretation of Islam denies girls an education, bars women from the workplace, and limits freedom of expression.




Beneficiaries work their land around Ghra village in Daman district south of Kandahar. (©FAO/Alessio Romenzi)

When the Taliban toppled the UN-backed government of Ashraf Ghani last summer, it lost access to billions of dollars in financing from the World Bank and the IMF, saw its assets frozen, and development aid abruptly suspended.

Additionally, the administration of President Joe Biden froze $7 billion in Afghan foreign reserves held in New York.

Despite 20 years of Western intervention, successive Afghan governments had failed to diversify the economy beyond rudimentary agriculture. In fact, almost 80 percent of the previous government’s budget came from the US and other foreign donors. Denied this assistance, the nation’s economy now teeters on the brink of collapse.

Policymakers around the world have been left wondering how to address the unfolding emergency without giving the Taliban the oxygen of legitimacy. As such, Washington has sought to bypass the group by directly channeling funds though UN agencies.




FAO staff members Baryal Mumtaz and Feroz Aryan help a beneficiary put his sack of improved wheat seeds on his shoulders. (©FAO/Alessio Romenzi)

On Jan. 11, the United States Agency for International Development announced more than $308 million in additional assistance, bringing total US humanitarian spending on Afghanistan and Afghan refugees in the region to nearly $782 million since Oct. 2020.

Campaigners caution that increasing aid contributions is not a sustainable solution, and that Afghans will only achieve lasting security and financial independence when they regain access to their bank accounts and hard currency.

Masuda Sultan is an Afghan women’s rights activist and a co-founder of Unfreeze Afghanistan, an advocacy group established in Sept. 2021 to lobby policymakers on behalf of ordinary Afghans deprived of their savings by the chaos in the banking system attributable to the sanctions regime.

She acknowledges that there has been some progress. “The UN announced its largest humanitarian funding appeal in its history, and last week the US announced $308 million in additional humanitarian aid on top of the $474 already committed,” Sultan told Arab News.

“But without addressing the underlying economic freeze related to the banking sector, which is a result of sanctions, the needs of the Afghan people can never be met. In fact, the number of people needing emergency humanitarian assistance will just grow.”




Noor Mohammad applies fungicide to the certified wheat seeds provided by FAO before sowing in Sahibzada Kalacha village, Daman district, of Kandahar, Afghanistan on 8 November 2021. (©FAO/Hashim Azizi)

Aware of the growing pressure on Washington to release Afghanistan’s frozen assets, Zabihullah Mujahid, the spokesperson for the Taliban government, recently posted a message on Twitter that said: “The United States must respond positively to the international voice and release Afghan capital.”

Cheryl Benard, another of Unfreeze Afghanistan’s co-founders and the president of ARCH International, an organization in Washington dedicated to the preservation of cultural heritage in conflict zones, said giving Afghans access to their savings would prevent a currency collapse and allow them to develop their communities independently.

“The bottom line is this is a post-conflict country,” Benard told Arab News. “In Germany (after the Second World War), we had the Marshall Plan and it helped them become a normal country again and rebuild their livelihoods.

“In the case of Afghanistan, they have the money themselves, $9 billion, and we are holding it back and are instead raising new donor funds. But this was exactly what ruined the Afghan experiment for the past 20 years: We kept them dependent on foreign experts and foreign funding. What they need now is to get on their own feet — and they want to.”

FASTFACTS

* UN agencies say 22.8 million Afghans are experiencing acute hunger and food insecurity.

* US, World Bank and IMF urged to unfreeze Afghan assets, loans and aid packages.

Under the sanctions regime imposed on Afghanistan, individuals, nongovernmental organizations and owners of small businesses cannot access savings held in foreign banks because Western powers are worried the Taliban might try to appropriate the money.

Benard said this could be prevented by releasing the money “in small monthly amounts and if they try to take it, you can always freeze it again. You don’t give them $9 billion all at once.”

The money could go directly to the Afghan central bank, where it would be regulated by law, before it is distributed to Afghan savers through currency exchanges across the country.

“This is totally normal,” said Benard. “What is not normal is for the US to say, ‘We don’t like the outcome of the war, so we are freezing your money.’”




