Taliban ‘Men-Only’ Aid Edict Divides Charity Community

Lynne O’Donnell | 26 January 2023
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The World Food Program seems poised to carry on, driving NGOs to call it quits on aid.

International charities are preparing to suspend operations in Afghanistan, where millions of people are facing starvation, if the United Nations’ World Food Program (WFP) complies with a Taliban edict banning the employment of women and restarts food deliveries only by men to men. Sources in the aid sector said that the WFP plans to resume distribution despite the Taliban restrictions, raising fears that Afghanistan’s new rulers can act with impunity to impose their harsh brand of government.

Sources in local and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) told Foreign Policy that the WFP plans to comply with an order by the Taliban, issued last month, banning it and other NGOs from employing women—even though Taliban leaders have said the edict does not apply to U.N. agencies. The potential unilateral move has caused dismay and anger among charity representatives, who say it would force other charities to either comply with the Taliban ruling or suspend their operations in Afghanistan on principle. The U.N. does not deliver aid itself but funnels it through other NGOs as implementing partners. 

WFP compliance with the ban “will literally handicap us all by setting the baseline. We will all have to do it,” said the head of an Afghan charity, speaking anonymously for security reasons. The possible move, as understood by other NGOs and which the WFP has not denied, has been branded as unprincipled by many in the global charity sector because it contradicts the operational ethics they are obliged to follow, which include employing women to ensure they reach women and children without compromise. It would also send a message to the Taliban that their excesses, which since their takeover have included extrajudicial killings, the expansion of heroin poppy production, and the harboring of terrorist groups including al Qaeda, have no consequences.

According to an executive with a large international NGO, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the Biden administration has approved the move. 

The WFP receives the bulk of its funding from the United States and the top job is traditionally a political appointment recommended and approved by the U.S. government. The current head is David Beasley, former Republican governor of South Carolina, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump on the recommendation of Nikki Haley, also a formerly influential South Carolina politician, when she was the U.S. representative to the United Nations. 

A WFP decision to comply with the Taliban’s men-only directive would also fly in the face of pressure from some high-profile figures such as Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC). Egeland visited Afghanistan last week to impress on the Taliban the damage the edict would do and to urge them into a reversal. “I’m here to tell Taliban leaders and anyone who can influence them that we need to be able to resume work with female workers. If not, lives will be lost,” he said. “We cannot work without our female colleagues. We will not work without them.”

“Afghan women continue to attend and receive assistance directly from WFP and its partners. WFP’s female Afghan staff continue to work,” the WFP said in a statement. “Instances where interference in WFP distribution is detected result in the suspension of deliveries until we are assured beneficiaries can receive it directly and safely.” It did not respond to questions about men-only delivery plans. 

The humanitarian landscape in Afghanistan, which has been aid-dependent for decades, is complicated. Some U.N. agencies have resumed operations with women employees still on the books; some women are working as they did before the Dec. 24 ban; some are working from home; some are being paid, though they’ve stopped working. The World Health Organization and many of its implementing partners in the health sector have kept on women field staff, according to sector sources in Kabul. The ban is not enforced consistently across the country, further compromising the security of NGO workers, as it is unclear where and how the ban will be enforced. Al Jazeera reported that the International Rescue Committee, Save the Children, and CARE have resumed “operating some programmes, mostly in health and nutrition.” Senior U.N. officials, including Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed and Sima Bahous, executive secretary of U.N. Women, are in Kabul to discuss the Taliban’s treatment of women. 

The U.N. and WFP had been actively pressuring NGOs to continue their operations in Afghanistan “no matter what the response looks like, even if it is men only,” said the senior international NGO official. “That is not something we are prepared to do. We and other NGOs are prepared to stop operations if this is not a principled response. And we’re trying to make that message clear to the U.N. and others, that we are not going to continue working in Afghanistan in a way that will do more harm than good. They and other U.N. agencies will go alone in this.” 

Going it alone would force the WFP to rethink its distribution methods and find new partners to distribute aid, potentially forcing the agency to turn to Taliban-controlled organizations as others with international links cease operations. This would make it almost impossible to control or trace how and to whom the aid is delivered.

Since taking control of Afghanistan in August 2021, the Taliban have systematically wiped women from public life, post-primary education, travel, and most work. The new directive could seriously exacerbate the risk of harm and further marginalization for women, especially since many households are headed by widows after 40 years of war.

Neil Turner, the NRC representative in Kabul, said up to three-quarters of the population is “dependent upon assistance. If you see men-only programs delivered by males, going on month by month, and an exclusion of females from that because assessment and targeting and monitoring are not properly done, then you can quickly see that over half the population will not be receiving the assistance that’s required.” 

Compliance with the Taliban decree would also raise further questions about the U.N.’s ability to guarantee that the billions of dollars in public funds it raises for Afghanistan relief do reach those in greatest need. Aid-sector sources have said the Taliban skim large amounts of international assistance for their own supporters as they try to head off growing disillusionment with their inability to run the country effectively and securely, or to deflect the influence of rival groups. The U.N. is unable to verify the ultimate recipients of its aid, as it relies on implementing partners for delivery.

“We are taking a principled humanitarian approach, making sure aid and other assistance is not being siphoned off by the Taliban and that the Taliban does not have control over the distribution of assistance,” said the international NGO official. “What WFP is doing would allow the Taliban to have bigger control to direct food aid. Particularly with men only, it would mean that women are shut out of receiving food assistance. Single-woman households will not receive food assistance. Over a few weeks, the response will break down because the women of Afghanistan will be shut out of hunger statistics.”

The worsening human misery is the fallout of compliance with Taliban extremists who face no consequences for their abuses. The broader picture, the official said, “is that the U.N. and the U.S. are caving in, letting the Taliban really direct assistance in food aid. We’ve seen time and time again how we must be principled in our approach and make sure that when we’re giving assistance and food aid that it reaches vulnerable people,” the official said.

The Taliban have reneged on pre-takeover promises of inclusion and equality and re-introduced policies last seen during their 1996-2001 rule. Similarly, U.N. compliance saw many non-partner NGOs quit. “A repeat now will give the U.N. absolute power and authority to manage and lead the entire humanitarian aid in Afghanistan in any way they like,” said the Afghan NGO boss.

Things aren’t expected to get better any time soon. A recently declassified assessment by the U.S. National Intelligence Council said the Taliban will continue to “prioritize enforcement of theocratic rule over building a modern state.” They will “remain cohesive and broadly in control,” the economy will continue to weaken, and advances made since their last regime collapsed will keep rolling back. They “will remain dependent on international aid to prevent humanitarian catastrophe and use harsh tactics to maintain control of the population” through 2025, it said.

The U.N. has said it needs $4.6 billion for Afghanistan relief this year. “You learn that the U.N.’s focus is to make sure that operations continue, to make sure that funding keeps coming,” said the international NGO official. “Our question is at what cost? Our focus is a people-centered approach. The U.N.’s focus is to make sure the money keeps flowing.”

Lynne O’Donnell is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.

This article was originally published on Foreign Policy.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.