Disagreement Among UN Agencies: Humanitarian Aid Delivery in Afghanistan Faces Challenges

By: Amin Kawa

The Taliban’s seizure of political power in Afghanistan has resulted in extreme poverty and hunger among the country’s citizens. Many people have lost their jobs due to the departure of investors and elites from various sectors, as well as a decline in international aid to Afghanistan. Poverty and food insecurity have been exacerbated by the Taliban’s dismantling of certain government institutions and the imposition of restrictions on women’s employment. United Nations officials indicate that nearly half of the country’s population is in need of humanitarian assistance. The Taliban’s suppression of women and misappropriation of humanitarian aid have created obstacles for international organizations in delivering assistance. A recent report by PBS, the American news network, highlighted a disagreement among aid providers in Afghanistan, particularly regarding women’s employment, which further complicates the provision of humanitarian aid.

Approximately five months ago, the Taliban issued a ban on women working in non-governmental organizations. The Taliban Ministry of Economy sent a written directive on December 24 last year to all domestic and foreign organizations in the country, ordering the suspension of female employees’ activities until further notice. The directive stressed that non-compliance and delays in implementation would lead to the revocation of licenses for non-compliant organizations and institutions. Moreover, on April 3 this year, the group extended the prohibition to women working in United Nations-related organizations in Afghanistan. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) expressed its stance, stating that if women were not allowed to work, the organization would reluctantly withdraw from Afghanistan. It emphasized the difficult decision it faced between upholding the principles of the United Nations and aiding the people of Afghanistan. However, on May 5 this year, the organization announced its commitment to continuing operations in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, May 24, the American news network PBS released a report titled “Taliban’s Crackdown on Women Complicates Aid Delivery to Afghanistan.” The report highlights the dire poverty faced by the Afghan people, with many relying on humanitarian aid for their survival. According to the report, women have been disproportionately affected by the Taliban’s restrictive measures, which have dashed their aspirations. Interviewees in the report shed light on the fact that women are subjected to punishment solely based on their gender and are denied access to education.

The Taliban’s Interpretation of Islamic Laws Restricts Women’s Work

This report focuses on how the Taliban interprets Islamic laws to restrict women’s work in Afghanistan. According to the report, the Taliban’s interpretation of Islamic laws determines the limited scope of work available to women in present-day Afghanistan. They are denied access to public spaces and most employment opportunities. Additionally, women are not permitted to pursue education beyond the sixth grade. Recently, the Taliban has extended the ban on women working with non-governmental organizations, including the United Nations. These restrictions have adversely affected women’s livelihoods and put the survival of Afghans reliant on humanitarian aid at risk. The report also cites Antonio Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, who asserts, “Let me be clear. We will never remain silent in the face of the unprecedented and systematic assault on the rights of Afghan women and girls.”

What are the views of experts regarding the United Nations disagreement in Afghanistan?

According to PBS News, United Nations experts have reported that UN entities can be categorized into two groups. Some of these entities have continued their operations in Afghanistan with exclusively male staff, while others have made the presence of women a requirement for their ongoing work. A UN employee, who preferred to remain anonymous in the PBS report, expressed concerns, stating, “Some women are the sole breadwinners for their families. So, if they are unable to work, how can they financially support their families? Everyone is worried and anxious about their jobs. It’s difficult to fully express our emotions. Every girl, every woman has truly lost hope. They are denied education and even the freedom to visit parks. They are confined to their homes, which deeply affects everyone.”

Humanitarian Crisis and Drought: 97% of People Plunged into Severe Poverty

PBS News reports a deepening humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, caused by a combination of drought and an unstable economy, which has pushed 97% of the population into extreme poverty. The report highlights the United Nations’ funding gap of $4.6 billion. The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) has called on the Taliban to lift restrictions on women, enabling the NRC to continue its vital humanitarian work in Afghanistan. Jan Egeland, the Secretary-General of the NRC, was interviewed by PBS News. While the report does not specify whether Egeland met with the Taliban supreme leader during his visit to Kandahar province, he emphasized the importance of Western ambassadors returning to Kabul. In an exclusive interview with Tolo News, Egeland stated his active efforts in “lobbying” for the swift return of European ambassadors and emphasized the need for their presence in Afghanistan.