Beneficiary Niaz Mohammad shows how the pomegranates he has harvested don't ripen in his orchard around Ghra village in Daman district south of Kandahar. After realising that the lack of irrigation didn't let his pomegranate trees grow, Niaz decided to fell his orchard and plant instead wheat that needs of less water. (©FAO/Alessio Romenzi)

Shakib Noori, US-based director of sustainable development at AMS, told Arab News the best solution for Afghanistan is to ensure aid remains “apolitical and not a carrot-or-stick tool of the Western world to coerce the Taliban.”

However, he said it is also important “to ensure that the current regime in Kabul does not benefit from the flow of the humanitarian assistance designated specifically for the ordinary residents of Afghanistan.”

Aid agencies said banking is not the only sector in need of support to stave off economic collapse. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, a crucial way to support the Afghan people is to shore up agriculture, which forms the backbone of the nation’s economy and its food security.

“Afghanistan is now one of the world’s largest and most severe hunger crises,” Rein Paulsen, director of the FAO’s Office of Emergencies and Resilience, told Arab News.




Khialy Gul’s neighbor girls carry wheat bunches at a field in Nawju village, Kuz Kunar district of Nangarhar, Afghanistan on 10 May 2021. (©FAO/Farshad Usyan)

“Half the population — 22.8 million people — are confronting acute hunger and food insecurity at the moment. Not only do they not know where their next meal may be coming from, but a majority of them are also agriculture-reliant, rural families who are being forced to make horrific choices about whether to stay in their homes or to walk away from their livelihoods in search of aid elsewhere.

“Unless we tackle the causes that underlie this crisis, we can expect things to continue to get worse. This crisis is the result of a combination of factors but one key factor involves the underlying vulnerabilities that affect what is the bedrock of Afghanistan’s economy and food security: agriculture.”

Agriculture accounts for 25 percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product, 70 percent of Afghans directly rely on domestic agricultural production for their food or income, and 80 percent receive some sort of economic benefit from the sector.

“The criticality of agriculture in the country simply cannot be overstated,” said Paulsen. “Paradoxically, the people most affected right now by Afghanistan’s hunger crisis are its food producers.

“Out of the 22.8 million Afghans (faced with hunger and food insecurity), the largest share — 17.8 million people — reside in rural areas and depend primarily on agriculture.”

Sultan of Unfreeze Afghanistan summed up the situation bluntly: Afghanistan is falling off a cliff, with the economic shock of losing 45 percent of GDP overnight. If the banking sector collapses, a further 30 percent of GDP could be lost.

The US and other countries are going to have to “work with current Afghan authorities, despite the fraught history and long war,” if they hope to avert further suffering, she added.


UK lawmakers criticize ‘absence’ of Afghan evacuation plan

UK lawmakers criticize ‘absence’ of Afghan evacuation plan
Updated 58 min 10 sec ago

UK lawmakers criticize ‘absence’ of Afghan evacuation plan

UK lawmakers criticize ‘absence’ of Afghan evacuation plan
  • The committee criticized the Foreign Office for the “total absence” of a plan for evacuating Afghans

LONDON: Britain’s withdrawal from Afghanistan was a “disaster and betrayal” hampered by a lack of leadership from senior politicians and civil servants, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee said in a report released Tuesday.
The committee criticized the Foreign Office for the “total absence” of a plan for evacuating Afghans who supported the UK mission despite knowing for 18 months that such an evacuation might be necessary.
This was compounded by the fact that there seemed to be no clear lines of leadership among political leaders, with decisions made on the basis of “untraceable and unaccountable political interventions,” the committee said in its report.
“The fact that the Foreign Office’s senior leaders were on holiday when Kabul fell marks a fundamental lack of seriousness, grip or leadership at a time of national emergency,” the committee said.
The report was based on an eight-month inquiry during which the committee heard testimony from 20 witnesses and reviewed written evidence from 36 organizations.


