Martin Griffiths, the head of the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, is due to visit Kabul shortly to discuss the impasse.
Although he said he did not want to pre-empt talks and was willing to examine workarounds on the ban, his remarks suggest a standoff is developing between the UN and the Taliban that could lead to billions in aid being cut off in the long term.
There are already reports that hundreds of children are turning up at hospitals with pneumonia during the harsh winter. As many as 150 NGOs and aid agencies have suspended all or part of their work due to the ban. The UN as an organisation is not yet subject to the same ban on women working, but much of its aid programme is delivered by NGOs.
Griffiths stated UN flights carrying cash for humanitarian aid into Kabul had already been suspended pending a pause in the Taliban ban. The aid is supplied in cash due to US sanctions.
Griffiths told the BBC: “Without women working, we can’t deliver for the people who are in fact the primary objects of humanitarian assistance for women and girls. So it’s a practical matter. It’s beyond rights. It’s also practical”.
He added: “There’s a lot of experience in Afghanistan, even today, where there is an edict, but it’s not enforced in a consistent way in different parts of the country. There are parts of the country now where women can work. So we will be doing everything we can to work around and make things work. I don’t want to speculate at this point as to what happens if the edict isn’t universally [enforced], but I have to say, I can’t see how we would continue.”
“We will do everything we can to be able to remain and stay and deliver. These are particularly difficult circumstances, I can’t remember a place where we have faced such a series of impediments. But humanitarians spend their lives negotiating, as well as delivering,” the official continued.
“We’re there for 28 million people in Afghanistan. It’s the largest humanitarian aid programme in the world and so it’s a body blow against our capacity to deliver,” he noted.
The ban was imposed on women working in NGOs three weeks ago after the Taliban based in Kandahar said there was evidence the hijab was not being strictly enforced.
There have been signs that some ministries did not agree with the ban, but experience since August 2021 when the Taliban retook control of the country is that hardline Pashtuns based in Kandahar ultimately hold sway, leaving other Taliban members to explain and implement their decisions. Many aid agencies are testing whether the ban is being imposed in practice in local communities, especially in the health sector.
Griffiths also sought to refute “unhelpful calumnies” that UN humanitarian aid is being subverted by the Taliban setting up bogus aid agencies that then siphon off aid for Taliban use.
Griffiths said “the money is numbered and tagged and used for the purposes for which it is given. It is used by humanitarian agencies by the UN system. It isn’t somehow leaked to the street. So yes, funds go in. But they’re very tightly controlled.”
“I wouldn’t agree with the notion that the Taliban is relying on international funding for its survival. Taliban is raising money through taxes, through all kinds of sources and its administration of Afghanistan. I don’t think the UN system is that banker,” he added.
Afghanistan’s deputy prime minister Mawlavi Abdul Kabir continued to send out mixed signals about the ban, telling the secretary general’s deputy special representative for Afghanistan, Markus Potzel, in a fresh meeting that learning religious and modern sciences was the right of every Afghan, including women. He stated the government was still working on the details of how women could be educated.
The UN security council is expected to discuss the NGO crisis at a closed-door meeting sought by Japan and the United Arab Emirates on 13 January before Griffiths’ departure to Afghanistan.
The United Nations diplomatic mission in Afghanistan has also announced that the war-torn country is entering a new period of crisis.
Top UN diplomat in Afghanistan met Taliban-appointed education minister Mohammad Nadeem in Kabul on Saturday and called for the urgent lifting of the bans on female education and work for aid agencies.
“Afghanistan is entering a new period of crisis. Taliban bans on female education & work for aid agencies will harm all Afghans. UN envoy Potzel Markus called for the urgent lifting of the bans in a meeting today with de facto authorities’ Minister Higher Education, Moh. Nadeem,” United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said in a tweet.