We must urgently scale up British aid to Afghanistan – for many it’s already too late
As former International Development Secretary, I visited some of the most desperate places on earth and met people living in unimaginable hardship. They are experiences that I will always remember and have fundamentally shaped my view of the world.
I have few illusions about the realities of life for the poorest and most vulnerable people, but when I read Christina Lamb’s report from Afghanistan in this week’s Sunday Times, I realised we are witnesses to a truly medieval catastrophe unfolding in slow time before our eyes.
The combination of drought, the implosion of the country’s economy since the Taliban takeover in August and a harsh winter means that millions are facing starvation – 23 million according to the World Food Programme. Ninety-five per cent of the population has insufficient food. Lamb’s report tells of a family forced to sell their daughters into marriage so that they can afford to eat. Save the Children says that almost two thirds of the population have been driven to “crisis coping strategies”, such as child marriage and child labour. This level of desperation is utterly heart-breaking.
Returning aid to pre-cut levels is of course welcome, but it does not recognise the scale of the crisis, nor the leadership which Britain needs to give
I’m told by NGOs working in the country that for many people we are already too late to help. Children are dying of starvation and disease. More than half of those in need of medical attention have no access to it. Humanitarian organisations are facing financial restrictions from donors because they are operating under Taliban control, and the collapse of the economy and the currency also brings them huge challenges, such as paying their staff.
The British public, as so often, wants to help those facing this awful plight. The Disasters Emergency Committee’s Afghanistan crisis appeal has raised £20 million in donations and 20,000 people have supported the campaign led by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown calling for the UK to take action.
The government committed to return its aid to Afghanistan to pre-cut levels, having abandoned its commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of national income on aid last year, and announced some of that funding last week. While this is of course welcome, it does not recognise the scale of the crisis, nor the leadership which Britain needs to give.
Afghans need far more support this year than they did in 2019, and they need it now. We are already too late, and by the time of the conference scheduled in March to raise funds from richer countries, it will be later still.
In the last six months we have spoken much about our responsibility to the Afghan people. To those who served alongside our forces, to those who are facing persecution at the hands of the Taliban, to girls whose education has been snatched away from them. But frankly this situation goes beyond any consideration of our past role in the country. There is a humanitarian catastrophe happening right now, and people are dying every day for lack of basic food, shelter and medicine that we can help supply. The Foreign Secretary must urgently scale up British aid to Afghanistan and bring together world leaders to urge them to do the same.
British leadership in standing up for the people of Ukraine in recent weeks has been laudable. We are nation that does not walk on by. We must show the same leadership for the people of Afghanistan if we are to mitigate the worst of this tragedy. The death toll is rising, and it is in our power to help. We must act now.
Andrew Mitchell is the Conservative MP for Sutton Coldfield and former International Development Secretary 2010-2012.
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