The Taliban's rise to power was a turning point for Afghanistan. UN Assistant Secretary-General and UNDP Regional Director, Asia-Pacific, Kanni Wignaraja spoke to the German Society for the United Nations about how it has affected UNDP's work.
Overall, how has the work of UNDP changed since August 2021?
Afghans are dealing with extreme hardship. Approximately 85 percent of them live on less than one dollar a day. The situation became markedly worsened after August 2021, particularly for women, who are now facing severe restrictions that bar them from education and most jobs. UNDP had to adapt to this new situation and did so by pivoting existing programmes and adopting an integrated local development effort called ABADEI. We focus on direct support to women-owned businesses, job creation, basic social services, renewable energy and disaster risk management to keep local economies running, ensure food and energy security, improve people’s wellbeing and protect them from disasters. Development financing for Afghanistan is increasingly scarce, so we also focus on promoting private sector growth. The latest UNDP research indicates that real GDP of Afghanistan has declined by 29 percent since 2020 and continues to spiral downward. The restrictions on women's rights alone are estimated to have caused an economic loss between US$600 million and $1 billion.
Afghanistan was struck by an immense earthquake recently. What is UNDP’s crisis response?
The areas struck by the earthquake around Herat are ill-equipped to handle such a disaster and were already battling high poverty, even by Afghanistan standards. About 1,400 people died, predominantly women and children, and 150,000 are left trying to rebuild their lives. Wherever you turn, you can see that the devastation is overwhelming. Key infrastructure like schools, roads, clinics, and water supply systems has been severely damaged. UNDP swiftly moved into action, working closely with UN agencies and other partners, to provide immediate relief and importantly, community-led recovery efforts. Alongside helping to restore essential basic structures like schools and clinics, we are rebuilding shelters, serving hot meals, removing debris and supporting access to energy and water. Our plans go beyond providing immediate relief. We have devised a comprehensive recovery package for over 100 severely affected villages that includes support to rebuild homes, create jobs, and ensure access to energy and water. We are actively supporting women-led businesses. Recovery is a long journey. We are profoundly grateful for the international support received for this recovery effort, but far more support is needed.
What does the earthquake mean for food insecurity in Afghanistan?
The earthquake has worsened Afghanistan's already dire food insecurity, which will only be compounded by winter. Food security must be fundamentally about producing, distributing and trading in local markets and food must be accessible and affordable. One of the ways UNDP is tackling this issue is by expanding community kitchens. Managed by women, these don't just feed families but provide them with additional income.
Since they began, they've delivered about 170,000 hot meals to people who are facing food insecurity, including 13,000 to families affected by the earthquake.
Food insecurity remains a complex issue that needs a multi-faceted solution. Take clean, drinkable water, for instance. The earthquakes have either polluted or destroyed water sources. This not only compromises human health but also threatens livestock, which represent crucial food and income sources for poor communities.
How does UNDP try to work in the area of gender equality? Is it possible to work with and reach out to Afghan women?
Despite the bans on women’s work and their roles in the public sphere being severely restricted, the UN and partners continue to deliver for and with women in areas where exceptions apply, authorizations have been granted, or locally-informed solutions exist. We must ensure that Afghan women and girls aren't punished twice. The Herat earthquake provided a compelling example of how social constraints and financial barriers can place women in precarious positions – a high number of those who lost their lives were women who were confined to the home. A turnkey solution, to borrow a corporate term, to reboot an economy is to empower women. This goes for Afghanistan too. It means enabling and supporting small businesses led and run by women. The 'women for women' approach equips women with the vocational skills and financial knowledge to create jobs and employ other women. It’s a way of standing beside and for Afghan women in their struggle and finding tools to support them. At the same time, we should advocate ending the restrictions imposed by the de facto authorities. The situation in Afghanistan indeed looks grim, more so for women. But the international community should not forget Afghan women and must continue fighting to maintain their visibility, amplify their voices, and foster hope.
What are the UNDP‘s long term goals for its work in Afghanistan?
UNDP has partnered with Afghanistan for over 50 years on a range of important issues including climate change, gender equality, health, and more. Our main objective remains unchanged: to support the Afghan people in their pursuit of peace and prosperity. Working closely with other UN agencies, we strive to rebuild the country's productive capacities and empower local communities. While we are grateful for the trust of our partners who have invested in our work, these efforts need to be scaled, not cut back. Before August 2021, Afghanistan relied on foreign aid for 75 percent of its public spending. Today it is much less. Whatever funding that has been trickling into the country, it is currently stagnating, and this could have dire consequences for its economic outlook. The level of foreign aid provided in 2023 and 2024 will greatly impact Afghanistan's prospects for recovery and development. The Afghan people have demonstrated remarkable resilience, and they deserve every opportunity to deepen their capabilities, regain their livelihoods and dignities.
Could you give us concrete examples of projects that UNDP is working on?
UNDP is working in diverse areas such as supporting economic recovery, climate resilience, and social inclusion. A key feature is our focus on community-based initiatives and building local economic resilience. Take Herat, the province where the earthquakes struck, where UNDP has one of the largest programmes. Our initiatives have boosted the local economy and empowered women by supporting thousands of women-owned small businesses. We have also constructed over 100 irrigation canals to improve agricultural productivity. Across the country we have helped farming households to establish agricultural income-generating livelihoods through horticultural, poultry, beekeeping and other activities. Across Afghanistan, our financial and technical support to women-led small businesses has resulted in thousands of jobs. So far in 2023, UNDP has constructed 458 small infrastructures, benefiting over one million people with better transportation and access to markets. We've also helped communities to adapt to climate change, through building flood-resistant infrastructures, providing drought-tolerant crops, and constructing mini and chek dams. These are also cash-for-work programmes. We remain committed to providing sustainable and impactful support to the people of Afghanistan. There is still so much more that needs to and can be done.
This story was originally published in German here.