Afghanistan faces a deepening humanitarian crisis that is hitting children particularly hard.
When the Taliban took control in August, most Western funds were shut down and the country’s assets were frozen. Without this money, the economy has collapsed, most health facilities have closed and people are unable to buy food, worsening an already existing drought and famine.
According to the World Food Program, almost 23 million Afghans are affected by acute hunger. This was the result of an analysis by the humanitarian organization Save the Children 14 million of these people are children, and 5 million are on the verge of starvation-like states. Around 13,700 newborns have died from malnutrition since January according to the Ministry of Health last month.
Hunger is not the only problem. School attendance has plummeted, and last week the Taliban broke their promise to reopen schools for girls from sixth grade.
Humanitarian organizations are now Afghanistan’s only lifeline. The United Nations called on the countries on Thursday to provide US$4.4 billion in humanitarian aid for Afghanistan, but the nation is still waiting for these much-needed funds.
Save the Children has been working in Afghanistan since 1976 and is present in 10 provinces of the country. After a brief hiatus after the Taliban took power, it resumed operations in October.
In early March, Janti Soeripto, President and CEO of Save the Children, visited Afghanistan. Soeripto spoke to HuffPost about the current situation in Afghanistan and how the children there are doing.
After your visit, how would you describe the current humanitarian catastrophe there?
I would say Afghanistan is by far the worst humanitarian crisis on the planet right now. And it’s not a great statement knowing that Yemen is the second biggest crisis on the planet and Yemen hasn’t gotten any better in the last six months either. It’s just that Afghanistan has gotten a lot worse.
When I spoke to people in the country, they were surprised at how quickly the concrete situation in terms of malnutrition rates, economic hardship, education and child protection was deteriorating. Before August 15th, it wasn’t perfect, to put it bluntly. But it quickly deteriorated.
How bad is child malnutrition in Afghanistan?
Daily visits from children [to Save the Children clinics] showing symptoms of malnutrition have more than doubled in the past five months. We immediately saw these children up close [were dying] of hunger in very remote areas where there wasn’t much at first, but also in urban areas where there was certainly a more stable situation before.
What else endangers the health of Afghan children?
The main concern for children [in remote areas] is dengue, measles and diarrhea. In many of these areas, mobile health clinics are the only primary health care available. Before August 15, we had just over 2,000 healthcare facilities. About half of them are not back in service yet.
How many children are currently not in school?
The Minister of Education told me that they believe there are currently up to 8 million children out of school and before August 5th we had about 2.5 million children out of school. A four-fold increase in the last six months of children not being able to access school is deeply worrying.
What do you think of the Taliban’s ban on girls going to school?
Not letting girls go back to school was a big disappointment and a real surprise. On Saturday our team met with the Ministry of Education when they were still happy that all the children were going back to school. And then on Wednesday [of last week], the opposite happened. That was a real step backwards.
I had the opportunity to visit a few [primary] Schools that we run for girls in the greater Kabul area. The girls were incredible. They were super engaged and full of energy that they were learning. You know, they told me they wanted to be doctors, nurses, and teachers. But they also told me that they were worried, and their mothers told me that they were worried that they wouldn’t be able to continue their education after elementary school.
What can humanitarian organizations do to help?
We’d love to continue doing educational programs if we know how to do them. But we have to make sure we don’t endanger girls even more. We must continue with the educational programs that we have. We would like to enlarge them [and train] almost 1,000 teachers. Because even if we had a policy that allowed girls to go back to high school, you still have to have teachers to teach them.
We want to make sure that even the practical barriers don’t stop girls from going back to school, apart from the whole political discussion. We need to push some of these practical options that we are considering, such as: B. Informal education for girls in secondary education – older age.
But we’ll look at that cautiously. We will not step in without thinking about it and conducting proper risk assessments to ensure we can do so as safely as possible.
What are the main obstacles to humanitarian aid reaching Afghans?
There is an immediate problem for humanitarian organizations to access cash to continue our work. We have some access through a single international banking partner that still does business with Afghanistan. We have the UN, which has been incredibly creative in making sure it brings money into the country for its own operations as well as for some of the international actors on the ground. And then we use informal money changers – which of course is expensive and risky, and it’s not very sustainable. But our greater concern is an economy completely dysfunctional as a result of these sanctions, and humanitarian funding alone will never replace a functioning government economy.
How do humanitarian organizations work with the Taliban?
We have worked with the Taliban before. They were in control of a number of areas prior to the takeover. So we’ve had to have these conversations at an operational level before, and we’ve had to have them where we want to make progress. We felt that the negotiations we were able to conduct in the various provinces had produced sufficiently acceptable results to start our work. We can do our work with female staff which was an absolute must for us. We were able to get visas for international colleagues.
Now it is also quite clear that we do not always speak with the authorities with one voice. What you hear in one ministry can then be completely turned around by someone else the next day, so things you agree on at the national level don’t always happen at the provincial level and vice versa. So that’s the balance that all of us operating in the country are trying to strike.
What are the possible scenarios for Afghanistan?
We have different scenarios for this. There was always hope, otherwise you can’t work in this industry. The hope was, and still is, that this educational setback is temporary, that we can reach the right level of agreement with the authorities to get girls back in school.
[The other hope is] that the international community can really stand behind the people of Afghanistan and provide humanitarian aid. Let’s not forget that the more than $4 billion in humanitarian funding requested represents a fraction of the money spent each year during the war.
Could it get any worse? Yes, it could – if the harvest fails, if the seeds are not sown, if we don’t get the amount of food into the country that we were counting on because of the Ukraine crisis and general inflation. It could get much worse, and that could ultimately lead to more violence.
So we definitely have a worst case scenario. We also have a better scenario. And for that we need a lot of political will, but also international commitment to the country.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.