Afghanistan needs peace but so much more
Oct 06, 2020

For the first time in decades, Afghanistan has an opportunity for peace. The United States agreement to withdraw foreign troops and negotiations between the Government of Afghanistan and the Taliban set the stage to end the bitter conflict.

If the talks are successful, the Afghan people’s tenacious hope for a better future may at last be realised. With peace, more children can go to school. Better security means health facilities can operate without fear of attacks. Roads can open up for trade, allowing farmers to get their produce to market. Investment can generate more and better jobs for adults. People may no longer feel their only choice is to leave their home for a safer place.

It is especially cruel that just when peace seems within grasp, COVID-19 is ripping through communities that have already withstood brutal wars, harsh weather and withering poverty.

Nearly every country in the world has struggled to contain the coronavirus. But Afghanistan is particularly vulnerable. The pandemic is hitting the country when its economy, infrastructure and population has already been worn ragged.

Two thirds of the population live more than two hours journey from the nearest health facility. Most people live in extended households, making social distancing practically impossible.

Afghan government figures show nearly 40,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases, but a random sample by the World Health Organization and Johns Hopkins University in early August suggested that the real prevalence could be as high as 10 million – almost a third of the population.

Apart from the public health dimension of the crisis, the virus is pushing millions deeper into hunger and poverty. Food security was already precarious thanks to serious drought in 2018/19 and recent floods.

The economy is forecast to shrink by 7.4% this year, according to the World Bank. Four out of five Afghans workers are in the informal sector – taxi drivers, shopkeepers, domestic workers, day labourers. They are among the hardest hit.

When Afghanistan’s first case of COVID-19 was reported in the western city of Herat in February, the impact on local livelihoods was immediate and devastating.

Overnight, Gulzada, a single mother with four children, lost her job as a household-helper in Herat.

“People were afraid to have strangers in their house because of the virus,” she explained.

The 6,000 Afghani (US $80) cash transfer that she received from the World Food Programme brought some relief, particularly as food prices have risen sharply. But to get her life back on track, Gulzada, like hundreds of thousands of fellow Afghans hit hard by the pandemic, needs more support.

“If school starts again, I do not know how to pay for the education of my children,” she noted. “I can either buy food or pay for the education of my children. I cannot afford both.”
Tragically, Gulzada’s story is typical of the crisis facing many ordinary Afghans.

About 14 million Afghans, of a total population of 38 million people, now need humanitarian assistance. That is 45% higher than at the beginning of this year, before COVID-19 hit.
The virus threatens not just health and livelihoods but the long-awaited and fragile hope for peace.

Peace is by far the most important step to real change that the Afghan people so desperately need. But real peace -- the type that endures -- is about much more than the absence of guns and explosive devices.

For peace to last, ordinary Afghans need to believe they will have enough food, an education, a decent job, a brighter future. A reason not to take up arms.

The Afghan government has stepped up, implementing massive public health and social welfare measures to help its people absorb this latest setback.

To complement this, WFP has also expanded its response to cover the food needs of 10 million people, 3 million more than originally planned for this year.

But time is now the enemy. Winter is coming and food assistance must arrive before snow closes the mountain passes; this year it is even more likely to be the only source of nutrition remote communities can count on until Spring.

If the people of Afghanistan are to finally enjoy the dividends of peace, they need to survive winter, COVID-19 and its economic fallout. Their faith in a better life, with education, health care, jobs and opportunities deserves to become reality. International support is needed so the conditions for meaningful peace can take root.

COVID-19 is claiming lives and livelihoods around the world. Governments and companies everywhere are reassessing their spending, including on humanitarian and development assistance. It would be tragic if Afghanistan’s chance for lasting peace and prosperity were to fall victim to the virus too.

By John Aylieff
Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific, The World Food Programme

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