31 March 2022 We cannot afford not to act

More than 95 percent of the people in Afghanistan do not have enough to eat, warns Welthungerhilfe. At the same time, the situation for journalists and activists is deteriorating. The international community has a responsibility to help them, writes the German Minister for Development and Economic Cooperation, Svenja Schulze, on the occasion of the UN Donor Conference for Afghanistan, which takes place this Thursday.

A guest contribution by Svenja Schulze for Zeit Online (External link)

The whole world looks shocked at the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine. Every day, new images of terrible suffering reach us. It is only too understandable that Ukraine is therefore at the centre of public attention. As Development Minister, however, I must also keep an eye on the many crises and needs in all parts of the world. Especially in these times, I want the world to know that we are also looking to Afghanistan - for good reasons: More than half of the Afghan population is starving, including 13 million children. The education and health systems are on the verge of collapse and the economy is in free fall.

At the same time, the human rights situation is deteriorating, journalists are being intimidated, women's rights activists are being arrested, and non-governmental organisations are once again being much more tightly controlled. This is where the expertise of development cooperation, whose core business has included fighting hunger and poverty and protecting human rights and gender equality for decades, is needed.

After the Taliban took power, many in the West understandably had the impulse: just get out. But after 20 years of civilian and military involvement, the international community has a responsibility that prohibits us from looking the other way. The coalition agreement says: “Germany will continue its commitment to the people of Afghanistan.” The federal government is therefore faced with the question of how we can not only organize the necessary short-term support with bags of rice and and water tanks as an expensive loop of emergency relief, but also take more sustainable action, for example with seeds and repaired water pipes, in order to enable people to help themselves. The alternative would be devastating for the people of Afghanistan: hunger, poverty and civil war, with all the destabilizing consequences far beyond the borders.

Opening prospects for a self-determined life

We must succeed in the balancing act of supporting the people in Afghanistan without in any way legitimizing the de facto Taliban government. We cannot and will not afford to do nothing. Without our commitment, empowering women and girls in Afghanistan cannot succeed either.

The Taliban's recent decision not to open secondary schools to girls after all, despite repeated announcements, has once again made us aware of the challenges we face here. The closure of schools not only harms the personal development of each individual girl, but also the economic development of the entire country. The German Federal Government will not let things be left as they stand, as we in the international donor community agreed on. Together with our European partners, we have called on the rulers in Kabul to reverse this decision immediately. For us, respect for human rights is a central prerequisite for cooperation with Afghan government authorities. We are also convinced that the majority of the people in Afghanistan do not accept this decision, and we hope that for this reason alone, it will not stand.

The extent to which we can commit ourselves to improving the living conditions of Afghans depends crucially on the path the Taliban take. In my view, there must be room for manoeuvre that makes it possible to balance the need to keep the de facto government at a distance on the one hand and the aspiration to improve the living conditions of the population on the other. In using this leeway, it will be possible to focus on empowering women and girls. There is also international consensus that the medium-term goal must be to give the people of Afghanistan prospects for a self-determined life again.

Women and girls in Afghanistan must not suffer twice

We are not starting from scratch: Last year alone, German development cooperation provided 250 million euros to Afghanistan to mitigate the humanitarian catastrophe. We intend to remain committed at a high level in this year and in future years. Beyond all humanitarian requirements, my commitment will be focused on maintaining social structures - such as schools and hospitals - that have often been painstakingly built up and are still functioning, and on improving the country's very precarious economic situation. In doing so, I want to promote human rights not just rhetorically, but with measures to strengthen the rights and prospects of women and children in particular.

One of the key lessons learned from 20 years of engagement in Afghanistan is to set realistic goals. In the future, Germany's development policy commitment will therefore be geared to respond dynamically. To ensure that children can continue to go to school and the sick can receive medical care, we sometimes have to work together with the local administration. This is about the basic needs of the citizens, which otherwise cannot be guaranteed. Access to clean drinking water, for example, will not be possible without the local water suppliers. I would like to help ensure that we maintain the water infrastructure, train operating staff at local waterworks or ensure that water pumps can continue to run in towns where the water supply is currently severely restricted.

Many measures can be implemented independently of the Taliban. To be clear, this distance from government is important to me, as it is to everyone in the German government, as long as Afghanistan does not have an inclusive, legitimate government that is recognized as such. That is why the Development Ministry is working primarily with United Nations organisations and civil society, united in the goal of strengthening the resilience of the Afghan population - for example, through programs to ensure food security or mitigate acute causes of flight and internal displacement, to stabilise host communities, or to support refugees in neighbouring countries, especially women.

School meals are the only meal a day for many children

In concrete terms, for example, we are supporting UNICEF with 25 million euros to ensure that children in Afghanistan continue to have access to education. Among other things, UNICEF uses this money to make payments to teachers, support small-scale infrastructure measures such as sanitary facilities in schools and enable community-based education programmes for children who are unable to attend school. Another example: The World Food Program has received 50 million euros from us for food security measures in Afghanistan. This supports school meals, which for many children are the only meal they have each day.

Other important partners for us are the development banks - above all the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, which, in conjunction with the international community, are able to act quickly, efficiently and for the benefit of the people in Afghanistan. Their financial power is seen as an effective lever for enforcing development policy goals against the de facto government.

The Afghan population, and Afghan women and girls in particular, are already suffering under the Taliban's authoritarian rule. They would pay an even higher price if development cooperation did not get involved in this multilateral approach. The alternative to such engagement would be further to destabilise the region and the strengthening of jihadist movements such as the so-called “Islamic State.” I stand for a feminist development policy. And for me, that means that women and girls in Afghanistan must not suffer twice from the Taliban making the wrong decisions.