In recent months, the world has watched in real-time as Afghanistan spiralled deeper into a humanitarian catastrophe. Now it is teetering on the edge of full economic collapse, writes Harlem Désir,
Harlem Désir is the Senior Vice President, Europe at the International Rescue Committee
The suspension of international development funding that financed 75% of the government’s public expenditure has pushed Afghanistan’s economy to the brink and brought public services to their knees. Today, 90% of the Afghan health facilities supported by international assistance are at risk of closure. A full collapse of healthcare risks triggering a humanitarian catastrophe in a country already grappling with outbreaks of COVID-19 and where over half the population faces acute food insecurity.
While the rhetoric of some political forces in Europe would suggest otherwise, the vast majority of the 40 million Afghans affected by this crisis will remain in the region. Some 1200 IRC staff inside Afghanistan are working tirelessly to provide families with tents, clean water, healthcare and education. Yet humanitarian organisations cannot replace the role of the state and overcome this monumental challenge alone.
After 20 years of engagement in Afghanistan, the EU – like the US – has a deep responsibility towards the Afghan people. Fortunately, the EU has recognised the need for leadership to address this humanitarian crisis and is working towards forestalling a full public service collapse with a €1bn package for Afghanistan and the region.
However, the heavy focus on this emergency does not diminish the gravity of other humanitarian crises across the globe. The justified and strong mobilisation in response to the Afghan crisis should not create a misleading feeling of “duty accomplished”. Rather it’s a reminder that the international community must also scale up its efforts to tackle crises with different causes but equally dramatic consequences for populations in countries like Ethiopia, Madagascar and Yemen.
The word ‘crisis’ often implies a new and unexpected situation. Yet, the truth is that the vast majority of humanitarian crises are longstanding, driven by factors including conflict, political failure, violations of international humanitarian law (IHL), and the growing climate crisis. According to new data from the World Food Programme, 45 million people worldwide are on the edge of famine. That number is set to increase with higher temperatures, desertification and extreme weather events. So long as the international community fails to respond effectively, countries will continue to crumble and fragment with devastating regional political, security and humanitarian consequences. Their people will continue to suffer.
The ramifications of this became clear on my visit, a few weeks ago, to the Central African Republic (CAR), where decades of conflict and climate change have wrought a heavy toll on civilians. At present, 40% of CAR’s population relies on humanitarian aid, and almost 2 million people are severely food insecure. In the city of Bangui, I met 11-year-old Magnou, who is passionate about the power of women to revive her local area. She hopes to one day become a lawyer and has the talent to do so, but – unless her country’s situation improves drastically – she is unlikely to have the opportunity.
Temporary fixes, such as providing support to people in refugee camps, are a lifeline but are not a sustainable solution to these crises. The Kakuma camp, which I visited in Kenya, still houses 160,000 refugees some 20 years after it was opened. The IRC provides medical services to residents, but the international community should have more to offer the people of Kakuma than another 20 years living in a camp.
If the EU wants to break this dangerous cycle and tackle humanitarian emergencies more effectively, it should take four important steps.
First, the EU must use its political and diplomatic clout to address the complex underlying drivers of forgotten crises. The EU and its member states must strive to align positions, support peace processes, place compliance with international humanitarian law (IHL) at the heart of relations with partner countries, and strenuously advocate to secure humanitarian access and civilian protection.
Second, the EU must shift towards a new approach that more effectively links humanitarian aid, peace efforts and development assistance. The EU has been talking about doing this – and making commitments to implement it – for years, but it has yet to be fully embedded in practice.
Third, this fresh approach should be carried out in the spirit of equal partnership with African partners and rebalancing the distribution of power in the humanitarian sector to benefit the people served. This will require putting people affected by crises – particularly women, girls and other marginalised groups – front and centre in the design, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of programmes.
Finally, in addition to efforts to resolve crises, the EU should expand its commitment to taking lifesaving humanitarian action in forgotten crises to ensure people’s immediate needs are met. The EU and its member states can achieve this by significantly ramping up humanitarian funding and more evenly providing that support.
When France takes the presidency of the Council of the European Union next year, it should seize the opportunity to take a longer-term view. The European Humanitarian Forum and EU-Africa Summit in early 2022 will be key moments to progress this agenda. Failure to do so would be a missed opportunity, and – as ever – the world’s most vulnerable will continue to pay the price.