Afghanistan “As a humanitarian, I have never seen such a crisis in my life”

Isabelle Moussard-Carlsen in the center on an emergency assessment mission in Afghanistan @ Isabelle Moussard-Carlsen

An exclusive interview with Isabelle Moussard Carlsen, Head of the OCHA Office in Afghanistan.

Alain Boinet : More and more, media and humanitarian actors are talking about the risk of famine in Afghanistan. What is the reality today and how do you see the coming months in that regard ?

Isabelle Moussard-Carlsen : The number of people in Afghanistan facing hunger today is unprecedented with 23 million Afghans not knowing where their next meal is coming from. This is more than half the population. 1 in 2 children are facing acute malnutrition.

With winter temperatures dipping below zero, people have to spend more of their already dwindling household incomes on fuel and other supplies needed for winter at a time when food supplies are lowest due to harvest cycle.

This is caused by a number of aggravating factors: Afghanistan is facing the second drought in four years, a looming economic crisis, the socio-economic effects of COVID-19 and decades of conflict and natural disasters. Today, people are spending more than 80 per cent of their household budget on food.

Humanitarian organizations are increasing their response and have already reached 8 million people with food in just three months and 1.3 million with agriculture support, but much more is needed. 

Alain Boinet : What about the health structures which seem to lack staff due to lack of salaries, medicines and consumables ? 

Isabelle Moussard-Carlsen : As the crisis in Afghanistan deepens, a collapse in healthcare must be averted. Humanitarian agencies are supporting the system by providing medicine, medical supplies, paying salaries (many healthcare workers had not been paid for up to five months) and more to prevent this from happening.

From the hospitals and health facilities I have visited, both at provincial and district level, nurses, midwives and doctors told me that they continued to work without getting paid. Starting in October, they had been paid for 2 of the 5 months. What is clear is that they need more support, but at least it is some progress. These wonderful Afghan female and male health workers are preventing healthcare from collapsing by providing trauma care, reproductive, maternal, new-born and child health, among other essential services to their fellow Afghans.

Martin Griffiths, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), during a meeting in Kabul with the Taliban leadership.

Alain Boinet : Martin Griffiths recently indicated in his 2022 appeal for OCHA that the largest budget is for Afghanistan, at $4.5 billion, just ahead of Syria and Yemen. Can we expect that this sum will be effectively mobilized in time to be implemented for the populations in danger ?

Shouldn’t we consider a large-scale relief operation to reach the most endangered populations ?

Isabelle Moussard-Carlsen : This year, donors contributed US$1.6 billion to the response in Afghanistan to cover immediate needs particularly in the last four months of 2021. Indeed, needs are deepening and we urge donors to generously support life-saving assistance, including food, medicines, health care and protection for 22 million people next year.

We are encouraged by the UN security council resolution on Afghanistan sanctions. The humanitarian exception will allow aid organizations to implement at the scale required. Some 160 national and international humanitarian organizations are already providing assistance in Afghanistan and it is critical that flexible and early funding is received so that they can continue to do so.

Alain Boinet : Humanitarian actors testify that among the main difficulties they face is access to the Afghan banking sector to receive funds and carry out transactions as well as the constraints of air travel and visas to reach Afghanistan. What is the situation and what consequences does it have ?

Isabelle Moussard-Carlsen : The economic situation has been extremely difficult and most particularly felt by Afghans.  Banks were closed and there was no money in the system. Doctors, teachers and civil servants has not been paid, local institutions and services are at risk. Last week’s vote for a humanitarian exception will allow aid organizations to implement what we have planned: to reach 22 million vulnerable Afghans. It also provides legal assurances to financial institutions and commercial actors and facilitate humanitarian operations.

At this critical time, we all need to come together, and the international community has a major role to play, to support the millions of Afghans that are counting on us and have exhausted all other options. 

Alain Boinet : Are the financial resources mobilized commensurate with the needs ? Are they available and do the humanitarian actors have the necessary capacity to act during the harsh winter in Afghanistan ?

