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Afghanistan’s economy collapsing ‘before our eyes’, warns UN humanitarian chief

The UN humanitarian chief has warned that Afghanistan’s economic collapse “is happening before our eyes” and urged the international community to take action to stop “the freefall” before it leads to more deaths.

Martin Griffiths said donor nations need to agree that in addition to emergency humanitarian aid they need to support basic services for the Afghan people including education, hospitals, electricity and paying civil servants – and they must inject liquidity into the economy which has seen the banking system “pretty well shut down”.

“We’re seeing the economic collapse being exponential,” he said. “It’s getting more and more dire by the week.”

Mr Griffiths said the liquidity issue must be settled by the end of the year and money must be funnelled to frontline service workers during the winter, adding that he had to revise his earlier view that Afghanistan could get through the winter on pure humanitarian assistance because of the worsening economic situation.

As one example, he said, four million children are out of school and nine million more will be soon and the reason is simple – 70% of teachers have not been paid since August.

“And if we don’t make that happen, all that discussion about the right of women and girls going to school becomes academic,” he said.

“So, my message today is a wake-up call about the humanitarian consequences of an economic collapse and the need to take urgent action.”

The Taliban overran most of Afghanistan as US and Nato forces were in the final stages of their chaotic withdrawal from the country after 20 years.

Taliban forces entered Kabul on August 15 without any resistance from the Afghan army or the country’s president, Ashraf Ghani, who fled.

The Taliban initially promised tolerance and inclusiveness towards women and ethnic minorities but their actions so far, including renewed restrictions on women and the appointment of an all-male government, have been met with dismay by the international community.

Afghanistan’s aid-reliant economy was also thrown into deep turmoil following the Taliban takeover.

The Afghanistan central bank’s reserves, most of which is held in the United States, were frozen and the International Monetary Fund blocked about 450 million US dollars because of a “lack of clarity” about a new government.

The Taliban leadership has banned all foreign currency transactions and urged the US to ease sanctions and release Afghanistan’s overseas assets in order for the government to be able to pay teachers, doctors and other public sector employees.

Mr Griffiths said the UN is asking the US and other donors for money, which he insisted will not go to the Taliban but through UN channels to get directly to the people who need it – teachers, doctors, electricity providers and other civil servants.

Mr Griffiths said the consequences of Afghanistan’s collapsing economy are becoming more apparent – reports of hospitals without electricity, severe malnutrition and three or four children in one hospital bed, and tens of thousands of unpaid doctors, teachers and civil servants struggling to survive.

He recalled that the United States always supported the provision of electricity in Afghanistan, but 80% of electricity sources are “now at the brink of stoppage, and without electricity you have automatic consequences”.

Mr Griffiths said the World Bank, the United Nations and the US government are making “an enormous effort” to address the liquidity crisis. He said he will head to Washington on December 21 to meet with US secretary of state Antony Blinken to discuss Afghanistan’s collapsing economy.

“By the end of the year, I’d like to see the beginnings of liquidity receding as a problem,” he said.

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