The Epidemic We Didn’t Know About…

In the deserts of the middle east, Afghanistan can be found nestled behind Pakistan and Iran. Known for its arid climate and desert landscapes, Afghanistan’s citizens are exposed to dry and unforgiving conditions, making it that much more difficult to have access to a steady food supply and nutrients. Combine the severe climate and precarious government/economic structure and it only makes sense that Afghanistan citizens are plagued with severe child malnutrition rates, it has one of the highest childhood mortality rates in the world. (Mayhew, Maureen, et al., 1). According to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund “UNICEF” stated in their Afghanistan Appeal — Humanitarian Action for Children that, “In 2022, 8.7 million people will be in emergency level food insecurity and 1 in 2 children under 5 years will be acutely malnourished” (UNICEF). The child malnutrition epidemic in Afghanistan has reached a point where if no action is done soon, the effects will be irrevocable, affecting future generations of children who and overall health of Afghanistan citizens. Taking into account the recent governmental shift within the country and the United States’ choice to remove all of our troops from the country, the ways in which this issue could be combatted has grossly changed making it that much harder for this issue to be addressed. While some believe that it should be up to the current government administration of Afghanistan to deal with acute child malnutrition, I argue that the only way progress will be made and children will be helped is through non-governmental organizations because their purpose is to solely help those in need and work independently of any government, so political affiliations and ties hold no power when it comes to aiding those in need.

To better understand the urgency of the child malnutrition epidemic, it’s important to consider the economic and political status of Afghanistan. Afghanistan is classified as a third world country and up until recently, was receiving military and political support from the United States along with the countries in NATO. Post 9/11 attacks by Al Qaeda in the United States, the US government turned their attention to launching attacks in Afghanistan as Al Qaeda leaders had planned the attacks against the US on Afghanistan soil and the current government administration, a tyrannical group called the Taliban, were found to be harboring Al Qaeda members. The United States soon over took the Taliban forces in Afghanistan and the US along with NATO turned to “rebuilding a failed state and establishing a Western-style democracy” (Zucchino). Both the United States and NATO spent billions “trying to reconstruct a desperately poor country already raved by two decades of war” (Zucchino). But despite the extensive efforts, the Taliban began to regrow their fighting forces. In 2009, under the Obama administration thousands of US troops were sent to help combat the growing terrorist disputes in Afghanistan. The situation continued to worsen and by 2014, the Pentagon came out with a statement that concluded, “the war could not be won militarily” (Zucchino). Civilian casualties began to increasingly rise and any negotiations with the Taliban proved unfruitful and unhelpful. In 2021, when the Biden administration took office, he made the executive decision to pull all remaining US troops from Afghanistan where the Taliban easily was able to take over and re-establish themselves as the governmental leaders.

The ongoing conflicts and political instability found within Afghanistan’s borders is the biggest contributor to the acute malnutrition epidemic occurring within Afghan children. One of the leading causes of acute malnutrition is “lack of food (due to lower purchasing power or destruction of crops during natural disasters and conflicts) and lack of resources and information” (Frozanfar). Seeing as Afghanistan is located in the smack middle of the desert, droughts and famine are likely to arise more often than in other parts of the world but that coupled with the mass destruction/rebuilding Afghanistan citizens have had to endure due to political tensions and instability is one of the leading attributes to why women and children in Afghanistan don’t have sufficient accessibility to foods. The prevalence of malnutrition amongst children and adults “is significantly higher among fragile and conflict-affected settings… Malnutrition is an indicator of social and political instability as it represents a multifaceted problem linked to poverty, food insecurity, and poor hygiene/health” (Kim et al., 2). The lack of peace found in Afghanistan makes it so that it is virtually impossible to properly address and fix the health problems found in young children and mothers. The situation has recently become worse after the United States and NATO withdrew completely from the country. Since their withdrawal, the Taliban reestablished its power and 700,000 citizens have been laid off, fired, or simply gone without pay in the process (UN News). In a country that already was struggling with food security and poverty, the new change in government has only accelerated the country’s humanitarian issues, mainly acute malnutrition. The situation in Afghanistan has gone from bad to urgent as the Taliban continues to wreak havoc on the country’s economic and social structures. While the country scrambles to find ways to survive the new norms under the Taliban’s rule, something must be done to address the ever prevalent child malnutrition issue as it not only affects the life of the child, but also the economic future of the country.

