Poverty is growing throughout Afghanistan as middle-class jobs disappear

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – Not long ago, Ferishta Salihi and her family had enough for a decent life. Her husband worked and earned a good salary. She could send more of her daughters to private schools.

But now, after her husband lost his job following the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, she was lined up with hundreds of other Afghans, and signed up for the UN World Food Program to receive food and cash that her family desperately needs, just for to survive.

“We have lost everything. We have lost our minds,” Salihi said after her registration was completed. With her was her eldest daughter, 17-year-old Fatima, whom she had to take out of school. She can not afford to pay the fees at a private school, and the Taliban so far does not allow teenage girls to go to public schools.

“I do not want anything for myself, I just want my children to get an education,” Salihi said.

Within a few months, while Afghanistan’s economy is cratering, many stable middle-class families like Salihis have plunged into desperation, unsure of how they will pay for their next meal. This is one of the reasons why the UN is raising the alarm about a hunger crisis, where 22% of the population of 38 million is already close to starvation and a further 36% are facing acute food insecurity – mainly because people cannot afford food.

The economy was already in trouble under the former, US-backed government, which often could not pay its employees. The situation was exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and by a punitive drought that drove up food prices. As early as 2020, almost half of Afghanistan’s population was living in poverty.

Then, after the Taliban’s takeover on 15 August, the world’s closure of funding for Afghanistan pulled the rug out from under the country’s small middle class. International funding once paid for a large part of the state budget – and without it, the Taliban have largely been unable to pay salaries or provide public services. The international community has not recognized the Taliban regime and demands that the militants form a more inclusive government and respect human rights.

International aid also nurtured projects around the country that provided jobs, most of which have now been put on hold. The country’s banks are cut off from the international banking system, further narrowing the private sector. The country’s economy is estimated to have fallen by 40% in just three months.

Hospitals are seeing an increasing number of emaciated, malnourished children, mostly from the country’s poorest families, who already barely made it.

Now families who have seen their once stable livelihoods ruined are also left with nothing and have to scrape for ways to cover food, rent and medical expenses.

Salihi’s husband once earned about 24,000 Afghans ($ 264) a month by working in the logistics department at the World Bank’s office in Kabul. But after the Taliban took power, the World Bank stopped its projects. The 39-year-old Salihi said her husband was told not to come to the office and that he has not received his salary since.

Now she is the family’s only source of income. One of her neighbors has a business that sells nuts so they give her bags of nuts to peel at home, and she then sells the shells to people who use them to burn for fuel.

Her husband, she said, spends her day walking around the district looking for work. “All he can do is measure the streets with his steps,” she said, using an expression of someone who had nothing to do.

The United States and other international donors are sending money to Afghanistan for humanitarian aid through UN agencies, which ensure that the money does not go into the coffers of the Taliban government. The main focus has been on two tracks. The UN Development Program, the World Health Organization and UNICEF are working to directly pay salaries to doctors and nurses around the country to prevent the healthcare sector from collapsing. WFP, meanwhile, provides direct cash assistance and food to families and tries to keep them afloat.

WFP has had to step up its program dramatically. In 2020, it provided assistance to 9 million people compared to the previous year. So far this year, that number has risen to nearly 14 million, and the rate has risen markedly every month since August. Next year, the agency aims to support more than 23 million people, and it says it needs $ 220 million a month to do so.

It is not only the poorest of the poor, who are usually based in rural areas, who need help. “There’s a new urban class of people who, until the summer, would have deducted a salary … and are now facing hunger for the first time,” said Shelley Thakral, WFP spokeswoman for Afghanistan.

“People now have to hunt for food, they skip meals, and mothers are forced to reduce portions of food,” she said.

Last week, hundreds of men and women lined up in a gym in a suburb of western Kabul to receive a cash raffle – 3,500 afghanis a month, about $ 38.

Nouria Sarvari, a 45-year-old widow standing in line, used to work at the Ministry of Higher Education. After the Taliban came to power, they asked most female government employees to stay home. Sarvari said she has not received a salary since and she is struggling to keep food on the table for her three children who still live with her.

Her 14-year-old son, Sajjad, sells plastic bags in the market for a little cash. Sarvari says she is dependent on help from neighbors. “I buy on credit from merchants. I owe so many store owners, and most of what I receive today just goes to pay what I owe.”

Samim Hassanzwai said his life has been completely overturned over the past year. His father and mother both died of COVID-19, he said. His father was an officer in the intelligence service, and his mother was a translator for a US agency.

Hassanzwai, 29, had worked in the Ministry of Culture but has not been paid since the Taliban came to power. Now he is unemployed with his wife and three children as well as his four younger sisters all dependent on him.

“I had a job, my mother had a job, my father had his duties. We were fine with money, ”he said. “Now everything’s done.”

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