For 20 years the Afghan economy has been almost entirely dependent on financial support from the international donor community, delivered to the Afghan government to cover public sector running costs such as the salaries of doctors, nurses, teachers, judges, police officers and civil servants. This international development assistance accounted for 43% of Afghanistan’s GDP and 75% of its public expenditure at the point when Kabul fell, so it is little wonder that the Afghan economy is now on the brink of total collapse following the international community’s understandable refusal to channel funding through the Taliban.
Meanwhile the entire Afghan banking system has shut down, leaving Afghans with little access to money beyond importing suitcases full of cash.
Britain has a moral duty to support vulnerable Afghans, and it’s in the national interest, too. British servicemen and women should be proud of how their dedicated work helped to provide women and girls in Afghanistan with freedom and opportunities that had previously appeared out of reach, while preventing terror attacks against the west. But political failures mean that Afghans now face Taliban oppression and starvation while Europe faces another refugee crisis. We need a solution.
As winter sets in, Afghanistan is on the brink of disaster. The executive director of the UN World Food Programme, David Beasley, warned earlier this month that “23 million people are marching towards starvation … The next six months are going to be catastrophic. It is going to be hell on Earth.” Heartbreaking reports of parents selling their children are starting to emerge. The UN has confirmed that 55% of the population face acute food insecurity.
Labour supports the international community’s reluctance to channel financial support through the Taliban. It would be wrong and naive to reward or legitimise the Taliban’s brutal 20-year campaign of terror, death and destruction.
But fortunately there are alternative means by which to provide the Afghan people with humanitarian and financial support. Today Labour is urging the UK government to deliver decisive leadership and proactive diplomacy by taking the following three steps.
First, the foreign secretary must convene partner countries that are willing and able to mobilise Afghanistan’s major western donors, to deliver aid off-budget. The two multi-donor trust funds are the World Bank’s now suspended Afghan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF) and the UN Development Programme’s Special Trust Fund for Afghanistan (STFA). Both can operate independently of the Taliban by channelling funds and paying salaries directly to the Afghan public sector and NGOs via a model that is both controlled and auditable. Such operations have been undertaken in other countries.
Yet the World Bank and UNDP officials can only act if they are instructed to do so by their political masters – the governments of the donor countries. The UK government must therefore organise a meeting of fellow donors immediately.
Second, our government must take the lead in re-enabling some form of cashflow in Afghanistan. The banking sector is on the verge of collapse, but international banks fear US sanctions for being seen to support the Taliban. The result is that there is virtually no domestic currency circulating in Afghanistan. The UK government must therefore urge partner countries to amend their respective sanctions regimes – on which the US have already taken some initial steps – to facilitate the re-establishment of focused banking services that can help deliver humanitarian assistance.
Third, in the longer term it is going to be essential for aid organisations and NGOs to have some clarity on what donor governments will or will not accept in terms of the Taliban’s behaviour and modus operandi. But if each government develops its own guidelines and conditions this will make it impossible for the aid community to operate effectively on the ground. The UK government should therefore convene the key donors in order to agree on a set of basic principles that will both enable aid actors to work more efficiently and send a clear and consistent message to the Taliban (rather than continue with each western government working to slightly different standards).
Successive Conservative governments since 2010 have inflicted terrible damage on our country’s standing in the world, but the Johnson administration appears to be intent on trashing our reputation completely. The decision to abandon the UK’s commitment to spending 0.7% of our GDP on development has fundamentally undermined our credibility and influence internationally.
Yet despite Johnson’s weaknesses, the UK is the world’s fifth largest economy – and as a permanent member of the UN security council, we still have the convening power and diplomatic clout that is required to address the Afghan crisis.
The question is whether the prime minister and foreign secretary care enough to take action. Labour is not banking on it, and that’s why we are spoonfeeding the government by today putting forward our urgent three-point plan. The consequences of further inaction are simply too devastating to contemplate.