Afghanistan: the nuts and bolts of the UN humanitarian plea

By Javier Delgado Rivera

A major funding appeal for Afghanistan took place on Monday in Geneva. A plea that drew aid pledges worth more than $1,2 billion, doubling the U.N.’s initial $606 million request to address the humanitarian needs of almost 11 million Afghans for the rest of the year. These are the needs the committed funds will help relieve, and the challenges aid faced now that cash is not an issue.

Malnutrition in transition times

According to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), food shortages have already forced 12.2 million people, or 30% of the population, to face acute levels of food insecurity and hunger.

Not being able to put food on the table could push millions further to the brink. “Any shock presents a devastating blow to households’ ability to sustain […] many Afghans have already incurred catastrophic levels of debt, in some cases taking them up to 16 years to repay,” describes the appeal in a picture of misery and hardship.   

Children malnutrition is another great humanitarian need of concern for the U.N. Today, half of the children under five in Afghanistan face severe malnutrition. And with many health facilities damaged as a result of the conflict, millions of them are at risk of death, sickness and permanent growth impairment. The well-being of the country’s next generation is at peril from birth.

“We must focus on the pre-existing humanitarian crisis, mostly in rural areas, that is indeed worsening as we speak. Addressing this crisis cannot wait for political decisions regarding the removal of sanctions,” Deborah Lyons, UNAMA head, says.

The portrait of a humanitarian catastrophe

The grim state of agriculture is the main humanitarian concern in Afghanistan. In particular millions of farmers, who have to brave the lean season and the harsh winter, are the group more at risk of going hungry.   The lack of health care for 3 million Afghans is another pressing worry for the UN. The needs in this area include maternal, new-born and child health care – and after so many years of conflict, trauma care.   Covid-19 is perhaps the elephant in the room when it comes to the country’s humanitarian challenges. “Without clear positioning from the de facto authorities on the continuation of COVID-19 vaccination across the country, it is anticipated that continued, large scale population movements will lead to a more acute fourth wave of the pandemic,” laments OCHA.   And with Afghanistan in the grips of its second severe drought in four years, water and sanitation is the U.N. third greatest humanitarian headache. The Organization and its partners want to expand water provision by different mechanism, like rehabilitating wells and boreholes, repairing and setting-up handpumps or improve household water treatment.   But goodwill may be only the beginning   Complex logistics and supply constraints mean that, even if aid is ready, the supplies may never reach the population in need. For instance, and as noted by the appeal, “it will take time for the humanitarian airbridge from Pakistan to be operating at the scale required to support a wide-scale response.”   The convoluted financial situation in Afghanistan also hinders the ability of humanitarian actors to buy supplies from local markets and hand over cash assistance to the poor.   And to add insult to injury, the new reality in Afghanistan throws in several layers of complexity to the arduous task of aid delivery.   Insecurity and gargantuan logistical challenges, coupled with the intricacies of the Taliban relations with the West, made more problematic by the fact that the group’s caretaker cabinet has several members facing UN sanctions for terrorism, make humanitarian work in the country more laborious than ever before.   Yet in a meeting last week with the Taliban leadership in Kabul, Martin Griffiths, the UN emergency relief chief, received assurances about the safety, security and freedom of movement for humanitarian workers. A letter received yesterday by the U.N. put it in written.   All while the U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres vented a reality check. “What we do [in Afghanistan], namely in the area of humanitarian aid, has a leading role, it is clear. But to think that the U.N. is going to solve the problems that so many for so much time, with so many trillions, have not solved is obviously complete nonsense,” warned the UN chief yesterday in a press conference.   In the meantime, far from affluent Geneva, an appalling clock is ticking for millions of Afghans. If the political and logistical hurdles can be overcome, the decisive international response to this humanitarian appeal could slow it down.  

Javier Delgado Rivera is a Bangkok-based journalist focused on the United Nations, and a former UN communications consultant. Over almost two decades, his articles have appeared in dozens of media outlets worldwide. He runs @TheUNTimes on Twitter and can be reached at