Isabelle Moussard-Carlsen : Regarding access, winter does make it more difficult to access people in need and for people to access the services they need which is why it is so important that we continue to deliver aid to vulnerable communities, including winter aid that was distributed in October and November ahead of winter. Besides winter aid, humanitarians were also providing people with 3 months’ supply of food and agriculture support like wheat seeds. Access missions are also ongoing along the Saranjal Pass on the way to Ghor province and more recently in snowy and remote parts of Bamyan. In November along, OCHA conducted 17 missions, the majority of which by road. It is critical to re-establish access to remote parts of Afghanistan where needs are often the highest and many communities have not been reached in years. 

WFP trucks deliver food to remote, hard-to-reach areas in northeastern Badakhshan province before roads are blocked by snow @PAM Afghanistan

Alain Boinet : With the new Afghan government, are the humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence respected and is it possible to have unhindered access to all populations ? What is the significance of the UNSC Resolution 2615 of December 22 for OCHA and humanitarian actors ?

Isabelle Moussard-Carlsen : As humanitarians, we continue to engage with all parties including the Taliban (as we have been for decades) to access people in need, focusing on the most vulnerable.  The humanitarian principles are the guiding principles in our engagement and essential to principled response in complex situations such as the one in Afghanistan. As before, humanitarian assistance is independent and must be based on needs as identified by needs assessments.

We are very encouraged by the UN security council resolution on Afghanistan sanctions and will allow the 160 humanitarian organizations on the ground to respond to people in need at the scale required.


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Isabelle Moussard-Carlsen

Isabelle has been engaged in the humanitarian sector since 1987.

Her first field experience was in the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan. She subsequently spent 12 years in the field in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Kenya and Somalia.

Back in France in 1999, she first worked for four years with the Samu Social de Paris before joining ACF in January 2005 as Desk Officer.

In March 2013 she was promoted to a Regional Director position.

She has been the Director of Operations of ACF- France between August 2016 and April 2021.

Isabelle has joined OCHA Afghanistan in June 2021.

Humanitarian aid is struggling!

Mohamad-Ali, 2, receives two drops of polio vaccine in Kandahar, southern Afghanistan @ Sayed Maroof Hamdard

Martin Griffiths, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator (OCHA /BCAH), said on December 2 in New York that next year, in 2022, 274 million people in the world would need humanitarian assistance and that this would require a budget of 41 billion dollars.

We remember that a year ago, Mark Lowcock, who then occupied the post of Martin Griffiths, had launched an appeal for 235 million people, against 168 million in 2020, for a budget of 35.1 billion dollars according to the Global Humanitarian Overview of OCHA (GHO). In his report, Martin Griffiths acknowledges that the UN was only able to help 107 million victims in 2021 out of 168 million!

So we have not helped all the populations in danger! What happened to the people who were not rescued or were only slightly rescued? Why are we not able to help them? Who is responsible? Is the humanitarian system underfunded or do aid actors lack the necessary capacity, if not the will?

But are assessments of the number of people to be helped relevant? Aid needs are diverse in nature and volume and require a comprehensive but also local and targeted approach. Is this the case? Have we been prevented from accessing certain populations because of war or interdiction?

My purpose here is not to judge, because I know how complex these questions are, but rather to question the humanitarian ecosystem and its financiers so that the means meet vital needs as much as possible, since the raison d’être of humanitarian aid is to save lives, not to leave anyone behind and to anticipate the relaunch of development.

Among the countries in major crisis, there are these: Syria, Yemen, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Myanmar, Afghanistan, which today illustrates our concern and our call for a surge.

Afghanistan is on the brink of collapse.

Afghanistan (2020) @Omid-Fazel / UNICEF

According to a November 8 report by the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), more than half of the Afghan population, 22.8 million out of 38 million Afghans, are now facing acute food insecurity.

Already in October, the UN declared that more than three million children under the age of 5 were facing malnutrition and UNICEF warned in September that, without immediate treatment, one million children were at risk of dying of malnutrition. Yes, you read that right, one million children are in danger of dying!

On August 15, all the world’s media focused on the Kabul airport for weeks, where are they today? There was a lot of talk about human rights then, so why isn’t it being talked about now? Are human rights not also the right to food, water, health care and shelter? Are human rights subject to political preconditions decided by whom and for what?

We cannot say that we do not know.

