ICRC President: "The international community must act to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan"
Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen:
Thank you for the opportunity to address you today. On my visits to Afghanistan over many years, most recently in September, I have come to know the country as a place of great beauty, but also one of heartbreak.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has been working in Afghanistan and with Afghans for over 30 years to protect and assist them in the face of conflict and violence, based on principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence.
Throughout this time we have remained present on the ground and maintained constant exchanges with all sides, including through transitions in the government. The ICRC maintains access across the country and has a constructive relationship with the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, built over many years.
Currently, we have 1,800 staff working with a strong focus on health care, protection, disabilities, livelihoods and water and sanitation. We also collaborate closely with the Afghan Red Crescent Society with branches in all 34 Provinces.
Over time we have seen improvements in the welfare of the Afghan people aided by generous international development assistance and many international and local partners. For example, since 2001, maternal deaths have fallen by nearly half, child mortality has decreased by over a quarter and average life expectancy has increased by roughly 8.5 years.
However, since August 2021, when the aid lifeline was cut off, ground realities have rapidly changed.
With aid subject to politics, the Afghan people are paying a huge price. This should be unacceptable. As many listening today have heard me say, humanitarian action must not be conditioned to political or other stipulations. And it must not do harm by creating dependencies but help charter ways forward to self-sustaining lives and livelihoods.
Today we are in a race against time. Basic humanitarian indicators are deteriorating with unprecedented speed. Half the population needs humanitarian assistance, a 30 per cent increase on last year. Food insecurity and acute malnutrition are expanding rapidly – not only in rural areas where it might have been expected but also, alarmingly, in most of the country's urban centres.
It is true that when the crisis hits, the most vulnerable are hit hardest. Afghanistan is no exception: children comprise 40% of our patients treated in primary health care centres. We are witnessing a severe increase in malnutrition in children under 5 compared to last year.
The increasing cost of food, worsening shortages of critical medical supplies, and non-payment of civil workers all point to a looming catastrophe.
Although ICRC and other humanitarian partners are stepping up our efforts significantly, the humanitarian system cannot replace institutional service delivery systems for 40 million people.
Thus, ICRC is lending its credibility to a critical message about the collapsing economy and the need for a 'systems sustaining approach' because of the devasting humanitarian consequences for the people of Afghanistan.
Indeed, to be effective, the scaling up of economic life must go hand-in-hand with an inclusive society, where all – be they women, girls, ethnic minorities, persons with disabilities – can participate and live out their potential.
ICRC has taken concrete steps to save lives and to lead by example.
To ensure that millions continue to have access to healthcare, we have signed MOUs with the Ministry of Public Health and the Ministry of Higher Education for 20 hospitals, 8 university and teaching hospitals and the Ghazanfar Institute of Medical Science certifying thousands of mostly female health professionals every year.
We are making direct payments to more than 10,000 government health workers – professionals who have been delivering essential medical care in hospitals across the country before August 2021 and will continue to do so if the facilities can be kept up and running and their salaries paid. Assurance is provided by relationships with the facilities as well as third-party monitoring of payments.
Excellencies, Today, I would like to flag three areas in which such an approach is urgently needed.
1. Ensuring Basic Essential Services
As I mentioned before, humanitarian organizations cannot effectively replace a functioning public sector, nor can we fully meet the needs of the Afghan population. Relief is a necessary stopgap measure to save lives here and now.
Payment of salaries to non-security sector civil service employees to ensure provision of basic essential services is critical. This builds on the technical capacities already in place and holds the foundation for a sustainable future.
We and other humanitarian actors are ready to scale and replicate this model, including in other sectors.
2. Restrictive Measures
There has been welcome progress on some restrictive measures that create a more enabling environment for humanitarian response. For example, general licenses are available with wide allowance for humanitarian activities.
However, to meet the current needs of the Afghan people, clearer signals are needed on the acceptance of direct engagement with certain non-security sector government ministries in order to ensure basic essential services such as provision of healthcare, education, and water and sanitation.
And following the welcome and unanimous adoption of UNSC Resolution 2615, we encourage relevant States to continue to implement the carve-out in their domestic laws so that humanitarian actors can operate with confidence.
3. The Banking and Liquidity Crisis
The banking and liquidity crisis is having a devasting effect on the overall economy and on the ability of humanitarian agencies to scale their activities efficiently. 'Piece meal' solutions are not enough, and collaborating with IEA technical counterparts, particularly in the Ministry of Finance and the Central Bank, is necessary.
The Afghan Central Bank (Da Afghanistan Bank) needs to be supported to carry out its core functions such as managing the money supply, conducting foreign exchange auctions, and regulating and supervising banks and other financial institutions.
Such support could come from multilateral financial institutions like the World Bank, IMF, or the Asian Development Bank, the Bank for International Settlements, or through reputable third parties.
To conclude, even as ICRC and other humanitarian partners continue to advocate for the people of Afghanistan and take practical 'stop gap' measures, I call for greater efforts of the international community and the IEA to be more decisive and more engaged to find solutions to end people's suffering and avoid a humanitarian catastrophe. Instead engagement on humanitarian action can be the first steps towards building trust and stability.