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Paul Vallely: Food for a hungry family — but at a price

29 October 2021

Afghanistan now suffers from withdrawal of aid, says Paul Vallely

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WHAT is a human life worth? In the case of the baby girl who has just been sold by her mother to raise the money to feed the rest of the family, it is £360. “My other children were dying of hunger; so we had to sell my daughter,” the woman told a BBC reporter this week in rural Afghanistan. Half the money has been paid. It will feed the family for a few months.

Afghanistan was in a parlous state even before the Taliban took over. Living standards were among the lowest in the world. One in four children suffered from stunted growth. Years of drought had caused crops to fail on a gigantic scale. The United Nations warns that one million children could die in a population where more than 20 million are now starving.

All this has been made far worse by the advent of the Taliban regime, which is ill-equipped to cope with managing the country’s fragile economy. Yet the biggest single problem facing the unhappy people of Afghanistan is the fact that foreign money has been withdrawn on a massive scale.

Last year, about 80 per cent of the Afghan state’s $5.5-billion budget was provided by the United States and other international donors. All that was withdrawn when the Taliban took over. The country now faces the world’s biggest humanitarian disaster, the UN says.

What should be done? The international community felt morally justified in withdrawing their cash. The potential for corruption is huge. The Taliban control taxation, customs, and many of Afghanistan’s banks. Extortion has been endemic to Taliban practices for years.

And yet the brutal fact is that poverty is now killing far more than war in this benighted country, where half the people live below the poverty line. The disappearance of foreign aid is a key factor; for, until recently, it accounted for 40 per cent of Afghan national income.

Now, winter is coming to a land notorious for harsh and bitter winters — where more than two million refugees are now living in tents. The West may be feeling bruised after the embarrassingly chaotic withdrawal of our troops from Afghanistan. But we have a moral obligation to help the people of a country in whose affairs we chose to intervene for more than two decades.

Last month, the UN launched an appeal to raise $600 billion for the country. So far, only $1 billion has been pledged, and only one third of the money needed to fund UN humanitarian programmes for October and November has so far been delivered. Other agencies continue to work in Afghanistan, including the British agency Islamic Relief, World Vision, the Red Cross, the Norwegian Refugee Council, and Médecins Sans Frontières. It is vital for the British Government to support the work of the UN, and for the British public to do the same with the voluntary agencies.

It is probably too late for the baby girl in Herat. As soon as she can walk, she will be handed over to the buyer, who will pay the balance of the fee. But it is not too late for us to prevent the infliction of a similar fate — or worse — on many, many others.

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