The case for providing foreign aid to Afghanistan

For those watching the news in Afghanistan, the last couple weeks have been horrific and difficult to process. The idea of a Taliban-led government is hard to accept, given the immense progress over the last 20 years and investments made in the Afghanistan government. The global development work of the United States and its allies over this time very likely will see large setbacks, particularly in the areas of girls’ education, women’s rights, free media, free and fair elections, and transparent governance. At the same time, the United States has humanitarian and economic “equities” or interests in Afghanistan that go beyond support for the post- “Bonn dispensation” governments of the past 20 years.

This may require that the United States continue to provide humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan — and given the right conditions, targeted economic development assistance.

We should not immediately recognize a Taliban-led government, but we should be prepared to provide assistance to continue to support the Afghan people.

Western aid over the past two decades has had a positive impact on the nature of Afghan society, with educated women and girls and a freer society. Over 70 percent of Afghans now have cell phones, and a third are on social media platforms, where they can connect to the world and experience various democratic processes.

Even though it looks grim now, it’s likely that the nature of this social change and the fact that the youth population — 63.7 percent of Afghans are under 25 years old — grew up in relative freedom will mean they will not want to give it up completely.

The Taliban have to negotiate with local communities and respond at least somewhat to their wishes if they are to stay in power and avoid a return to civil war.

The United States and other donors should do what they can to help facilitate the dialogue between Afghans and the new government that can enable continued assistance and progress in Afghan society.

We must proceed cautiously, and with humility, but we owe it to the Afghan people to continue to help their country and their society move forward, consistent with their own values and priorities.

There are several priority areas the United States should fund, the first and most urgent being humanitarian assistance. There is significant food insecurity in Afghanistan — driven in part by drought conditions in the southern part of the country. Food insecurity and famine cause major movements of people and may increase an already significant number of Afghan refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). Second, the case numbers and infection rate of COVID-19 in Afghanistan remains unclear but likely high. Only 2.6 percent of the population is vaccinated, and the country is suffering from a third wave of COVID-19. It’s not in anyone’s interest to have a new variant (similar to the Delta or Lambda variants) emerge in a large unvaccinated Afghan population. Third, any humanitarian action or a basic functioning economy will require a working financial and banking system. Understandably, when a government falls there is panic and oftentimes that triggers a financial crisis. Afghanistan had a well-functioning and rudimentary banking system for a low-income country. But the country’s central bank governor resigned and left the country after the Taliban captured key custom posts and further deprived the government of its revenues. The United States and others have subsequently frozen Afghanistan’s reserves. It is potentially in the West’s interest to take the basic steps needed to maintain a viable banking system — for foreign assistance purposes or for keeping the entire economy from collapsing.

Beyond these immediate issues, there is a broader macro-level need to preserve the gains that assistance has won and think about how to use foreign aid long-term.

One of the gains the United States and its allies will need to think about is girls’ basic education and women’s higher education. One of the major and often underappreciated accomplishments in Afghanistan is that there were essentially no girls in school under the previous Taliban rule. In 2020, there were over 3.5 million girls in school.

There are, in essence, women who began kindergarten in the early 2000s, went through high school and then university and are now working in Afghanistan. There’s been enormous progress on girls’ and women’s education which can have amazing spillover effects to a society. It’s in our interest to salvage those activities, especially to the extent that we don’t have to directly finance the Taliban government.

While difficult to calculate precisely, non-military aid is thought to represent around 21 percent of the percent of Afghanistan’s gross national income (GNI). That is likely one of the highest numbers in the world. To compare, official development assistance to Guatemala in 2019 was approximately 0.5 percent of Guatemala’s GNI. In theory, given these figures foreign aid could represent a “carrot” that we could use alongside our European, Central Asian, and regional allies to ensure some reasonable conditions and tie future foreign aid to Afghanistan as part of a recognition process.

In a recent piece, I argued that humanitarian aid needs to keep flowing in the short-term. There’s been a lot of progress because of 20 years of foreign aid — from infrastructure to agriculture diversification to new trade links. South Asia is one of the least economically integrated regions in the world. In theory, if peace is accomplished in Afghanistan, the country is strategically located for many potential economic activities, potentially connecting energy-rich Central Asia with energy-starved South Asia.

Finally, using continued aid as a carrot could head off the potential for a suboptimal trading partnership with China. China might provide some infrastructure financing to Afghanistan, but it will not provide any of the “soft” foreign and humanitarian aid that Afghanistan desperately needs. Using aid conditioned on the promise of continued freedom for women and girls, respect for minority rights, and transparent and accountable government could provide a mutually beneficial outcome for the United States and Afghanistan.

In my last visit to Afghanistan in February 2019, I met with a senior religious leader who was sympathetic to the Taliban and not supportive of the former Ghani-led government. He said to me that the Afghan people wanted the United States and allies out as a security force but did want us to stay to work on development issues. It is very likely that a Taliban-led government will want to have some sort of dialogue with the West on foreign assistance. The question is whether we will be prepared or willing to have that dialogue.

Originally published on on September 5, 2021.

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