If the Afghan economy is improving, it’s no thanks to the Taliban

  • Millions are starving amid corruption and incompetence, while women continue to be excluded at great economic cost
  • If the Taliban wants sanctions lifted and assets unfrozen, it must be forced to govern responsibly and respect human rights

The World Bank recently released its Afghanistan Economic Monitor, painting a more optimistic outlook on the country’s economic situation. The report revealed that inflation had stabilised, the salaries of civil servants were now being paid and US$1.54 billion in revenue was collected last year.

This is good news for the Afghans, who have suffered a brutal winter of acute food insecurity and dangerous levels of poverty.

The Taliban pounced on the report, with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister announcing that if sanctions were lifted and frozen assets released, the country would “make further advancement in various fields to eliminate poverty and provide job opportunities”.

But the report does not necessarily reflect the situation on the ground.

Last month, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that 28.3 million Afghans will need urgent humanitarian help to survive this year. This includes 17 million people facing acute food insecurity, with an estimated 6 million at emergency levels, one of the highest figures in the world.

The International Rescue Committee estimates that 97 per cent of Afghanistan’s population is at risk of poverty, with over half heavily reliant on humanitarian aid. About 91 per cent of the average Afghan household budget is spent on food, forcing families to ration, or worse, sell their children.

Afghan girls polish shoes at a road side as the world observes Universal Children's Day, in Kabul on November 20, 2021. The Afghan economic crisis is forcing more families are to sell their children or pledge the girls for marriage at a very young age to claim the dowry, Unicef has warned. Photo: EPA-EFE

© Provided by South China Morning Post
Afghan girls polish shoes at a road side as the world observes Universal Children’s Day, in Kabul on November 20, 2021. The Afghan economic crisis is forcing more families are to sell their children or pledge the girls for marriage at a very young age to claim the dowry, Unicef has warned. Photo: EPA-EFE

The causes of this suffering are many and complex.

In 2021, the return of Taliban saw the economy collapse. This was largely due to the rapid withdrawal of international donor funds, which Afghanistan heavily relies on, and the US freezing of US$9.5 billion in Afghan Central Bank assets. The economic collapse resulted in mass unemployment, the decimation of social services, high inflation and a dramatic increase in household debt. It pushed millions of Afghans into poverty.

Afghanistan is also in its third year of drought and still reeling from 40 years of conflict, political instability and natural disasters. This has kept the population poor and vulnerable to economic shocks.

But the Taliban deserve their share of the blame. Their cruelty and malgovernance has made the situation much worse.

The movement continues to repress women and girls, with the intention of removing them from public life completely. The Taliban has denied them education, banned women from most sectors of employment and enforced veiling. Women are also forbidden from long-distance travel and forced to travel locally with a male guardian.

Not only are these policies severe violations of human rights, but they are also astoundingly counterproductive.

The ban on women’s employment meant many families lost their sole breadwinner, increasing household debt and food insecurity. The UNDP estimated in 2021 that the ban on women, who made up 20 per cent of the workforce, would cost the Afghan economy up to US$1 billion, or 5 per cent of its gross domestic product.

More recently, the Taliban’s ban on Afghan women working for non-governmental organisations has forced local and international NGOs to suspend operations in Afghanistan. This is because women make up a sizeable portion of the workforce and because the Taliban forbid men from providing aid to women. This has prevented NGOs from providing much-needed help to vulnerable Afghans and alleviating the humanitarian crisis.

The Taliban’s ban on women and girls attending school and university will also have far-reaching economic consequences. The World Bank estimates that when girls fail to have secondary school education, it costs countries between US$15 trillion and US$30 trillion in lost lifetime productivity and earnings globally.

The Taliban has also been accused of corruption and a complete lack of transparency. Funds are thought to have been diverted to Taliban priorities, such as security services and into the pockets of Taliban leaders.

The Taliban also appear incapable of adequately rebuilding the country. Vital infrastructure remains in a poor condition and any major infrastructure or energy investments from its neighbours are unlikely until the movement successfully tackles Islamic extremism and forms an inclusive government.

The Taliban’s promises to rebuild Afghanistan’s economy should therefore be received with extreme scepticism. But this gives the international community an opportunity to pressure the Taliban into concessions.

‘No nation can survive if half of population excluded’, says UN on Afghanistan

The Taliban can’t claim to be acting in the best interests of Afghans when they continue to repress half of the population, prolonging the economic and humanitarian crises in the process. For this reason, any discussions on sanctions relief and the availability of frozen assets should be strictly tied to allowing women to freely learn, work and participate in their communities.

The Taliban also needs foreign investment and additional humanitarian aid, and this will only come when the regime is recognised internationally. And international recognition will only occur when the Taliban respects the human rights of all Afghans, including women, the LGBTQ community and minority ethnic groups.

For example, Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbours have demanded the Taliban form an inclusive government, including Afghans not affiliated with the movement, women and people from minority groups.

While the World Bank report points to an improvement in Afghanistan’s economic situation, millions of Afghans remain in a dire situation. This is unlikely to change under the Taliban.

If the Taliban wants leniency from the international community, it needs to govern responsibly and respect human rights. Until this occurs, millions will continue to suffer from ideologically-driven, counterproductive policies. This needs to change. The future of Afghanistan depends on it.

Chris Fitzgerald is a correspondent and freelance journalist based in Melbourne

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