Of course the issue of malnutrition hasn’t been completely ignored by Afghan officials and in the past there has been efforts implemented to alleviate the growing issue of malnutrition through government programs aimed to educate the public. In the early 2000’s a humanitarian push by the government was enacted after the Afghanistan’s health system had been destroyed after 25 years of conflict, “many health facilities were built and the Ministry of Public Health (MOPH) developed policies and facility-based programs that focused on the health needs of sick women and children” (Mayhew, Maureen, et al., 2). The development of programs was definitely a step in the right direction and had all the right intentions in mind. With the reestablishment of MOPH, there was hope that Afghan citizens would strongly benefit from the programs established. The results of these programs were initially incredibly positive and “resulted in a strong nutritional policy framework and a network of Provincial Nutrition Officers” (Mayhew, Maureen, et al., 2). A crucial part of the programs initial success was the community-based growth monitoring and promotion aspect. These types of programs have been seen in other parts of the world where malnutrition runs rampant like Asia and Africa. Community-based programs aim for the “promotion of regular growth-monitoring sessions for children under the age of five and the provision of nutritional counselling based on the weight gained and the child’s age” (Mayhew, Maureen, et al., 3). One of the biggest aims for these programs is to identify community-level solutions to prevent malnutrition. Thus, these programs sought to give access to scales and other tools to monitor their child’s development and progress. MOPH acknowledged the country’s low literacy rates by coming up with directions and instructions on how to use the field tools given through pictures, drawings, and symbols that were universally understood by any and every citizen. In addition to the field tools given to some providences, trained professionals were also present to give advice to any mothers seeking consultation about her child’s health.

On paper these programs seemed like a positive step in the right direction, but issues soon arouse when it came to distributing these resources to the entire country. When the programs were implemented it soon became apparent that monitoring the progress of children proved to be more difficult once the child began to make progress because “healthy Afghan children do not regularly attend health facilities” (Mayhew, Maureen, et al., 2). Once children began gaining weight or received a little nutrition, mothers and families tended to stop coming to facilities or travel back to their communities were these programs were not offered or easily available. Thus, the issue of distribution and access was another large issue because there is a “large complexity of providing health and preventive services to all Afghans, especially in rural areas” some areas did not see the field tools and health care professionals (Mayhew, Maureen, et al., 2). Geographically speaking, Afghanistan is an expansive and far reaching country with many hard-to-reach places where transportation and access can be hard, roughly 77% of Afghans live in these areas. Poor transportation and having only a handful of trained health professionals, getting the resources and programs started in these rural locations was not feasible for MOPH, which was where these programs were needed the most. By this I mean acute child malnutrition is most commonly found in the rural communities of Afghanistan and the government funded programs weren’t equipped enough with both personnel to find alternative ways to ensure access to the hard to reach communities. Other issues that arose were “low literacy levels, lack of job aids to address malnutrition, lack of security and cultural norms that require women to be accompanied by a male relative when circulating in public” marked other challenges to recruiting people to the program and participating (Mayhew, Maureen, et al., 3). All in all, the lack of personal and education primarily stem from the 25+ years of conflict the country has suffered through.

Some people may argue that the humanitarian crisis found in Afghanistan should remain the country’s own problem to solve, I argue that until a stable and just government is established, non-governmental organizations (NGO’S) should take the lead on helping as many children as they can due to their lack of governmental affiliation and straightforward mission. Given the current political situation presently found in Afghanistan any foreign governments would hesitate to lend a helping hand to Afghan citizens for fear of provoking the Taliban. Thus, the most logical step forward would be to access the people in need through non-affiliated organizations whose primary responsibility and concern are the needs of people. Organizations like United Nations Child Fund (UNICEF) and World Health Organization (WHO) have no governmental loyalties and are funded entirely by voluntary contributions; whether that be from other governments, corporations, non-profits, or individuals. If the acute malnutrition crisis is primarily handled through organizations like these, the people of Afghanistan wouldn’t have to worry about the stability of their government, nor would they have to depend or rely on the government at all to see change. With NGO’s at the helm, citizens would find a more reliable source of support provided by people who genuinely care about the crisis at hand, who aren’t getting paid or made to do the work they’re doing. The work would be more authentic and the people spearheading the projects/programs would be more motivated, determined, and caring.