Beyond Catastrophe

During an interview with an American news network, Jan Egeland, the Secretary-General of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), characterized the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan as “Beyond Catastrophe.” When asked about the worsening crisis, he emphatically stated, “It is truly beyond catastrophe.” Egeland expressed deep concern over the insufficient attention given to Afghanistan, despite it having the highest number of people in desperate need of humanitarian assistance worldwide. With an estimated 28 to 30 million people requiring aid, including children and breastfeeding mothers, millions are currently suffering from severe malnutrition. The magnitude of this suffering is unimaginable. However, the NRC faces challenges in reaching the affected population due to restrictions on female workers. Despite these obstacles, there are donors who continue to support Afghanistan.

Why does the ban on women’s work make it difficult for Aid Organizations?

Jan Egeland, the Secretary-General of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), highlighted the significance of including women in their workforce, stating that they cannot “exclude half of our workforce.” He acknowledged the cultural norms in Afghanistan, explaining that even before the Taliban, many men were unable to work with women outside their families. According to Mr. Egeland, the presence of women is crucial as they can access widows, single-parent families, and other vulnerable groups. He emphasized that they have managed to secure exemptions from Taliban pressures. The NRC’s Secretary-General further noted that they have restored operations to three-fourths of the level at the end of the previous year. However, he expressed the need for larger-scale operations to meet the growing needs in the region.

The Taliban’s Rule and the Cleansing of Afghanistan

Jan Egeland also discussed the internal divisions within the Taliban leadership. He pointed out that there are disagreements between Taliban officials based in Kabul and those based in Kandahar regarding certain issues. Additionally, he mentioned that some Taliban officials oppose the ban on women’s education. Egeland characterized the Taliban’s treatment of women as “gender apartheid,” aligning with the views of the United Nations Secretary-General. He expressed agreement, stating, “We should indeed call it ‘apartheid’—systematic and flagrant gender discrimination. When I speak to my female colleagues here, they often express how they have lost their cultural activities, the education of their daughters, and now their work. It is disheartening.” Furthermore, he highlighted the decline in funding for aid organizations in Afghanistan, leading to the organization’s necessity to lay off both male and female employees due to budget cuts.

Will work restrictions on women be lifted?

Egeland announced that guidelines will soon be issued to lift the national ban and establish a specific agreement in Kandahar province, known for its conservatism. This temporary measure aims to enable women to return to work and provide opportunities for those in need. In the report, Egeland discussed how some countries are withholding humanitarian aid. He pointed out that many decision-makers in foreign countries, including women, are hesitant to support Afghanistan due to the regime’s systematic violations of women’s rights. Their concern revolves around the allocation of funds to a country with such violations, leading to the politicization of humanitarian aid. Egeland emphasized that this aid is intended for women and children, not militants or Taliban leaders. Punishing the Taliban in a way that weakens the assistance to impoverished individuals is deemed incorrect.

In parallel, an investigative report by Hasht-e Subh Daily revealed that 42,000 needy families in Ghor province have been denied humanitarian assistance due to Taliban embezzlement.

In addition, the Spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State, Matthew Miller, recently announced the suspension of American aid to the provinces of Ghor, Uruzgan, and Ghazni. He explained that certain local Taliban officials in Afghanistan have been making attempts to interfere with humanitarian aid operations. Speaking at a press conference in the U.S., Mr. Miller stated, “We have suspended our activities in Ghor province. After reviewing evidence of the Taliban’s attempt to divert aid, we have put it on hold. The World Food Programme (WHO) also suspended distribution in two districts of Ghazni province between January and April this year due to interference by local Taliban officials.” However, sources in Ghazni province have informed the Hasht-e Subh Daily that humanitarian assistance has been halted in certain districts of the province.

The reaction of women and girls to the continued activities of international organizations in Afghanistan

Some women and girls participating in protests have accused the United Nations and other relief organizations of legitimizing the Taliban through their engagement with the group. These protesters claim that over the past two years, the United Nations and other organizations, under the guise of humanitarian aid, have inadvertently strengthened the Taliban. The media and social networks have widely circulated video footage of these women voicing their accusations against the United Nations, alleging its empowerment of the Taliban. In the footage, they assert, “The United Nations, along with human rights organizations and the United Nations Security Council, are fully aware that they have been engaging in dealings and transactions with the Taliban. It is becoming increasingly evident that they are recognizing the Taliban. For nearly two years, the Taliban in Afghanistan has openly violated human rights, committed killings, massacres, suicide bombings, and explosions, engaged in drug trafficking, forced marriages with women and girls, and looted natural resources and the country’s capital. Any form of reconciliation and support from the international community and the United Nations towards this group goes against the principles of the United Nations Charter.”