Beijing ramps up COVID-19 quarantine, Shanghai residents decry uneven rules

Beijing ramps up COVID-19 quarantine, Shanghai residents decry uneven rules
Updated 24 May 2022

Beijing ramps up COVID-19 quarantine, Shanghai residents decry uneven rules

Beijing ramps up COVID-19 quarantine, Shanghai residents decry uneven rules
  • Chinese vice premier: Situation in Beijing manageable, but containment efforts cannot ease

BEIJING/SHANGHAI: Beijing stepped up quarantine efforts to end its month-old COVID-19 outbreak as fresh signs of frustration emerged in Shanghai, where some bemoaned unfair curbs with the city of 25 million preparing to lift a prolonged lockdown in just over a week.
Even as China’s drastic attempts to eradicate COVID-19 entirely — its “zero-COVID” approach — bite into prospects for the world’s second-biggest economy, new reported infection numbers remain well below levels seen in many Western cities. The capital reported 48 new cases for Monday among its population of 22 million, with Shanghai reporting fewer than 500.
Still, Chinese Vice Premier Sun Chunlan called for more thorough measures to cut virus transmission and adhere to the nation’s zero-COVID-19 policy during an inspection tour in Beijing, state agency Xinhua reported on Tuesday.
The situation in Beijing was manageable, but containment efforts cannot ease, she said, according to Xinhua.
In one example of the stringency of Beijing’s approach, around 1,800 people in one city neighborhood were relocated to Zhangjiakou city in the nearby Hebei province for quarantine, the state-backed Beijing Daily reported.
Still in place are instructions for residents in six of the capital’s 16 districts to work from home, while a further three districts encouraged people to follow such measures, with each district responsible for implementing its own guidelines.
Beijing had already reduced public transport, requesting some shopping malls and other venues to close and sealing buildings where new cases were detected.
In Shanghai, authorities plan to keep most restrictions in place this month, before a more complete lifting of the two-month-old lockdown from June 1. Even then, public venues will have to cap people flows at 75 percent of capacity.
With Shanghai officially declared to be a zero-COVID-19 city, some authorities allowed more people to leave their homes for brief periods over the past week, and more supermarkets and pharmacies were authorized to reopen and provide deliveries.
But other lower-level officials separately tightened restrictions in some neighborhoods, ordering residents back indoors to cement progress achieved so far during the city’s final lap toward exiting the lockdown.
That has led to frustration and complaints of uneven treatment among some residents.
While the zero-COVID-19 status describes the entire city, and residents in some compounds have been allowed to move in and out of their homes freely, others have been told they can only go out for a few hours, and many of those stuck indoors were told nothing.
Videos circulating on social media this week showed residents arguing with officials to be let out of their residential compounds.
The Shanghai government did not immediately respond to a request to comment.
One resident said people in his compound decided on the WeChat social media platform to go out in groups.
“Let’s strike at our gate tonight to demand that we be allowed to go out like many of other compounds in the neighborhood,” he quoted one of his neighbors as saying in the group chat.
A video he shared then showed a group of people arguing at the entrance of the compound with a man who described himself as a sub-district official, who asked the residents to go back inside and discuss the situation.
“Don’t bother with him,” one person said as some people were socialising outside the compound.
People in at least two other compounds were planning to try going outside despite not being told they were allowed to do so, residents said.


FBI counts 61 ‘active shooter’ incidents last year, up 52 percent from 2020

The FBI noted that its active shooter report does not encompass all gun violence or even all mass shootings. (REUTERS)
The FBI noted that its active shooter report does not encompass all gun violence or even all mass shootings. (REUTERS)
Updated 24 May 2022

FBI counts 61 ‘active shooter’ incidents last year, up 52 percent from 2020

The FBI noted that its active shooter report does not encompass all gun violence or even all mass shootings. (REUTERS)
  • The Las Vegas attack alone helped push 2017’s annual casualty toll — 143 killed and 591 wounded — to record highs even though there were only 31 active shooting incidents that year, about half the number in 2021

