Analysis | Addressing the hunger crisis in Afghanistan

Is there a path to sustainable solutions?

Kelly McFarland, Alistair Somerville, and Emily Crane Linn

Afghan women receive humanitarian aid in the city of Kunduz (Image: Wanman uthmaniyyah on Unsplash)

Taliban representatives traveled to Norway this week for talks with donor countries, as efforts continue to navigate Afghanistan out of its current humanitarian predicament. On Wednesday, the Norwegian government chaired a meeting of the UN Security Council on the same issue.

Since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban last August, multilateral aid and development organizations’ most dire predictions have come true: Afghanistan has become the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) warns that by the middle of this year, Afghanistan will experience universal poverty, with 97 percent of Afghans living below the World Bank poverty line of $1.90 per day.

To stave off famine, the United Nations has launched its largest single country funding appeal, requesting over $5 billion in disaster response and refugee assistance programming. The number of deaths from hunger and destitution could end up exceeding the total that have died in conflict over the last decade. To address this trend, outside governments must harness the renewed attention of multilateral organizations and donor governments to address both the immediacy of the current crisis, but also to push for long-term systemic changes to address hunger and instability.

The harsh winter in Afghanistan has highlighted the inadequacy of the Taliban government’s approach. The international community has also failed to take the steps necessary to engage with the Taliban to address both the humanitarian and systemic drivers of hunger among Afghans. Last September, Rein Paulsen, Director of the Office of Emergencies and Resilience for the Food and Agriculture Organization, predicted a “25 percent deficit on the national wheat crop,” the main source of calories for Afghans, in 2021. This prediction now rings true, as Afghans face even worse levels of hunger than at the onset of winter.

A worsening trend

Even before the U.S. withdrawal, 14 million Afghans were food insecure, with 2 million children experiencing severe hunger and half the population living in poverty. Today, the United Nations estimates that the number of extremely food insecure Afghans has nearly doubled to 23 million people, which amounts 55 percent of the total Afghan population. The underlying drivers of the crisis today are threefold. As we assessed in a report last August for Georgetown’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, the “three Cs” — conflict, climate change, and COVID-19 — are driving food insecurity, instability, and a cycle of unrest globally. Afghanistan is the most acute example, where Taliban mismanagement of limited resources and lack of technocratic experience in its government has exacerbated existing challenges.

[Read Peace Through Food: Ending the Hunger Instability Nexus, the full report produced by ISD’s working group on global hunger]

While the root of Afghanistan’s current humanitarian catastrophe is a devastating liquidity crisis, caused in part by the international community’s decision to freeze $10 billion in Afghan assets, it is exacerbated by drought conditions across the country. Even before the U.S. withdrawal, climate change was wreaking havoc on the country’s food supply. More frequent droughts, including last year in the north and west of Afghanistan, led to food insecurity and mass displacement even before the U.S. withdrawal and the country’s economic collapse. This terrible combination has led to sky-rocketing food prices, with the cost of bread rising 80 percent since the summer.

The Taliban’s inexperience in government, and its lack of trained officials, add poor governance and political illegitimacy to the growing list of interlocking issues that will likely exacerbate this cycle of food insecurity. “The war has exacerbated climate change impacts. For 10 years, over 50 percent of the national budget goes to the war,” Noor Ahmad Akhundzadah, a professor of hydrology at Kabul University, told the New York Times.

Climate change, COVID-19, and conflict

Historically, a trend toward increased food production in the 20th century led many countries in the developed world to stop viewing food security as a core national security issue. The rise of food insecurity around the globe in recent years due to climate change, COVID-19, and conflict — all of which Afghanistan epitomizes — demonstrates the need for governments like the United States to take a more serious look at hunger, how it drives conflict and instability, and how it can also be an avenue to end and prevent conflict.

Policymakers should reframe food security not only as a way to end hunger, but also as a means to bring stability and security over the long term. To that end, it should become a core national security priority once again. Nowhere is this more important right now than in Afghanistan. Short-term humanitarian responses, while necessary and welcome to address the “three Cs” that drive food insecurity, are insufficient on their own. The acute hunger facing Afghans will require a long-term systemic view, rooted in the idea that food security is a core component of national security and a means to bring peace and end conflict, with access to food as a right.

Continued diplomatic efforts

In spite of the challenges Taliban rule poses for constructive engagement by the West, the international community must continue diplomatic efforts. The issue of hunger is deeply interconnected with the underlying health of the Afghan economy, and the need for currency stabilization and economic aid. 70 percent of the population lives rurally, and agriculture is a source of livelihoods for 80 percent. Without addressing food insecurity as a priority, it will likely prove impossible to stabilize Afghan markets. Given the relationship between food insecurity and instability and violence, food must be at the top of the short and long-term agendas for security in Afghanistan.

It remains in the interests of the United States and other major donors for Afghans to have sufficient access to food. The World Food Program plans to serve over 24 million Afghans in 2022 — more than double the number it served in 2021. However, short-term humanitarian assistance is not enough. Decades of food aid have yet to bring food security to many Afghans. Policymakers must view food as a core component of international security over the long term, given the nexus of food insecurity and conflict. In a challenging diplomatic context, this will require engagement through the United Nations with the new regime, including on community-centered, bottom-up approaches over the long term. In the process, community-led initiatives that help to build sustainable local agriculture and food distribution networks are essential.

Ultimately, an end to hunger is a means to bring stability and peace. This week’s talks in Norway raise the question once again of whether formal diplomatic recognition of the Taliban would help serve those longer term aims. (Our Georgetown and ISD colleague Lise Howard, among others, has argued for this approach.) Whether we like it or not, a new status quo is emerging in Afghanistan, and there is no easy way to bypass the Taliban. In the short term, a reframing of hunger as a core part of the struggle against conflict, climate change, and COVID-19 in Afghanistan would be a good place to start.

This publication was made possible in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.

Kelly McFarland is a U.S. diplomatic historian and the director of programs and research at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. Follow him on Twitter @McFarlandKellyM.

Alistair Somerville is the publications editor at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and editor of The Diplomatic Pouch. Follow him on Twitter @apsomerville.

Emily Crane Linn is a research assistant for the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. She is in her second year of her Global Human Development master’s degree at Georgetown, with a Certificate in Refugees and Humanitarian Emergencies. Emily is also one of ISD’s inaugural McHenry Fellows.

Read more from ISD on food security:

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