2022 Afghanistan Pledging Conference: Three priorities from the perspective of CAFOD’s local Afghan civil society partners

30 March 2022

On 31st March, the international community – donor governments, UN agencies and NGOs – convene for an international conference to rally support for aid to Afghanistan. The British government, alongside the UN, Germany and Qatar is one of the co-hosts, and they have emphasised that the conference is primarily about aid pledges. CAFOD is working with NGO networks to bring the priorities of Afghan civil society partners to the table.

Three priorities emerging from our work with local Afghan civil society organisations are:

1. Ensure sufficient aid is pledged to save lives, but not at the expense of initiatives – particularly those of Afghan women’s rights groups – addressing the underlying drivers of violence and human rights violations in Afghanistan

We are concerned that attention to the situation in Afghanistan has waned as the British Government and other donors are redirecting their political attention and resources to the Ukraine crisis. Of course, there are Afghans who have a lived memory of life under a brutal Russian occupation in the 1970s to 1980s, and our local partners have expressed their concern and messages of solidarity for people in Ukraine. Yet there are concerns that in the context of wider aid cuts by the UK and other governments, support for Afghanistan will drop. Underfunding of the humanitarian response in Afghanistan is a major concern as currently around 24 million people – 59 per cent of the population – now require lifesaving assistance, which is 30 per cent higher than in 2021. The country is experiencing its second severe drought in four years combined with disruptions to agricultural production, which have increased the risk of food insecurity and water shortages. Wheat prices are up to 50 percent higher than just before the Taliban takeover, and this is set to worsen as the invasion of Ukraine (often described as one of the bread-baskets of the world) impacts on global supply chains. One of CAFOD’s local partners described to us earlier this week how they had to prioritise with limited resource to get 350 food packages to a community with 500 households, leaving some needy families reaching out desperately for assistance. The funds available just aren’t adequate to the needs. CAFOD and its partners are also concerned by reports that some donor governments are considering cutting funding to Afghan women’s rights groups and others that are working on peace, human rights and other longer-term efforts to address the underlying causes of the crisis in Afghanistan. Support for projects that support community resilience and livelihoods are also at risk. Life-saving work is absolutely critical, but it must not come at the expense of those longer-term efforts.

2. Use the Conference to rally donors to address the liquidity crisis in Afghanistan, which obstructs local NGOs access to aid funding and is driving the wider economic collapse in the country

Aid pledges are important, but without action to address challenges faced by dysfunction in the Afghan finance and banking system, aid agencies cannot access funds to support programming and the little aid which does get through will be inadequate in the face of the wider, spiralling economic collapse. International sanctions on the Taliban and the freeze of Afghan foreign reserves have meant that the country’s economy is going into freefall and banks are struggling to function. Local Afghan NGOs are particularly impacted by the current situation as most do not have bank accounts outside of Afghanistan. The current UN system to get funds into the country is only benefitting a handful of UN agencies and larger international NGOs. CAFOD’s local partners highlight that they have been forced to use alternative money transfer agents, which are more expensive and so reduce the funds available to support communities. A lack of cash in the Afghan banking system means that local NGOs face restrictions on how much they can withdraw from their own accounts and funds already in the country. The consensus amongst Afghan economists and NGOs that have undertaken research on the issue is that a functioning central bank in Afghanistan is critical to prevent the humanitarian crisis and economic collapse getting any worse. Various proposals have been tabled to reconcile the political stance of governments such as the UK in relation to the Taliban and the importance of support to Afghan banks. It is of vital importance that diplomatic efforts towards the Pledging Conference and beyond towards the Spring Meetings of the World Bank find solutions to this issue.

3. Use the Conference to press the World Bank and UN funding mechanisms in Afghanistan to ensure that funds reach local Afghan NGOs and support for community-led programme approaches

The British government and other donors are channelling the vast majority of their aid funds to Afghanistan through UN and World Bank funding mechanisms. UN and World Bank mechanisms in Afghanistan have had an often weak track-record in terms of their support for the community-led and participatory programming processes, which can be strengths of local NGOs. Their involvement of local NGOs in decision-making and governance of these funding mechanisms has also varied significantly. For example, under the previous Afghan government, a major World Bank funded programme – the ‘Citizens Charter’ – became driven in a highly top-down fashion, with often inadequate support for community-level processes to consult on the priorities and ensure accountability, and inadequate flexibility. A predecessor to that initiative, the National Solidarity Programme, had performed much better on those fronts. Indeed, one local NGO who implemented work under the Citizens Charter told us that they are still yet to be fully renumerated by the World Bank for their work since the Taliban take-over; and that a third party actor hired by the World Bank to manage relationships with local NGOs had treated them in a very top down and unresponsive fashion. So choices can be made by the UN and World Bank, which can either strengthen or undermine support for local NGO and community participation. The UK and other donors should provide a clear and urgent timeline for the World Bank and UN agencies to establish more effective approaches to local NGO engagement in both decision-making and implementation of these new funds. Again, the annual World Bank Spring Meetings could table discussion of this issue, but statements by donor governments and others at the Pledging Conference could highlight it.

Events over the past week – with the latest decision by the Taliban preventing girls returning to school – have brought a lot of pain and disappointment both for Afghan girls and their families, and for civil society groups trying to support them. But it has also further complicated the situation for donor governments looking for ways to support humanitarian and longer-term development programmes in Afghanistan. Yet the politics around that decision, and wider differences between the international community and the Taliban, must not result in yet more suffering being heaped on the Afghan people. Communities in Afghanistan, and Afghan civil society organisations, deserve our support. Donors at this week’s Conference must not lose sight of this.

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