WASHINGTON: The United States experienced 61 “active shooter” incidents last year, up sharply in the sheer number of attacks, casualties and geographic distribution from 2021 and the highest tally in over 20 years, the FBI reported on Monday.
The 2021 total, spread over 30 states, was 52 percent higher than 2020 and about double each of the three previous years, according to the FBI. The agency defines an active shooter as someone engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a public space in seemingly random fashion.
Commercial businesses accounted for just over half of all such incidents last year, which also was notable for an emerging trend of “roving active shooters” opening fire in multiple locations, as was the case with a gunman who attacked several Atlanta-area day spas, the FBI said.
Last year’s active-shooter carnage left 103 people dead and 140 wounded, the report said. By contrast, the FBI counted 40 active-shooter attacks in 19 states that killed 38 people and wounded 126 in 2020, a year that coincided with the height of restrictions on social and economic life due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Comparisons with recent years are heavily skewed by data from 2017, the year a gunman opened fire on an outdoor music festival in Las Vegas from a high-rise hotel window, killing 56 people and wounding hundreds more in a single incident.
The Las Vegas attack alone helped push 2017’s annual casualty toll — 143 killed and 591 wounded — to record highs even though there were only 31 active shooting incidents that year, about half the number in 2021.
As high as last year’s death toll was, it ranks as only the seventh deadliest year in active shooting incidents dating back to 2000, the first year for which FBI figures are available. Still, it marks the biggest number of such attacks on record, exceeding only the 40 recorded in 2020.
California, despite having some of the nation’s toughest gun laws, accounted for more active shooter incidents than any other state last year, six out of 61, followed by Texas and Georgia with five each, according to the report.
The single deadliest incident of 2021 was the mass shooting at the Kings Soopers Grocery Store in Boulder, Colorado, in which 10 victims perished. Eight were killed and seven wounded at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis.
The FBI noted that its active shooter report does not encompass all gun violence or even all mass shootings, which the government defines as at least killings in a single incident.
Excluded from the data were gang- or drug-related acts of violence, incidents defined strictly as domestic disputes, isolated hostage situations or crossfire from other criminal acts, the FBI said.


South Asia’s intense heat wave a ‘sign of things to come’

South Asia’s intense heat wave a ‘sign of things to come’
Updated 24 May 2022

South Asia’s intense heat wave a ‘sign of things to come’

South Asia’s intense heat wave a ‘sign of things to come’
  • Current level of global warming, caused by human-caused climate change, has made those heat waves 30 times more likely
  • Heat wave blamed for glacier burst in Pakistan, causing floods, and scorching of wheat crops in India

NEW DELHI: The devastating heat wave that has baked India and Pakistan in recent months was made more likely by climate change and is a glimpse of the region’s future, international scientists said in a study released Monday.
The World Weather Attribution group analyzed historical weather data that suggested early, long heat waves that impact a massive geographical area are rare, once-a-century events. But the current level of global warming, caused by human-caused climate change, has made those heat waves 30 times more likely.
If global heating increases to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) more than pre-industrial levels, then heat waves like this could occur twice in a century and up to once every five years, said Arpita Mondal, a climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai, who was part of the study.
“This is a sign of things to come,” Mondal said.
The results are conservative: An analysis published last week by the United Kingdom’s Meteorological Office said the heat wave was probably made 100 times more likely by climate change, with such scorching temperatures likely to reoccur every three years.
The World Weather Attribution analysis is different as it is trying to calculate how specific aspects of the heat wave, such as the length and the region impacted, were made more likely by global warming. “The real result is probably somewhere between ours and the (UK) Met Office result for how much climate change increased this event,” said Friederike Otto, a climate scientist at the Imperial College of London, who was also a part of the study.
What is certain, though, is the devastation the heat wave has wreaked. India sweltered through the hottest March in the country since records began in 1901 and April was the warmest on record in Pakistan and parts of India. The effects have been cascading and widespread: A glacier burst in Pakistan, sending floods downstream; the early heat scorched wheat crops in India, forcing it to ban exports to nations reeling from food shortages due to Russia’s war in Ukraine; it also resulted in an early spike in electricity demand in India that depleted coal reserves, resulting in acute power shortages affecting millions.
Then there is the impact on human health. At least 90 people have died in the two nations, but the region’s insufficient death registration means that this is likely an undercount. South Asia is the most affected by heat stress, according to an analysis by The Associated Press of a dataset published Columbia University’s climate school. India alone is home to more than a third of the world’s population that lives in areas where extreme heat is rising.
Experts agree the heat wave underscores the need for the world to not just combat climate change by cutting down greenhouse gas emissions, but to also adapt to its harmful impacts as quickly as possible. Children and the elderly are most at risk from heat stress, but its impact is also inordinately bigger for the poor who may not have access to cooling or water and often live in crowded slums that are hotter than leafier, wealthier neighborhoods.
Rahman Ali, 42, a ragpicker in an eastern suburb of the Indian capital New Delhi earns less than $3 a day by collecting waste from people’s homes and sorting it to salvage whatever can be sold. It’s backbreaking work and his tin-roofed home in the crowded slum offers little respite from the heat.
“What can we do? If I don’t work...we won’t eat,” said the father of two.
Some Indian cities have tried to find solutions. The western city of Ahmedabad was the first in South Asia to design a heat wave plan for its population of over 8.4 million, all the way back in 2013. The plan includes an early warning system that tells health workers and residents to prepare for heat waves, empowers administrations to keep parks open so that people can shade and provides information to schools so they’re able to tweak their schedules.
The city has also been trying to “cool” roofs by experimenting with various materials absorb heat differently. Their aim is to build roofs that’ll reflect the sun and bring down indoor temperatures by using white, reflective paint or cheaper materials like dried grass, said Dr. Dileep Mavalankar, who heads the Indian Institute of Public Health in western Indian city Gandhinagar and helped design the 2013 plan.
Most Indian cities are less prepared and India’s federal government is now working with 130 cities in 23 heat wave-prone states for them to develop similar plans. Earlier this month, the federal government also asked states to sensitize health workers on managing heat-related illnesses and ensure that ice packs, oral rehydration salts, and cooling appliances in hospitals were available.
But Mavalankar, who wasn’t part of the study, pointed to the lack of government warnings in newspapers or TV for most Indian cities and said that local administrations had just not “woken up to the heat.”
 


