Aid workers who remain in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan take a difficult path

Even as US and NATO forces and most of the Western diplomatic corps packed their bags and fled the Afghan capital last month as the Tali...


Even as US and NATO forces and most of the Western diplomatic corps packed their bags and fled the Afghan capital last month as the Taliban took control, a handful of international aid directors made a decision : they stayed where they were.

They are now the most visible representatives of the decades-long Western development mission in Afghanistan and, along with United Nations humanitarian agencies, are the people on the ground negotiating with the Taliban over the working conditions of thousands of people. ‘Afghan employees.

Seven of the eight directors who have remained to lead their organizations’ aid efforts in Afghanistan are women.

“There aren’t many of us here,” said one of them. “There is a lot of uncertainty. She, like others, has asked not to be named as relations with the Taliban, who have yet to announce a government, remain so weak.

Over the past 20 years, military and diplomatic forces around the world have taken control of central Kabul, filling a green area next to the presidential palace with embassies, military bases, and residences. But long before their arrival, non-governmental development organizations were working to reduce poverty and expand essential health and education services in Afghanistan.

Most of them were careful to distance themselves from US-led military operations after they began in 2001. They had previously worked with the Taliban when they ruled the country in the late 1990s. and that they have taken control of rural districts in recent months. and years.

Today, at a time when Afghanistan’s aid needs are more dire than ever, the diplomatic skills of humanitarian organizations are being tested like never before.

One of the poorest countries in the world, Afghanistan was already in need before the Taliban took power, with 3.5 million people internally displaced and 18 million people dependent on it humanitarian aid in a country of around 38 million inhabitants. But aid groups fear they will be too quick to embrace an organization like the Taliban with a history of brutality.

“We have to engage, because this is a very important time to engage and try to influence,” said Filippo Grandi, head of the UN refugee agency. “But I think we need to reserve our judgment a bit.”

With some aid groups numbering up to 1,500 local staff employed across the country in critical areas such as health, education and agriculture, the largest organizations say they have never considered packing or closing. Instead, they were left to watch as thousands of people who had worked for the government or for foreign organizations rushed to Kabul airport to catch evacuation flights.

“It’s like going through the stages of mourning,” said a country director of the Taliban takeover on August 15. “When they entered Kabul, I did not eat or sleep for three days. I was numb. I was online with everyone, with staff around the clock.

After some activists occupied her office, she recalled, she had to deal with a tense confrontation as another group dispatched by the Taliban Commissioner for Foreign Aid tore her away. Then came the ordeal of evacuating members of its international staff through the chaos at the airport.

Some of the organization’s Afghan staff have also chosen to leave, but the vast majority have stayed, largely because there is no way out.

“I think the point where I accepted that I wasn’t going to go out was the point where I could sleep again,” said the country director. “My staff need me. I think I’m fine.

The most immediate concerns were to prevent the looting of their offices and warehouses and to protect local staff. The Taliban have asked aid organizations to continue working and assured them they will provide security, even handing out a phone number to call in case armed men visit.

Still, Taliban operatives have taken over the compound from at least one nonprofit and looted other people’s equipment and vehicles, several aid directors said. And the fighters of the powerful Haqqani network have taken over the large campus of the American University of Afghanistan, a proud flagship of American investment in higher education for Afghans.

Besides the danger of so many armed groups and the threat of ISIS-K group, which claimed a devastating suicide bombing at the airportthere is the growing problem of hunger. Last week, a senior UN humanitarian official in Afghanistan warned that the organization’s food aid supply was dwindling and would run out by the end of the month.

And buying food has become difficult for many, impossible for some.

Wages across government, including in the health and education sectors, have been suspended, following a decision by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to freeze funding after the collapse of the government of President Ashraf Ghani and the seizure of power by the Taliban. The Central Bank assets have also been frozen, leading banks to close and limit access to cash. For day laborers, there is no work to do.

Outside the capital, the attitudes of the new Afghan leaders vary. This has left aid organizations able to resume normal activities in just four of the country’s 34 provinces.

In some places everything has been suspended, from schools and health clinics to public offices and businesses. In at least six provinces, women have not been allowed to return to work, according to one of the country directors who is monitoring the situation across the country.

In some areas, the Taliban have visited nonprofits demanding lists of staff and assets, information on the organization’s budget and supply contracts. They also announced that they were placing restrictions on recruitment. These actions contradict assurances offered by Taliban leaders and raise concerns about tighter controls to come.

.

“They desperately need someone to do something for the Afghan people,” Grandi, the UN refugee chief, said in an interview at his headquarters in Geneva, adding: “We can help people a lot, and we have to at this point. ”

But he warned that humanitarian aid would not be enough to avert disaster, and urged Western governments to think quickly about how to work with the Taliban to revive the larger-scale development aid that was funded by the World Bank and provided health care. , education and other basic services such as clean water.

“They must think quickly about the development component, the institutional component, the World Bank, the IMF,” he said. “If you don’t, the risk of displacement is great. “

Already, Mr Grandi said, he has heard the “most extraordinary concern” of European governments fearing a repeat of 2015, when more than a million Syrian refugees entered Europe.

Further fighting could push some Afghans to flee their country, he said. The same would apply to the imposition of a radical Taliban regime, he added. But a collapse in services and the economy, he warned, could cause a massive movement of people from Afghanistan.

Nonprofits that forge a relationship with the new Taliban leadership say there must be firm terms.

Restrictions on working women would not only violate their rights, but would also have widespread repercussions on how aid is delivered, a country director said. Only women can come into people’s homes and assess needs reliably, and without them development assistance would be administered unfairly, she said.

“It is very important that non-governmental organizations have a united front,” she said.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Aid workers who remain in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan take a difficult path
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