Economic sanctions drive poverty and hunger in Afghanistan. There is no time to waste

Imagine not being paid for two months for your government job, and then seeing the very structure of the society around you collapse, and then working for two more months without pay during new public authorities – before they lost that job altogether. In the meantime, with no employment prospects, you now face sky-high prices for essential commodities, including food prices, which are escalating at unprecedented prices in a matter of weeks.

This is the scenario that many Afghans face, and lack of access to food can be the biggest proof of their suffering. The vast majority of Afghans say they simply cannot afford to buy enough to feed their families. Before the fall of Kabul on August 15, 80 percent of households here in Afghanistan struggled to feed themselves. Six weeks later, it was 95 percent.

In other words, more Afghans are facing a food crisis in an emergency than ever before. The global authority for such cases, the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification System, warns that 22.8 million Afghans face acute food insecurity (55 percent of the population) and that nearly nine million of them face emergency food insecurity. This is equivalent to the people of Quebec not knowing where their next meal is coming from.

But this is not the usual cry for help from the UN World Food Program, because these figures are less driven by drought or natural disasters than by something completely different. Tackling this situation requires that we now shout from the well-spoken rooftops: the freezing of foreign exchange reserves and international development aid to Afghanistan is undeniably causing hunger-related deaths.

Western nations’ decisions to cut off the Taliban from international financial and development aid were understandable in the current political context, but these decisions have enveloped the country in a cash liquidity crisis that is already killing Afghan children.

The crisis is accelerating at a pace that many years of relief workers have never seen, and has become more complex since the Taliban took control – and things were terrible before that time. A child born in Afghanistan already had a 50 percent chance of starting life below the poverty line; they now have a 90 percent chance of being born into a family whose income cannot cover their basic needs.

Prior to the takeover, 80 percent of the government’s budget came from international finances. It was abruptly turned off in the days following the seizure of power as Western nations froze Afghanistan’s foreign exchange reserves and international financial institutions suspended access to funds. The economic meltdown in the country has been rapid and devastating.

The economic downturn will have long-term consequences for the entire population. In Afghanistan, the whole community is affected: Before Kabul fell, 75 percent of the higher-educated Afghans were food insecure; a month later it was 91 per cent. Job losses, lack of cash and soaring prices are creating a new class of hungry people in Afghanistan.

Today, the local currency is at a record low level. Banks are barely functioning, ATMs are empty, labor markets have collapsed, and as the World Food Program’s (WFP) Afghanistan director Mary-Ellen McGroarty notes, “basic services are crumbling before our eyes.” When people are forced to sell household rugs for food, they are on the verge of surviving.

Although Western nations have withdrawn their military presence, the war continues on a new fighting front – international financial and development aid. About 47,000 innocent civilians died in the conventional war, which was fought with ground troops and airstrikes. Millions can die in this new war without firing a single weapon.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres could not have said it better: “I urge the world to act and add liquidity to the Afghan economy to avoid collapse.”

As the WFP prepositions food to help Afghans cope through the coming harsh winter, there is no time to waste finding long-term ways to restore a reliable currency. If we do not listen to the call to release money and kick-start the fragile Afghan economy, people will be left with a desperate choice between staying and starving in their homes or migrating to neighboring countries in the region and beyond.

We can offer them a better choice, but we must act now.

John Aylieff is the Regional Director of the World Food Program for Asia and the Pacific.

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