Western aid workers in Afghanistan after Taliban takeover struggle against impossible task

People wait to receive money during a cash distribution organized by the World Food Program in Kabul, Afghanistan on November 17. With the UN warning, millions of people are in near starvation conditions, WFP has dramatically increased its direct assistance to families.Petros Giannakouris / The Associated Press

In the 100 days since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, international aid workers have rushed to feed a starving population.

These aid workers made the crucial decision to stay in the country after the United States and its allies withdrew their armed forces – and much of their diplomatic missions – from the country in August.

They are working to protect the gains of the past 20 years, including by putting pressure on the Taliban to keep Afghan women working alongside them. While being part of a small international presence in a cash-strapped country.

Sogol Akef, Engineering Manager for the World Food Program in Afghanistan, is originally from Toronto and has worked inside and outside the country for 17 years. Ms. Akef is responsible for overseeing WFP’s infrastructure, such as offices, housing, warehouses and a medical facility. She said that as aid workers they cannot stop their work for nothing.

“If we all kind of run away from the first type of uncertainty or problem, that just isn’t what the humanitarian person is doing. You come back, you stay, you deliver, ”she said in a telephone interview from Kabul.

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United Nations agencies said in a recent report that more than half of the Afghan population – 22.8 million people – will face extreme hunger during the winter months as the country plunges into a crisis that getting worse. The collapsing economy, drought and continuing fighting have severely affected access to food. The Taliban takeover had a significant impact on the economy. Civil servants have not been paid for months, according to the report.

Taliban control also resulted in a freeze of US $ 9.5 billion in public assets, causing further deterioration in the economy as well as in the value of the currency. Foreign aid had accounted for 40 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP and its future is uncertain, but some countries continue to provide support through UN agencies and international organizations.

European Union development aid to Afghanistan remains frozen. EU foreign ministers set five criteria, determining that aid would not continue until they were met. The rights of women and girls are of particular concern, the EU said in a press release in September. However, the EU still provides funding through international organizations.

Sogol Akef, engineering manager for the World Food Program in Afghanistan, is responsible for overseeing WFP’s infrastructure, such as offices, housing, warehouses and a medical center.World Food Program / Document

Ms Akef said people sold their belongings, including furniture and clothes, to put food on the table. Sometimes parents don’t eat while their children can.

“I have Afghan friends, or people I have worked with, and sometimes I see their children and the children say to me, ‘My father… the light in his eyes is now gone.’ When a six-year-old tells you that about his father, it’s heartbreaking.

Ms Akef said she was on leave when Kabul fell to the Taliban, but that it was important for her to return to Afghanistan. “I’m Canadian. But I’m from an immigrant family, my parents are from Iran… so some of this stuff is very personal,” she said.

As the chaos unfolded at Kabul airport in August, as desperate Afghans tried to escape, Mary-Ellen McGroarty, country director for the World Food Program, remained behind.

“I think I’m still stunned by how quickly it all happened in terms of how everything completely changed,” she said. It was terrible, she said, sending the local staff home without knowing when she would see them again or what would happen over the next few days.

Ms McGroarty said now everyone is adjusting to a new reality. Quietly, in the background, she said, there are discussions and negotiations with the Taliban, which she described as a non-homogeneous group but different from province to province.

She said what she told them was that there is a high proportion of female-headed households in Afghanistan because they are widows and that “if we are to serve them in a dignified manner and correct, so I need female staff to be able to talk to them because it fits their culture.

She said local female WFP staff are now back to work across the country and the agency has received Taliban cooperation to work independently.

“We don’t want these images of planes leaving Kabul in August and of people hanging from planes to be enduring images of Afghanistan. We do not want the images of emaciated and hungry children to be the lasting images of Afghanistan. The Afghan people deserve more than that from us.

Mary-Ellen McGroarty, country director for the World Food Program, speaks with a woman in Afghanistan.World Food Program / Document

Guillaume Mongeau-Martin is responsible for the medical activity of the pediatrics of Médecins Sans Frontières in Hérat. He is originally from Montreal and has been in the Afghan city for a month.

Dr Mongeau-Martin oversees the medical activities of MSF’s malnutrition program, which consists of a therapeutic feeding center for inpatients at the Herat regional hospital. Soon, he said, they will be opening a pediatric emergency room and intensive care unit.

He said some patients come from the town of Herat, but many come from quite remote communities and take some time to reach the hospital. This means that they often arrive with advanced medical conditions, due to malnutrition, which are difficult to stabilize.

“You never get completely used to seeing very thin and fragile children,” he said, adding that the death rate is quite high in cases of severe malnutrition. “It’s a daily thing that we have to deal with.”

Returning to Kabul, Magda Rossmann, Director of Development and Program Quality at Save The Children, said her organization provides support for education, treatment of malnutrition, child protection programs and psychosocial support. He recently started providing money to families to help them buy fuel or warm clothes before winter. He also started distributing blankets.

Ms Rossmann said that in order to resume these programs, it must be done with local female staff. “We knew that without teachers, female doctors, nurses, social workers, we wouldn’t be able to reach the women and girls who are disproportionately impacted.

She had left Afghanistan on a regular rest program and returned a few weeks ago.

“It is important that there is a pressure and a call to action for the international humanitarian community to provide and release both humanitarian support and some of the longer term support, because we are really concerned about the current situation and in particular by the hunger crisis and the coming winter.

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