28th May 2022


Ukraine, yes. But remember Afghanistan and Somalia, too

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As I write this column at the College of Europe campus in Natolin, Poland, local volunteers and others from across Europe are helping relief agencies as they provide food, shelter and transport to the refugees, mostly women and children, who are streaming across the border.

Such generosity and solidarity are impressive, as is the EU's quick response in terms of humanitarian assistance and decision to welcome Ukrainian refugees.

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  • The EU cannot be expected to solve all the world’s humanitarian problems — but the bloc can only be a global geopolitical actor if it helps Ukraine while maintaining aid to Afghanistan and elsewhere

Such support should continue for as long as necessary.

In addition, EU governments must muster the financial resources and the political will to continue relief efforts in other parts of the world.

Help for Ukraine should not mean less aid for other humanitarian emergencies.

Experience shows that once they are no longer in the headlines, humanitarian tragedies receive less global attention — and therefore less money.

This is not just morally irresponsible, it is also self-defeating.

One simple reason: a failure to tackle humanitarian crises often increases regional and global security risks and causes an uptick in migration.

That is exactly why so-called forgotten crises — wherever they are — should not be neglected.

Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, has warned that human suffering today is at unprecedented levels across the world.

The number of people in need reached an all-time high of 243.8 million, spread across 75 countries, in 2020.

Global humanitarian funding, by contrast, is falling.

Total international humanitarian assistance plateaued at $30.9bn [€28bn] in 2020, provoking an unparalleled 52 percent funding gap.

The pandemic is partly responsible for the reduced aid as well as a decreased international focus on many of the world's humanitarian tragedies.

Now, as the war in Ukraine escalates, traditional donors are also under pressure to make choices and set priorities.

Those providing assistance to Ukraine must not redirect funds from other already under-funded humanitarian operations, says Egeland. Other relief agencies are equally worried.

Sadly, the downward trend may have already started.

Somalia, Afghanistan…the list is almost endless

Funds for emergencies are drying up because Ukraine seems to "suck all the oxygen that is in the room", according to Adam Abdelmoula, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Somalia.

The EU and other donors can prove this wrong.

Their first major opportunity to do so will be at the UN's virtual pledging conference on Afghanistan later this month.

Having promised to stand by Afghans following the rushed departure of US troops and the Taliban takeover last August, the EU has already sent the country €221m in emergency assistance.

An additional €268.3m "humanitarian plus" EU aid package, implemented through UN agencies in order to circumvent Taliban-led state authorities, has also been agreed to support health and education projects and provide livelihoods for Afghans.

That effort should continue. The EU must do its share to respond to the UN's aim to raise $4.4bn [€4bn] to help over 24 million Afghans who need urgent help to fight hunger and acute malnutrition.

The UN has also warned that an additional $3.6bn are required to help Afghans access basic services, particularly health and education.

Afghanistan's humanitarian disaster is at least partly caused by a lack of liquidity in the country which in turn is caused by a US government freeze on seven billion dollars in Afghan Central Bank assets.

US President Joe Biden's recent executive order tried to correct this wrong by making half of the frozen assets available for humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan while the other half is distributed to American victims of terrorism, including relatives of those killed on 9/11.

But critics say the plan is messy and morally wrong.

Meanwhile, Afghans remain in dire straits. There are fears that soaring wheat prices caused by the Ukrainian conflict will multiply the impact on Afghanistan's famine.

While international attention is focused on Ukraine, Afghans also worry there will be less pressure on the Taliban to set up an inclusive government.

A rise in Taliban reprisals against former security forces and government officials and more attacks on minority groups and arrests of female activists are also feared.

In the days ahead, the EU must maintain pressure to ensure that the Taliban keeps a promise to allow all girls to return to secondary school at the end of March when schools reopen following the winter break.

Continued EU support is needed for an "Afghan Women Leaders Forum" set up recently to allow Afghan women — both in the country and in the diaspora — to set out priorities for their country's future.

The EU cannot be expected to solve all the world's humanitarian problems.

But the bloc can only claim to be a truly global geopolitical actor if it can help Ukraine while maintaining aid to Afghanistan and the world's other emergencies.

Author bio

Shada Islam is an independent EU analyst and commentator who runs her own strategy and advisory company New Horizons Project. She is also the new editor of the EUobserver magazine.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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