Red Cross forced to pay Afghan doctors and nurses in bags of cash following US withdrawal

The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross said Afghanistan faces a looming humanitarian crisis as aid organizations struggle to find ways to pay the salaries of doctors, nurses and others on the ground because there is currently no way to transfer the salaries to bank accounts there.

The comments of the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Peter Maurer, mirror those of the United Nations special representative for Afghanistan, who this week warned that the country was “on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe” and that its collapsing economy was raising the risk of extremism.

It is estimated that the country’s economy has shrunk by 40 percent since the Taliban took control in August.

The Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross, which has been operating in Afghanistan for more than 30 years, is transporting bags of cash to the temporarily impoverished country and converting dollars into local currency to pay the salaries of some of its employees.

lack of liquidity

The ICRC was able to do this with regulatory approval from the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. The ICRC also struck an agreement with the Taliban-run Ministry of Health that allows donor-funded payments to pass through the ICRC and bypass the Taliban, who are not yet officially recognized by any country.

An Afghan woman buys food on Wednesday from a street vendor in Kabul. Food left by the US military after they withdrew from the country. (Ali Khara/Reuters)

“The main problem in Afghanistan is not hunger. The main problem is the lack of cash to pay salaries to provide social services that existed before,” Maurer told The Associated Press in an interview Thursday during a visit to Dubai.

“Let’s not forget that most of these doctors, nurses, water and electricity operators are still the same people. It’s leadership that has changed, but not these people.”

Afghanistan’s aid-dependent economy has been in deep turmoil following the Taliban’s takeover of the capital Kabul in August and the collapse of the US-backed Afghan government just weeks before the US pulled out its last troops.

Bank transfers are not an option

The leadership of the Taliban, which recently banned all foreign currency transactions, urged the US Congress to ease sanctions and release Afghan assets abroad so that the government can pay the salaries of teachers, doctors and other public sector employees.

Taliban fighters eat the soup of a street vendor in Kabul on Thursday. (Petros Gianakoris/The Associated Press)

After the Taliban took control, the United States froze nearly $9.5 billion in assets owned by the Afghan Central Bank and halted cash shipments.

Since the Taliban rose to power last summer, it has not been possible for international aid organizations to transfer payments to accounts in Afghanistan as international currency cannot currently be changed to local currency through a network of banks in the country.

Maurer said humanitarian organizations cannot “fix the collapse of an entire country”. What is needed, he said, is an agreement to inject sufficient liquidity – something he believes is possible without formally recognizing the Taliban.

The ICRC’s budget until mid-2022 has increased from US$95 million to nearly US$163 million to meet the increasingly urgent needs in Afghanistan.

Hunger is just one of the many problems facing millions in the country. The World Food Program has warned that nearly 9 million people in Afghanistan are at risk of facing “famine-like conditions”. An additional 14.1 million people are acutely food insecure.

Services must continue

Maurer said the country could slide into a hunger crisis if drought affected food production and if the economy continued to be disrupted, but he stressed the continuing immediate crisis facing Afghanistan in paying salaries to keep basic services running.

“People who don’t get enough food will get sick,” Maurer said. “If the health system is not able to deal with fragility of health, that’s a problem again. So I’m concerned about the interdependence between food, health, water, sanitation, electricity and the education system.”

The Swiss-born former diplomat traveled to Kandahar and other areas of Afghanistan in early September, just days after the US withdrawal. During that visit, he met a senior Taliban leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.

The International Committee of the Red Cross says Maurer’s visit and meeting with Baradar reflect the aid organization’s principle of neutrality and are meant to send a clear message that the group will continue to provide services to those in need on the ground, regardless of who is in power.

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