When reflecting on historical events, there seems to be a correlation between the status of government and the attention given to the citizens. If the government is taken completely out of the equation and outside forces are put in charge of establishing some sort of system, then actual steps can continuously be taken in the right direction.

By extension, non-affiliated government organizations and NGO’s have already been seen doing promising work in other sectors of Afghanistan since the re-establishment of the Taliban. For example, Global Giving currently has 79 working projects aimed to help different sectors from child education to gender equality and countless more. The use of NGO’s, honestly, is the only route forward to address acute child malnutrition as the Taliban will not allow other governments in to help nor are any governments extending their hands to offer support.

Of course the route of NGO’s and nonprofits do have some limitations such as funding. Like all things in life everything always boils down to money and how much there is to be spent on this particular issue. But, there’s a way around this, instead of having multiple charities working to achieve the same goal, they could combine resources, people, and funds to spearhead the crisis together, unified. More change would likely occur more quickly if charities worked together instead of individually as anything attacked individually is always harder to overcome than with multiple supporters around you. Charities like Doctors Without Borders, Save The Children, and International Rescue Committee all have similar goals in mind and could bring together their specific areas of expertise to crease a super organization that would be the most qualified and prepared to tackle the crisis head on, better than any government could (Lopez). Merging various organizations not only can help address lack of funds but also adds to the number of people helping on the field. If multiple charities have the same goal in mind or even similar goals in mind, merging with one another could not only benefit the children of Afghanistan, but also the charities’ own individual goals of helping save children and adults in need.

What this discussion reveals is that while Afghanistan serves as an example of the harm globalization can do to a lesser developed country, NGO’s and nonprofits exemplify the good that can come about when the world is so interconnected. Who’s to say that without the intervention of the United States into Afghanistan, that the country would have developed a strong and stable government that would have the tools, experience, and moral to find their own solutions to their own humanitarian crisis or that such problems would even exist; the world will never know. It’s easy to say that globalization has more negatives than positives when we see a situation like that in Afghanistan, but if you take a step back you can see that without globalization, there would be no groups like the United Nations. The United Nations does a whole lot of good for various countries around the world. The positive step forward for Afghanistan through NGO’s reveals that globalization has the power to destroy but also holds the hope of re-building and new beginnings. The coming together of multiple countries that the United Nations represents, shows that the world can work together and do good; it’s a beacon for hope and salvation.

Works Cited

Afghanistan Appeal. https://www.unicef.org/appeals/afghanistan. Accessed 19 Apr. 2022.

“Afghanistan: 500,000 Jobs Lost since Taliban Takeover.” UN News, Jan. 2022, https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/01/1110052.

Frozanfar, Muhammad Kamel, et al. “Acute Malnutrition Among Under-Five Children in Faryab, Afghanistan: Prevalence and Causes.” Nagoya Journal of Medical Science, vol. 78, no. 1, 2016, pp. 41–53.

Lopez, Olivia, 9 Best Charities for Afghanistan (Complete 2022 List), Impactful Ninja, https://impactful.ninja/best-charities-for-afghanistan/. Accessed 20 Apr. 2022.

Mayhew, Maureen, et al. “Improving Nutrition in Afghanistan through a Community-Based Growth Monitoring and Promotion Programme: A Pre–Post Evaluation in Five Districts.” Global Public Health, vol. 9, no. sup1, July 2014, pp. S58–75. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.1080/17441692.2014.917194.

Shoib, Sheikh, et al. “The Children of Afghanistan Need Urgent Mental Health Support.” The Lancet, vol. 399, no. 10329, 2022, pp. 1045–46. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(22)00155-6.

Zucchino, David. “The U.S. War in Afghanistan: How It Started, and How It Ended.” The New York Times, Oct. 2021. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/article/afghanistan-war-us.html.

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