Saturday, July 13, 2024

UK should restore diplomatic presence to help Afghan women, says aid chief

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The UK should consider restoring its diplomatic presence in Afghanistan to support Afghan women and to help monitor the impact of British aid, a commissioner for the official UK aid watchdog has suggested.

Hugh Bayley, who visited Kabul in May, said he believed Afghan women and NGOs would welcome more western diplomats to represent the opinions of women to the Taliban as he released a report by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) on the effectiveness of the UK programme, which is the second largest operated by Britain.

The UK pulled all diplomatic representation out of Afghanistan as the Taliban took over in 2021, and since then Afghan bank assets held overseas have been frozen, and the economy has nosedived. Yet as much as $2.9bn (£2.3bn) of aid has been sent to the country, largely to NGOs rather than to Taliban-directed ministries.

No state recognises the Taliban as the Afghan government, although countries including Russia, China, Iran, Turkey and India have opened diplomatic missions in Kabul.

Bayley said the benefits of a British presence had been put to him by NGOs, on top of the regular visits to Kabul from the UK mission in Doha.

“The UK’s £150m programme in Afghanistan is currently our second biggest bilateral programme anywhere in the world, second after Ukraine, and ICAI’s view is that if you are dispensing that amount of British taxpayer’s money, you need eyes on the ground to see how it has been spent,” he said.

“If western countries don’t have a presence on the ground and don’t engage with both Afghan civil society and the Taliban, then the western aid funded approach will achieve less,” he said, pointing out that although the UK government has a target for 50% of its aid to reach women, “it is impossible in the case of Afghanistan without a presence on the ground to know if the target is being met”.

Bayley added that he had been told the absence of diplomatic missions made it harder for international NGOs because they were identified as the voices of the western world. A senior UN official had told him: “If we do not engage with Afghan citizens including the Taliban we will burn one bridge after another.”

He said although women were genuinely beneficiaries of aid, Afghanistan could be “heading for a catastrophe since gender restrictions imposed by the Taliban means the number of trained midwives is rapidly declining, storing up trouble in the future.

“Multiple power struggles are going on between the Taliban, Afghan citizens and especially women. Women in local NGOs are actively and bravely resisting pushing back against the Taliban in meetings, and it was clear that despite the effort to marginalise women, some are still going to work, including midwives that say to men, “If you want babies to die, stop me from going to work.’”

Bayley also said he heard that many hospital counsellors were reporting deep distress bordering on the suicidal among girls of school age, who the Taliban had removed from education. “I was told these women of secondary school age are in the depths of despair,” he said.

He said he had been told women found it more difficult to access food aid because they cannot use public transport and taxis were expensive.

Some girls in Kabul have turned to tailoring training after an education ban. Photograph: Samiullah Popal/EPA

“You’re bound to have an emotional reaction to the intense cruelty and marginalisation of women and girls,” Bayley said, but at the same time he hailed the “tremendous courage” with which so many were resisting. He also praised the UK for diverting a lot of its reduced Afghan aid budget to NGOs.

More broadly he urged the world not to allow Afghanistan to become a forgotten humanitarian crisis, or for aid to become exclusively humanitarian. “Over the next two to five years we have to transition to development, humanitarian assistance without development is not sustainable,” Bayley said.

The numbers in Afghanistan classified as in humanitarian need had dropped to 23.7 million last year, down from 28.3 million. This was partly due to an improved harvest and the appreciation of the local currency.

But Bayley said UN humanitarian aid appeals for Afghanistan were not being backed. The 2024 UN humanitarian needs overview for the county, released last December, appeals for $3.06bn. Less than a quarter (23%) of this has been funded as of 9 May this year.

The ICAI aid report said Afghanistan’s mean annual temperature had increased by almost twice the global average since 1951. It added that climate-crisis models predicted future temperatures would continue to rise faster than the global average. Annual droughts are predicted to become the norm in many parts of the country by 2030.

“It’s necessary for the international community to move beyond a crisis response to a response that builds capacity and resilience within Afghanistan,” Bayley said. “Unless these problems are addressed, the humanitarian crisis is going to continue for years and decades, and the plight of ordinary Afghan people will get worse and worse.”

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