January 19, 2022 | Islamic Relief USA was recently mentioned in a Devex News article about food aid for Afghanistan.
“He said: ‘I’m desperate. I’m desperate. That’s why I’ve stood in the snow.’ He had no gloves, no jacket, no hat. He’s freezing cold. He said: ‘This is the only way. I’m a laborer, and I haven’t had any job for months. I’m trying to work; nobody will employ me,’” Khan said “The need is so great.”
The numbers are staggering: According to the World Food Programme, 22.8 million people in Afghanistan face food insecurity this year, with 8.7 million “at risk of famine-like conditions.” Fifty-seven percent of people took “drastic measures” to feed their families in the past month, while 95% of the population had insufficient food consumption in December.
“I saw the faces. In these numbers, you’re not getting the real feeling,” Khan told Devex shortly after he left Afghanistan, where he saw Islamic Relief’s operations firsthand. “Everybody I met was either doing two meals a day and they said, ‘If we didn’t get the food from you for this month, we’d go down to one meal a day,’ or if they were at three meals a day, they were eating 40% of [a full meal].”
On the day Khan arrived in Kabul, Islamic Relief’s delivery included over 30,000 kilograms (70,000 pounds) of food that was delivered to 420 families. But the need remains much greater across Afghanistan, and NGOs are pleading with the international community to lift sanctions that are restricting their ability to efficiently get food to hungry people.
“At the end of the day, this is an economic issue. The money was basically shut off. And as a result, the economic collapse happened.”
— Anwar Khan, president, Islamic Relief USA
The stories of desperation are many across a country where more than half of the population now needs food assistance as harsh winter conditions persist. Khan spoke about a man who had been injured in the country’s war and was struggling to care for two children with disabilities; a woman who fashioned a makeshift heater by warming water in a bucket, covering it with a blanket, and huddling underneath; and malnutrition wards with as many as three children routinely crowded into hospital beds made for one.
Khan was audibly frustrated by what he witnessed across Afghanistan, knowing the hunger crisis is human-made.
The desperation is not caused by a lack of available food. Markets in the country have goods, but shoppers do not have the money for even basic staples. Countless people have lost their jobs or been unable to find work since the Taliban took control of the country in August. Others have money in the bank but cannot access it because of financial restrictions imposed on the country by an international community that seeks to deprive the government of funds.
The United Nations approved a humanitarian exception to the sanctions in December, followed the same day by the issuance of general licenses from the U.S. Treasury Departmentto facilitate delivery of lifesaving assistance. But the flow of goods into the country remains too slow to meet the skyrocketing need in real time.
“If we don’t do something now, more kids will die by the end of this month,” Khan said. “If we keep this up, every few months, every year, more and more kids are going to die.”
According to Save the Children, 3.9 million young children face malnutrition in Afghanistan, an increase of 700,000 since the end of last year. One million are at risk of severe acute malnutrition — the most serious form of the condition, which can kill a child if left untreated.
On the day that Khan accompanied the truck of aid, Islamic Relief’s food distributions included staples such as flour, sugar, oil, and salt, along with blankets. The scale of the need required the NGO to use a point system to determine who among the desperate was the most desperate. People were evaluated by the size of their family, whether they were disabled, whether a woman headed their household, and how much income they had. Anyone earning more than $50 a month did not qualify, and families had to have at least seven people.
Many families are selling what few assets they have to buy food in an attempt to survive, said Joram Chikwanya, the head of CARE in Afghanistan. The NGO is distributing cash to help people meet basic needs.
Chikwanya also expressed concern about the country’s ongoing drought, which further dampens prospects for people to access adequate nutrition.
“If the drought situation continues the way that it is, it means the winter crops will be affected,” Chikwanya said. “Since more than 90% of Afghans depend on agriculture, it means that the drought of the last year — if it continues into around June — that 23 million number [of people facing food insecurity] will increase.”
Last week, the U.N. issued its largest-ever humanitarian appeal for a single country, seeking $4.44 billion for Afghanistan. The U.S. Agency for International Development then announced $308 million in new humanitarian aid for the country, which includes food and nutrition assistance. Also last week, the Taliban proposed a joint body of Afghan officials and international representatives to facilitate aid delivery, and the U.N. said it was communicating its conditions to the country’s government.
Guillaume Mongeau-Martin, pediatric medical activity manager at a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Herat, said his facility saw a 40% increase in children needing treatment for malnutrition from May to September — starting even before the Taliban took power. The medical NGO runs both inpatient and outpatient centers at the hospital, and summer is usually when it observes the most malnourishment because food reserves are empty at that time of year.
Demand for treatment peaked in September, Mongeau-Martin said, and his facility is seeing many more patients from farther away. He said this is likely due to the end of the conflict, allowing people to travel greater distances safely.
“Based on previous years, January should be the low season, but we’re still at full capacity,” Mongeau-Martin said. “In the last three weeks, we have a 74-bed capacity and we were at almost 100 patients in the units per day for three weeks. Although it’s less than what we were seeing back in September, it’s still quite busy for the low season.”
The organization is attempting to plan for the coming months, but he said forecasting the need is a challenge. The youngest children, under 6 months of age, usually require treatment because their mothers cannot properly breastfeed and have not had access to breastfeeding education, Mongeau-Martin said. Older children are coming to the hospital because they are not receiving enough food.
The MSF facility is currently only admitting children who are malnourished and have another medical complication, such as anemia or an infection.
“With the economic situation in the country and also the lack of proper front line or primary care in communities, there’s no early prevention. So we still see a lot of patients coming from far away, and when they come to us — which should be the last line of defense — these patients have basically not seen anything else,” Mongeau-Martin said. “Ideally, they would go to their local ambulatory feeding center. But right now with the way that the health care system is going here, they cannot do that.”
The typical treatment timeline for children with severe acute malnutrition spans one week, he said. Then, children are discharged back to their communities to receive follow-up treatment at their local outpatient facilities. Families in remote areas likely don’t have access to this care, and MSF is unable to track how many children ultimately receive it, Mongeau-Martin said.
Like MSF, Islamic Relief is also able to reach more people in need now that the conflict has ended. Staffers can travel to places they couldn’t access for a long time, Khan said, but the organization still cannot get enough supplies to serve everyone.
“At the end of the day, this is an economic issue. The money was basically shut off. And as a result, the economic collapse happened. And the current government is by force trying to keep the situation together, but this is not sustainable,” he said. ‘If you gave me a choice of billions of dollars of humanitarian aid or stabilizing the economy, I’d go with stabilizing the economy.’ ”
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