WHO says no urgent need for mass monkeypox vaccinations

The logo of the World Health Organization is seen at the WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. (AP file photo)
The logo of the World Health Organization is seen at the WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. (AP file photo)
Updated 24 May 2022

WHO says no urgent need for mass monkeypox vaccinations

The logo of the World Health Organization is seen at the WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. (AP file photo)
  • The primary measures to control the outbreak are contact tracing and isolation, Pebody said, noting that it is not a virus that spreads very easily, nor has it so far caused serious disease

LONDON: The World Health Organization does not believe the monkeypox outbreak outside of Africa requires mass vaccinations as measures like good hygiene and safe sexual behavior will help control its spread, a senior official said on Monday.
Richard Pebody, who leads the high-threat pathogen team at WHO Europe, also told Reuters in an interview that immediate supplies of vaccines and antivirals are relatively limited.
His comments came as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it was in the process of releasing some Jynneos vaccine doses for use in monkeypox cases.
Germany’s government said on Monday that it was assessing options for vaccinations, while Britain has offered them to some health care workers.
Public health authorities in Europe and North America are investigating more than 100 suspected and confirmed cases of the viral infection in the worst outbreak of the virus outside of Africa, where it is endemic.
The primary measures to control the outbreak are contact tracing and isolation, Pebody said, noting that it is not a virus that spreads very easily, nor has it so far caused serious disease. The vaccines used to combat monkeypox can have some significant side-effects, he added.
It is unclear what is driving the outbreak, with scientists trying to understand the origin of the cases and whether anything about the virus has changed. There is no evidence the virus has mutated, a senior executive at the UN agency said separately on Monday.
Many — but not all — of the people who have been diagnosed in the current monkeypox outbreak have been men who have sex with men. But that may be because this demographic is likely to seek medical advice or access sexual health screening more readily, the WHO said earlier in the day.
Most of the confirmed cases have not been linked to travel to Africa, which suggests there may be large amounts of undetected cases, said Pebody. Some health authorities suspect there is some degree of community spread.
“So we’re only seeing ... the tip of the iceberg,” he said.
Given the pace of the outbreak, and lack of clarity around what is driving it, there has been worry that large events and parties this summer could make things much worse.
“I’m not saying to people don’t have a good time, don’t go to attend these events,” Pebody said.
“It’s rather around what people do at the parties that matters. So it’s about safe sexual behavior, good hygiene, regular hand washing — all these sorts of things will help to limit the transmission of this virus.”