And yet, we can’t say we don’t know when David Beasley, the executive director of the WFP, said on the BBC on November 8: “This is as bad as you can imagine. In fact, we are now witnessing the worst humanitarian crisis on earth. As many as 95% of people do not have enough food.

At a UN conference for Afghanistan on September 13 in Geneva, it was estimated that emergency humanitarian aid needed $606 million by the end of the year to meet the basic needs of 11 million Afghans. And Paris had announced to contribute up to 100 million euros according to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drian.

Antonio Gueterres, Secretary General of the United Nations, said: “Let’s be clear: this conference is not just about what we are going to give to the Afghan people. It is about what we must.

WFP to negotiate passage for food aid through Afghanistan. @WFP / Massoud Hossaini.

Three months later, we see that the number of Afghans to be helped has risen from 11 million to 22.8 million. This gives a dizzying idea of the race against the worst. So, has the $606 million been raised and is it being used to save lives? How do we supplement these funds when the number of Afghans at risk has doubled in three months? As David Beasley says, “Hunger is growing and children are dying.

It is a death struggle against time that is engaged. Afghans are victims of the combined effects of drought, long years of conflict and their consequences, of the covid-19 and of the economic crisis that has been raging since August. Will the question of the responsibility of the international community, of the UN, of NATO eventually arise?

According to the testimonies of humanitarians I contacted in Afghanistan and in Paris: “There is currently no hindrance or interference with our humanitarian action and the improved security conditions allow us to make trips that were not possible before. Other humanitarians testify: “The main constraints are the international sanctions, the paralysis of the banking system and the difficulties of access to the country.

Preventing rather than counting victims.

Recently back from Afghanistan, the director of operations of the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross), Dominique Stillhart, published a lucid and courageous op-ed in which he wrote “Why the anger? Because there is nothing inevitable about this suffering. The economic sanctions that are supposed to punish those in power in Kabul only deprive millions of Afghans of the essential goods and services they need to survive. The international community is turning its back on the country while it runs into a man-made catastrophe.

Preventing humanitarian catastrophe is the top priority and for that the international community must change its posture. In the latest Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) report published by WFP and FAO, it is stated that during the lean season, from November 2021 to March 2022, more than one in two Afghans will be acutely food insecure. Everyone is warned.

What a responsibility for the international community.

Reacting is urgent to prevent the humanitarian catastrophe that is now underway as the harsh winter will isolate much of the country and millions of people, especially farmers. As Mr. Qu Donggyu, Director General of the FAO, said: “We cannot stand by and watch the humanitarian disaster that is happening before our eyes, it is unacceptable.

WFP trucks deliver food to remote and hard-to-reach areas in northeastern Badakhshan province before roads were blocked by snow @PAM Afghanistan

It was Martin Griffiths who gave an estimate of the financial means needed to face this major humanitarian crisis when he declared at the United Nations on December 2 that “the world’s largest humanitarian appeal of $4.47 billion is for Afghanistan, closely followed by appeals in Syria and Yemen.

My experience in Afghanistan has taught me that there are two mistakes not to make. The first is not to abandon this country as was the case after the withdrawal of Soviet troops in February 1989, then in 1992 when the Afghan resistance took over Kabul from the communist regime. We have seen the consequences. The second mistake is to corner the Afghans at the risk of contributing to their radicalization and to end up making alliances that have made them unhappy, like ours with Al Qaeda.

It is the role of diplomacy to avoid the worst by finding the necessary compromises acceptable to all, knowing that it will not be easy. But we are not going to start a war again!

In the meantime, as the European Union rightly says, referring in particular to humanitarian aid, “Dialogue does not imply recognition of the Taliban government.

Finally, the international community, especially the Westerners, should not be accused of having let famine kill Afghans on a massive scale. Nor should Afghanistan become a sort of cold war between two sides as it was during the Soviet occupation. No one has the right to play the sorcerer’s apprentice with so many lives in danger of being lost. In the face of human suffering, the only answer is solidarity.

Alain Boinet.

PS/ We need your help to publish “Humanitarian Challenges” every month. You can help us by making a donation on the HelloAsso website knowing that we do not benefit from tax deduction. Thank you for your generous support.