International assistance to Afghanistan needs to adapt to the ‘new normal’

As we approach the third anniversary of the change of leadership in Afghanistan, it is high time for donors to move from a reactive strategy to a proactive one.

People walk near their damaged homes after heavy flooding in Baghlan province in northern Afghanistan Saturday, May 11, 2024. Flash floods from seasonal rains in Baghlan province in northern Afghanistan killed dozens of people on Friday, a Taliban official said. (AP Photo/Mehrab Ibrahimi)
People walk near their damaged homes after heavy flooding in Baghlan province in northern Afghanistan Saturday, May 11, 2024. [AP Photo/Mehrab Ibrahim]

Trucks painted bright blue, yellow, and purple dot the arid emptiness of Spin Boldak in southern Afghanistan. Their roofs are laden with the entire possessions of families who have returned from Pakistan after decades of displacement. Hundreds of thousands have preceded them in recent months following a ruling that undocumented migrants must leave or face deportation. Most have never been to Afghanistan before. They must build new lives from scratch.

Many are so poor that they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. They certainly don’t have the capital needed to start a livelihood. When they arrive in Spin Boldak, they receive medical care, some food, and a little cash from humanitarian agencies. They are grateful, but when I ask them what they want, they all underline the same thing – jobs, start-up capital – a chance to survive economically.

Very few will get such help. Not because humanitarian agencies don’t want to support them but because international aid in Afghanistan is still largely geared towards survival, not resilience. This is true for returnees from Pakistan and for responses to floods and earthquakes. As a result, there is a growing divergence between donor strategies and the expressed needs of Afghans facing climate and poverty-related exclusion and displacement risks.

That there is divergence is not surprising. Many of the major donors of international aid are from Europe and the United States. Memories of conflict are still fresh. On top of that, clashes in values with Taliban authorities, particularly regarding access to work and education for women and girls, make tension inevitable and necessary.

What is disappointing though is that the framing of much international assistance remains essentially negative, the emphasis being on not helping the Taliban. Whereas, what is needed is a people-first, positive framing that asks what institutions, structures, skills, and attitudes are most likely to contribute to sustained wellbeing and peace in Afghanistan, given the specificity of the context.

Some will protest that such a framing is impossible while half the population is excluded from education and the workforce. There are two main flaws to this argument.

The first is that it is not entirely true. While restrictions on women are unacceptable and severe, there are exceptions and workarounds that can support women, and these are opportunities to help.

The second is that restricting aid hurts everybody, including women and girls, who, as well as aspiring for themselves, also want their fathers, brothers, and husbands to have an income and an education. In other words, everybody loses from non-engagement, including those the nonengagement is intended to support.

What would a more positive framing consist of in practice?

For a start, it would consider the institutional capacity in Afghanistan to provide social protection and opportunities for its citizens rather than focusing on parallel, international structures. For the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, this means supporting the country’s leading national, humanitarian institution – the Afghan Red Crescent. But there are plenty of other institutions critical to the well-functioning of the country that would benefit from support too.

Second, it would think long-term. Instead of endlessly emphasising an urgent need for food, it would design support aimed at livelihood recovery and job creation, for men and women. This is not an assertion that relief aid is never needed, only that it should be supplementary to a strategy of promoting household economic independence. This is far from where we are now.

Third, it would invest in the country’s capacity to cope with the endless climate risks. Heavy rains and flooding have killed dozens of people in both southern and northern provinces of Afghanistan over recent weeks. Cattle, agricultural land, trees, and bridges have been destroyed, pushing thousands of some of the world’s poorest people into destitution.

Relief aid is needed, but so are check dams and early warning systems. Yet such development support that may provide sustainable protection remains unacceptable to many donors who see it as somehow aiding the de facto authorities. Such policies are helping no one.

Fourth, it would focus on all possible learning opportunities. There is rightly indignation at the lack of secondary education for girls, but we should not give up on learning altogether. Every feasible opportunity for alternative education, vocational education, skills development, and learning should be supported for both men and women. Of all the crises Afghanistan is experiencing, the least visible and most severe may well be a mental health crisis rooted in trauma from the past and a lack of hope in the future. Relief aid is a weak strategy to address that. Supporting self-development is a strong one.

Finally, even a new framing must distinguish between engagement and endorsement. There are many good reasons why endorsement is problematic, but engagement to enable the right sort of investment that works in the best interests of the people of Afghanistan is critical.

After August 2021, many donor countries didn’t know how to respond to the shock of the change in leadership in Afghanistan. To their credit, some continued to respond to humanitarian imperatives even if they did hold back any development financing and engagement.

As we approach the third anniversary of the Taliban’s return to power, and begin to witness a relatively stable “new normal” under the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan leadership, it is time for more donors to move from a reactive strategy to a proactive one. One that aims, as much as possible and despite daunting challenges, to lay foundations not just for bare survival, but for wellbeing and hope.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.