While Afghanistan continues to slip into a devastating economic and humanitarian crisis, there is one global player that can help the country get through: the United Nations. While its member states continue to discuss whether to recognize the Taliban government, the UN can still play a significant role in supporting the Afghan people. In fact, as an international institution, it often assumes the responsibilities that no single nation wants to bear.
Despite being excluded from the US-Taliban negotiations and the intra-Afghan peace process, the UN is now seen as the primary path to humanitarian aid in Afghanistan. If individual states overpower and undermine the UN by preventing the institution from engaging with the Taliban, obvious weaknesses in the UN system will inevitably come to the surface. While the world waits for the Taliban to prove that they have changed, the UN also needs to change its approach and would do well to consider the following messages.
Firstly, it is important to recognize that there is still as great a need for a political solution in Afghanistan today as there was before the Taliban took over Kabul. Instead of writing off the Afghan peace process as dead in the water, it is more constructive to see it as a multi-year, adaptive and ongoing process where all parties are brought together to build bridges and reach a common understanding of Afghanistan’s future.
In view of this urgent need to achieve lasting peace in Afghanistan, the UN must ensure that humanitarian and development responses are supported rather than impaired the peace process. In doing so, the humanitarian-development peace pact offers a powerful framework for promoting more integrated approaches that break down the traditional silos of the international aid system to respond to the Afghan crisis.
Secondly, the UN can take the lead in promoting a developmental approach to humanitarian aid. The issue of food security is critical as Afghanistan is already experiencing severe food shortages and may face widespread famine. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), a severe drought this summer has affected millions of farmers in Afghanistan.
To avert a further worsening of the country’s food security crisis, rapid action is needed. Yet humanitarian business-as-usual models for importing pre-packaged foods are a lost opportunity to support agricultural livelihoods and early economic recovery. In parallel with aid distribution points, there is a need for aid collection points across the country to collect food where it is available.
In the coming months, the UN can support small farms through public food procurement, rebuild food pipelines and facilitate food transport, thus contributing to agricultural resilience and transformation in Afghanistan.
Third, meeting humanitarian needs on a large scale will require courageous and innovative forms of funding to deal with the multidimensional crisis and challenging operating environment in Afghanistan without establishing dependency. In October, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) announced the creation of a People’s Economy Fund, which will provide access to cash for vulnerable Afghans and micro-enterprises that can bridge livelihood support and macroeconomic stabilization. While this is a welcome step, a much larger scale of resource mobilization is needed.
The UN can also play a crucial role in convening regional states to address pressing issues that hinder more effective humanitarian response. As a landlocked country, Afghanistan must rely on neighborhood cooperation for help. Pakistan has long been a natural choice for relief organizations to purchase relief supplies. Although the route is vital, it is risky to be so heavily dependent on one border. The UN can help diversify aid channels, including through Uzbekistan and Iran.
Fourth, there is an urgent need to protect 20 years of investment in state and societal capabilities in Afghanistan. This means that the country needs assistance in addition to life-saving assistance. In this context, it is imperative that foreign aid avoids bypassing existing structures, especially in the education and health sectors, which are crucial for socio-economic stability and employ a large number of women.
In mid-October, US Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo reiterated that he did not foresee any circumstances under which the Taliban could gain access to its frozen assets. Unstable cash flows and low reserves, combined with a limited opportunity to receive assistance and funding, will create an opportunity for “terrorist” groups to manipulate victims or poor people. The UN can play a crucial role in acting as a good faith monitor in a step-by-step approach to the release of Afghan assets to help pay much-needed health and education salaries and address the deteriorating socio-economic situation of the majority of Afghans.
Fifth, given the lack of trust between the Taliban and the international community, the UN is best placed to disseminate a step-by-step roadmap for strengthening humanitarian and development cooperation. The UN has set a good example with UNICEF, which coordinates access to education with the Taliban and plans to directly fund Afghan teachers. Both UNICEF and the World Health Organization have also launched polio vaccination campaigns with the support of the Taliban: In October, the Taliban allowed a national polio vaccination campaign led by the UN to continue, saying they are committed to allowing women to participate as frontline workers.
In a promising move towards full-fledged development cooperation, Deputy Prime Minister Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar recently met with Achim Steiner, Director-General of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), in Doha, where they discussed Afghanistan’s current economic crisis.
In short, as UN agencies are already coordinating humanitarian projects with the Taliban, they are well positioned to reach a mutual agreement on the necessary steps to establish a functional partnership between the Afghan government and the international community. Given the vital role that Qatar has played as an intermediary for the Taliban and the international community, it is only logical that it would also have a key role to play in facilitating this process.
In this connection, there is a need for a clear framework with measurable expectations and milestones that will trigger mutual actions. On the Taliban side, this could include ensuring secure access, ensuring that aid is not sucked in, guaranteeing women’s rights and forming a truly inclusive government representing all Afghans. On the part of the international community, reciprocal steps could start from the resumption of development aid or the removal of sanctions to the final full recognition of the Afghan government.
Finally, it will require the political will and the right leadership to represent the UN for this to happen and for a fostering operational relationship to emerge between the Taliban and the UN. While the Taliban’s perception of the UN is colored by the sanctions it has imposed on the group, it was interesting at a recent meeting to note the loving reference of the Taliban leaders to the time of Lakhdar Brahimi, the former UN Special Representative for Afghanistan. Despite their disagreement with UN policy, they clearly identified better with him as a Muslim who understood their faith and culture and showed understanding for their views without compromising the basic humanitarian principles.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial position.