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Afghan Aid Groups Stuck in Limbo       09/16 06:07


   DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) -- A month after the fall of Kabul, the 
world is still wrestling with how to help Afghanistan's impoverished people 
without propping up their Taliban leaders -- a question that grows more urgent 
by the day.

   With the Afghan government severed from the international banking system, 
aid groups both inside Afghanistan and abroad say they are struggling to get 
emergency relief, basic services and funds to a population at risk of 
starvation, unemployment and the coronavirus after 20 years of war.

   Among the groups struggling to function is a public health nonprofit that 
paid salaries and purchased food and fuel for hospitals with contributions from 
the World Bank, the European Union and the U.S. Agency for International 
Development. The $600 million in funds, which were funneled through the Afghan 
Health Ministry, dried up overnight after the Taliban took over the capital.

   Now, clinics in Afghanistan's eastern Khost Province no longer can afford to 
clean even as they are beset with COVID-19 patients, and the region's hospitals 
have asked patients to purchase their own syringes, according to Organization 
for Health Promotion and Management's local chapter head Abdul Wali.

   "All we do is wait and pray for cash to come," Wali said. "We face disaster, 
if this continues."

   Donor countries pledged during a United Nations appeal this week to open 
their purse strings to the tune of $1.2 billion in humanitarian aid. But 
attempts by Western governments and international financial institutions to 
deprive the Taliban-controlled government of other funding sources until its 
intentions are clearer also has Afghan's most vulnerable citizens hurting.

   The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the European Union 
suspended financing for projects in Afghanistan, and the United States froze $7 
billion in Afghan foreign reserves held in New York. Foreign aid to Afghanistan 
previously ran some $8.5 billion a year -- nearly half of the country's gross 
domestic product.

   Without access to its own or foreign funds, the interim government in Kabul 
can't even pay the import taxes needed to bring containers of badly needed food 
from a port in Pakistan, the country's Chamber of Commerce and Industry Vice 
Chairman Yonus Momand said.

   The West's strategy is to strangle the Taliban's finances to induce 
Afghanistan's new leaders to respect the rights of women and religious 
minorities. The all-male, hard-line Cabinet appointed last week includes 
several ministers subject to U.N. sanctions and one with a $5 million FBI 
bounty on his head.

   While it's unclear how long Afghan central bank reserves will remain out of 
reach, American officials insist that humanitarian groups can sidestep Taliban 
authorities to deliver directly to the needy Afghans fearing for their lives 
and futures in the wake of the chaotic U.S. pullout.

   "It's definitely still possible to meet the basic needs of Afghans without 
rewarding the government with broader economic assistance and diplomatic 
recognition," said Lisa Curtis, former South and Central Asia director of the 
U.S. National Security Council.

   But the situation on the ground shows the limits of that approach. Fighting 
over the years has displaced over 3.5 million people -- including over half a 
million since the start of the year. The price of basic goods has soared. Bank 
lines snake down streets as people wait hours, even days, to withdraw money so 
they can feed their families.

   While individuals are allowed to withdraw a maximum of $200 per week from 
Afghanistan's banks, organizations are unable to get any funds. The paralysis 
has hampered the work of local authorities who used World Bank development 
funds to pay for health services and clean water, as well as international 
charitable groups trying to run vast aid operations.

   "The cash remains the main issue," said Stefan Recker, Afghanistan director 
for Catholic relief organization Caritas. "We cannot pay our own staff, run our 
aid projects or implement badly needed new programs."

   Cut off from their bank accounts, groups dependent on international donors 
are using stop-gap methods to stay afloat. They are getting their hands on 
operating cash through a mixture of mobile payment service M-PESA, Western 
Union transfers and hawala -- the informal money transfer system that helped 
power the economy when Taliban ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s.

   The ancient system, which existed in the country before banks, relies on the 
principle that if there are two people who want to send equal amounts of money 
between two locations, cash doesn't need to change hands. International 
anti-poverty organization CARE is among the relief providers that rely on 
hawala dealers to transfer funds and record loans across provinces.

   "It's probably not a long-term solution, but the hawala system has been 
helpful for a long time," Marianne O'Grady, CARE's deputy Afghanistan director, 
said. "People trust in it, so it's what we're using."

   Meanwhile, some countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and 
Uzbekistan, have avoided the messy debate over financial aid by dispatching 
planeloads of food and medicine to Kabul, betting that bags of rice will get 
distributed to the needy and not line the pockets of Taliban ministers who are 
on terrorism watch lists.

   But many insist that informal money transfers and rice shipments are hardly 
the way to prevent Afghanistan's financial and social collapse at a time when 
the stakes are so high: along with drought and the threat of famine, potential 
Taliban brutality and a collapsing health care system, Afghans face more 
desperate times as winter approaches.

   Although the $1.2 billion raised at the U.N. this week exceeded 
expectations, uncertainty surrounds the outpouring of international sympathy. 
Aid workers want to know where exactly the money is going and when, as well as 
how the needs of cash-strapped local nongovernmental organizations will be 
addressed while Afghanistan's banking system remains crippled.

   "The U.N. had a lot to say about food delivery, but I heard nothing about 
plans to reestablish a system of public services," said Vicki Aken, Afghanistan 
director for the International Rescue Committee. "What about paying the 
salaries of teachers and doctors?"

   Those salaries now run through financial plumbing controlled by former 
insurgents with a brutal reputation. In maintaining its grip on the Afghan 
state's foreign reserves, the U.S. hopes to pressure the Taliban to honor their 
promises to create a moderate and inclusive government.

   Although Afghanistan's new rulers vowed as recently as Tuesday to ensure the 
U.N. aid is distributed fairly, reports have emerged in recent days of Taliban 
fighters cracking down on journalists and peaceful protests.

   "It's a gray zone," said Daniel Runde at the Washington-based Center for 
Strategic and International Studies. "We spent a ton of money building up state 
capacity. Do we now want a broken-down banking system so doctors can't 
administer vaccines? Do we care enough about women's education to work with 
this regime?"

   As the international community ponders the answer, doctors at a 
government-run pediatric hospital in Kabul say they have run out of antibiotics 
and gauze and are bracing for a harsh winter without heating as they treat a 
growing number of malnourished children.

   "The economic conditions are getting worse, so the (cases) of malnutrition 
are increasing," warned Noorulhaq Yousufzai, the doctor in charge of the clinic.

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