This op-ed was first published exclusively by IPS. You can read it here.
- After four decades of perpetual conflict, Afghanistan rolls into two consecutive election years – parliamentary this year, presidential the next. But the country and its people are going through even tougher times than usual with continued displacement and a looming hunger crisis.
Since the last elections in 2014, hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees and migrants have been deported or are returning, not out of hopefulness for a country reborn, but of desperation in a hostile and unwelcoming climate abroad. Increasing numbers of refugees are displaced again after they return.
In addition, over a million Afghans have fled their homes within the country due to worsening armed conflict creating record levels of internal displacement. Left with no opportunities for a safe life, many deportees attempt to make their journeys abroad again and so the vicious circle continues.
Now the full effects of a drought coinciding with the political deadlock of elections are threatening an already exhausted population. Hunger is now hitting the country hard. The drought has already affected two out of three provinces in Afghanistan, with displaced families in the North and West regions particularly at risk.
Food insecurity levels have always been high in this country whose main agricultural output is opium, and where food production struggles to break even. But successive ‘prolonged dry spells’ over the past years are now forcing communities to their knees – thousands of families selling off their assets in ‘distress sales’ are now camped in urban centres.
In a survey released by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) in January, one in two displaced Afghans said they could not adequately feed their families and were often skipping meals. This is an increase from one in three in 2012.
In hard-to-reach Badghis province in the northwest of the country, the most food insecure province in the country, over half of the recently displaced had no food stocks, and the rest had less food than to last them for a full week. 86 per cent of these displaced households had below borderline food consumption scores, with three quarters borrowing food, two thirds going into mounting debts, and a third eating smaller portions and fewer meals. One in four had restricted their own eating so that small children could eat. Over two million people risk becoming food insecure in the coming months.
Taking a step back, the landlocked country seems like a series of potent man-made and natural disasters stacked atop one another, altogether creating one of the most complex, protracted, largest emergencies on earth.
In spite of this, political and donor commitments to the country are now wavering, if not withering. Compared to five years ago, perhaps the peak of the military stabilisation period, there are now five times more internally displaced Afghans, but only half the humanitarian budgets.
NRC’s own emergency response mechanism in Afghanistan has been halved due to funding shortfalls earlier this year, specifically reducing our capacities in the North and West regions of the country.
Given the current desperate situation, it seems Afghans do not have much choice in the matter of the upcoming elections. The question of whether or not now is a good time stands as a rhetorical one.
Are Afghans hopeful of the years ahead? This one is not a rhetorical question. The odds are obviously stacked against them, but opinion polls (such as The Asia Foundation) reveal something else.
A sense of hope.
If Afghans still have hope amidst continued violence, swirling forced displacement and hunger, ahead of approaching elections, then so too must world leaders, donor countries and humanitarians.
We cannot give up, give in, abandon, or go silent.
The global public must force politicians to make good on their commitments to Afghanistan. Donors must step up their support to aid work. Humanitarians must be held accountable to not shrink but to help hungry and displaced, but yet hopeful Afghan boys and girls despite the darker, more dangerous context.
If Afghans’ hopes are dashed yet again – even they will eventually stop hoping. And that is a recipe for disaster – hope will be replaced by depression, anger, and an overwhelming need to escape. We cannot afford this, and Afghans deserve better than conflict, hunger, and forced displacement.