Food distributions organized vy the WFP. @WFP

A year and a half after the Taliban took power, the Afghan population is experiencing its worst humanitarian crisis. Two out of three Afghans are in a humanitarian emergency, more than 20 million people and 3 million children are in a serious food crisis, and the situation is getting worse[1].

A year ago, the Taliban regime banned access to education for women and girls. And since 24 December, women have been officially banned from working for NGOs.

Since 15 August 2021, humanitarian actors, the United Nations, the ICRC and NGOs have been the only organisations still working with the population in the country.

Prohibiting women from carrying out humanitarian activities means directly depriving all the women and girls most affected by the crisis of assistance. And it makes the women and their families affected by the ban even more vulnerable. It is to lock in misery in legalized injustice.

The decisions of the government in power are in total contradiction with the most fundamental human rights, and perfectly counterproductive in the face of the immense vital needs of the population.

But the Afghan context is also marked by the choices of the international community.

Since 15 August 2021, structural aid has stopped. It represented more than 40% of the country’s resources. Their cessation has brought the health, social protection and education systems to their knees.

Added to this is the freezing of Afghan assets, the sanctions regime and its consequences on the ability of humanitarians to work. Resolution 2664 organises the exceptions expected by NGOs but is limited to the UN sanctions regime. Too many constraints on the transfer of funds remain and hamper humanitarian aid.

However, humanitarian aid remains the last possibility to fight the crisis, with too few means. The UN appeal was only 75% covered in 2022 ($3.3bn). The 2023 appeal estimates the needs at $4.6bn, with no certainty of being able to mobilise the necessary funds[2].

It is in this context of multiple constraints that the population is struggling against the worst humanitarian crisis and hopes to see aid maintained and increased.

In this kind of humanitarian and political vise that is the country, the United Nations and the NGOs are today the only international organisations in Afghanistan to negotiate with the authorities and to find a way between the ideological confinement of the regime, its banishment from the international community and the immense needs of a population that has been victimised several times.

On a daily basis we are in contact with the authorities in Afghanistan to negotiate access and its conditions. This often leads to a confrontation between humanitarian principles and reality, and a realization of the gap between the humanitarian imperative (that people’s lives should come first and that they should have access to aid) and the defence of principles and human rights.

The humanitarian community sought to resolve this equation following the Taliban’s decision to ban women from working for NGOs. After being suspended for a few weeks, humanitarian activities have resumed. Most NGOs are able to get their female employees back to work. However, those who are still unable to do so have their employment contracts and salaries maintained. They are not replaced by men.

The dialogue with the authorities has been on a case-by-case basis. It did not focus on principles, which very quickly came up against opposing positions of principle. It was organised around humanitarian needs and the concrete capacity to respond to them and enable women (as well as men) to receive the expected aid.

It is striking to hear the authorities ask NGOs to increase their action in favour of the most fragile communities. Because a request, when it meets another request in return (getting women back to work), opens up the possibility of negotiation. It is this humanitarian pragmatism, which, by avoiding the trap of confrontation, allows women to continue working and to benefit from the long-awaited aid.

It is also necessary to convince Western states that the humanitarian imperative and operational assistance to the population must remain paramount when it comes to humanitarian aid in such a dilapidated human rights context.

Humanitarian funding is being maintained. Development donors are preparing to fund the ‘basic needs’ of populations. This is an awareness that the humanitarian imperative must take precedence over all political considerations. This movement, recently initiated by the European Union, must be continued.

Faced with the crisis in Afghanistan, the way forward is not to give up defending human rights, nor to compromise. The way forward is that of reason, which makes a clear distinction between the powers that be and the needs of the people; the way forward is the conviction that “humanitarianism” is not a space conceded by politics but the expression of a political vision of the world, in which the very condition of the people is a higher good, because it is the condition for the expression of their autonomy and their political aspirations.

For the people are not the regimes; for no sanctions regime has ever toppled any totalitarian power; for the victims are always the people; for humanitarian aid is also the last lifeline for half of civil society.

And in this case, because Afghan women are asking us not to leave, not to reduce our action, not to abandon life in the name of rights.

Jean-François Riffaud
Director General of ACF.



Opinion piece published in the daily Le Monde on Wednesday 5 April 2023: In Afghanistan, the imperative must prevail over any consideration.