GENEVA -- The head of the United Nations said Thursday that nearly all Afghans don’t have enough to eat and some have resorted to “selling their children and their body parts” to get money for food.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres' statement was part of a dramatic appeal from the world body and several rich countries that want to help beleaguered Afghans, whose fate has worsened since the Taliban returned to power last year.
Guterres kicked off a virtual pledging conference backed by Britain, Germany and Qatar, seeking to make progress toward the U.N. aid office's biggest-ever funding drive for a single country: $4.4 billion.
It is a decidedly ambitious goal when much of the world’s attention is on Russia’s war in Ukraine, and some wealthy nations have frozen nearly $9 billion in Afghan assets overseas so the Taliban can’t access them.
In recent weeks, senior U.N. officials have made visits to Afghanistan, even meeting top Taliban officials to say the country has not been forgotten. With Afghanistan buckling beneath a debilitating humanitarian crisis and an economy in free fall, some 23 million people face acute food insecurity, according to the U.N.
Guterres called on the world to “spare” Afghans who have had their rights stripped — like many women and girls — after the Taliban's ouster of the country's internationally-backed government last summer. Rich nations have tried put a financial squeeze on the Taliban in hopes of spurring desired reforms.
“Wealthy, powerful countries cannot ignore the consequences of their decisions on the most vulnerable,” the U.N. chief said. “Some 95% of people do not have enough to eat, and 9 million people are at risk of famine,” he added, citing UNICEF estimates that over a million severely malnourished children “are on the verge of death without immediate action.”
“Without immediate action we face a starvation and malnutrition crisis in Afghanistan,” he said. “People are already selling their children and their body parts in order to feed their families.”
In many parts of rural Afghanistan and among the country’s poorest, girls are often married off at puberty, sometimes earlier, and their families receive a dowry. Aid groups have documented a few cases of children being sold by desperate parents, but such practices are not believed to be widespread.
As the U.N. worked to secure pledges, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said Britain will renew this year its 286 million pounds ($380 million) of support from 2021. Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock of Germany said her country had stepped up with 200 million euros ($220 million). Qatar said it had contributed $50 million in recent months, and pledged another $25 million for 2022.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the United States announced nearly $204 million in new humanitarian assistance funding to help Afghans.
“This humanitarian aid, like all aid from the United States, will go directly to NGOs and the United Nations,” Thomas-Greenfield said, referring to nongovernmental organizations. “The Taliban will not control our humanitarian funding.”
In a final tally, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA, said $2.4 billion was pledged Thursday from 41 countries. Because donors might elect to direct some of the money to help Afghan refugees in neighboring countries, not all the pledges count toward the $4.4 billion appeal for Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, 11 U.S. senators issued a joint statement urging the Biden administration to encourage international donors to step up to help fulfill the needs laid out by the U.N. The senators, all Democrats, alluded to a number of humanitarian crises that are competing for funds and the world's attention.
“Amid crises in Yemen, Ukraine, Ethiopia, Syria and elsewhere, the international community must not lose focus on Afghanistan," they wrote.
The complexities of helping Afghans while not rewarding the Taliban came into focus in Kabul on Thursday: Leaders of the militant group raised their largest white flag over Kabul’s historic Wazir Akbar Khan hill, with one leader all but taunting the U.S.-led coalition's forces that left the country for good last year.
“Because of the rule of this flag, because of the rule of the monotheistic word, thousands of brave sons of this nation placed the bombs in their chests (suicide vests) and drove the occupiers out of this homeland,” Abdul Salam Hanafi, deputy prime minister of the interim Taliban government, said.
Among the Taliban leadership, there are deep divisions, however, about the group's increasingly rigid rule. Pragmatists among them are seeking greater involvement with the international community and believe education and work for women and girls is a right in Islam.
Since a leadership meeting in the southern city of Kandahar in early March, Taliban hardliners have issued repressive edicts almost daily, harkening to their harsh rule of the late 1990s. The edicts have further alienated a wary international community and infuriated many Afghans.
The decrees include a ban on women flying alone; a ban on women in parks on certain days; and a requirement that male workers wear a beard and the traditional turban. International media broadcasts like the BBC’s Persian and Pashto services have been banned, and foreign TV series have been taken off the air.
A surprising last-minute ban on girls returning to school after the sixth grade shocked the international community and many Afghans. In schools across the country, girls returned to classrooms on March 23 — the first day of the new Afghan school year — only to be sent home.
“It broke my -- I guess it broke everybody’s heart -- to see the images of these girls crying in front of their closed schools,” the Germany's Baerbock said. “The plight of girls is a dark illustration of the suffering of the Afghan people,” she added.
The situation for Afghans also has grown worse amid the worst drought in years, and skyrocketing prices for food caused by the fallout from Russia’s war in Ukraine, a key European breadbasket.
“Ukraine is of vital importance, but Afghanistan, you know, calls to our soul for commitment and loyalty,” Martin Griffiths, who heads OCHA, said ahead of Thursday’s pledge drive. “In simple terms, the humanitarian program that we are appealing for is to save lives.”
The amount of Thursday's appeal for funds is three times what the U.N. aid agency sought for Afghanistan a year ago, a request that was exceeded once donors saw the needs that would have to be met after the Taliban takeover.
Many donor countries are seeking to help beleaguered Afghans while largely shunning the Taliban — but the U.N. agency suggested that political and economic engagement from abroad should return one day, too.
“It’s very important for the international community to engage with the Taliban over time on issues beyond the humanitarian,” said Griffiths. “The humanitarian assistance is no replacement for other forms of engagement.”
Gannon reported from Islamabad. Habib Wafa in Kabul and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.