Afghans at risk of near-universal poverty, UN report warns

Afghanistan’s population of 38 million people risks being plunged into near-universal poverty faced with a “catastrophic deterioration” of the country’s heavily aid-dependent economy, according to a warning issued by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

The study, which examines a series of scenarios facing the already impoverished country under the Taliban’s new hardline rule, suggests a worst-case scenario where as many as 97% of Afghans would sink below the poverty line by next year – a staggering increase of 25%.

It comes before Monday’s UN donor pledging conference for Afghanistan, convened by the UN secretary general, António Guterres.

“We are facing a full-on development collapse on top of humanitarian and economic crises,” Kanni Wignaraja, the UN assistant secretary general, said of the report, which warned of the need to avert a “national implosion at all costs”.

“Half of the population is already in need of humanitarian support. This analysis suggests that we are on course for rapid, catastrophic deterioration in the lives of Afghanistan’s most vulnerable people.

“A transition to new authorities, a pandemic, a drought, an oncoming winter season – each of these on their own would already pose a major challenge. Taken together, they form a crisis that demands urgent action,” Wignaraja said, outlining a proposed package of interventions designed to help improve the immediate living conditions of the most vulnerable people and communities, prioritising safeguarding women’s and girls’ rights.

The stark warning from the UN agency comes as the international community is struggling with how to engage with the Taliban – who show little sign of having moderated since they were last in power in the 1990s – while confronting the reality of a looming economic and humanitarian disaster that threatens millions of Afghans.

The UNDP appraisal itself paints a grim picture, showing the worsening situation can only drive more people into displacement. It says: “Afghanistan is facing a financial crisis following the takeover, with much of the international aid that had propped up the economy frozen. With skyrocketing food prices and an interruption in economic activities and essential services, food insecurity is rising precipitously.

“The health status of much of the population, already compounded by Covid-19, is also of immediate concern. These ‘life shocks’ are felt hardest in poor urban and rural communities, where the most vulnerable are facing the unenviable choice of either finding a way to sustain their livelihoods while remaining in place or joining the large numbers already displaced.”

While the UN has launched a $606m (£440m) emergency appeal to help nearly 11 million people in Afghanistan, the almost one-third of the population already in desperate need as a result of drought, displacement, chronic poverty and a sharp increase in hostilities as the Taliban swept to power last month have pushed the country to the brink of economic collapse.

A trickle of aid has been reaching the country, including from Pakistan and Qatar, since the Taliban took power, but with shortages of cash and some countries and institutions suspending aid, concern has been mounting rapidly.

UNDP’s modelling identifies a worst-case scenario as defined by a two-month interruption to trade with all main partners, a 4% decrease in capital spending efficiency, and disruptions in connectivity.

According to the appraisal, this combination of factors could cause the baseline poverty rate – now at 72% – to balloon.

In addition to a prolonged drought and the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, Afghanistan is contending with the upheaval caused by the current political transition: frozen foreign reserves, collapsing public finances, increasing pressure on the banking system, and rising poverty.

Even before the Taliban takeover, nearly half the population needed some humanitarian aid and more than half of all children under the age of 5 were expected to face acute malnutrition, according to the UN report that accompanied the emergency appeal.

The economic challenges are steep. Most Afghans live on less than $2 a day, 80% of the country’s budget has been covered by international funds over the past 20 jare, and no industries of note have emerged to provide employment to a mostly young population.

Tens of thousands of Afghans have fled, most of them members of the educated elite.

Yet despite such dependence on international support, the Taliban sent a message with their interim cabinet lineup this week that they intend to run Afghanistan on their terms as it put veterans of their 1990s rule and the subsequent insurgency against a US-led military coalition at the head of key ministries. The cabinet includes former Guantánamo Bay prisoners and – perhaps one of the most eyebrow-raising appointments – Sirajuddin Haqqani, wanted by the FBI for questioning in several deadly attacks, as interior minister.

“The interactions with the international community … are going to continue,” the chief Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said, commenting on the challenges facing Afghanistan.

“We are going to be working on our natural resources and our resources in order to revitalise our economy.”

It remains unclear, egter, how the Taliban will find the funds to pay civil servants’ salaries – or to support critical infrastructure to keep the lights on, water running and telecommunications working.

The Taliban’s current annual income, much of which is raised from taxation and criminal activities, is estimated to be somewhere between $300m and $1.5bn. While those funds bankrolled a successful insurgency, it is nowhere near meeting the needs of running a nation, experts say.

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