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Afghanistan Humanitarian Crisis: UK Response

Volume 818: debated on Wednesday 9 February 2022

Commons Urgent Question

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement an Answer given to an Urgent Question in another place. The Statement is as follows:

“The humanitarian situation in Afghanistan remains deeply concerning. In January, the UN requested nearly $4.5 billion for 2022—the largest humanitarian appeal on record. The UN has announced that it will be holding an international pledging conference on 31 March, and the UK is strongly supportive of that conference. On 28 January 2022, the Foreign Secretary announced £97 million of humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan from the UK. This latest allocation of vital support delivers the Prime Minister’s promise to double the aid to Afghanistan to £286 million. By the end of January 2022, we had disbursed over £176 million in aid and will disburse the remainder by the end of this financial year—that is, the end of March.

UK aid allocated since October is supporting over 60 hospitals, providing health services for more than 300,000 people, ensuring that 4.47 million people get emergency food assistance through the World Food Programme, and will provide 6.1 million people with emergency health, water, protection, shelter and food, through the UN Afghanistan humanitarian fund.

In addition to providing immediate assistance, we are playing a leading role in international efforts to address multiple causes of the crisis. The provision of basic services such as health and education remains critical. We continue to explore solutions for service delivery such as payment of front-line delivery workers. We are working closely and monitoring Afghanistan’s economy, specifically its lack of liquidity, and we are working with partners to seek solutions. The UK also played a key role pressing for a resolution establishing a humanitarian exemption under the UN Afghanistan sanctions regime. On 27 January, the UK Government laid legislation to implement UN Security Council Resolution 2615. That will save lives and reduce the impediments faced by humanitarian agencies.”

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. Anyone who watched “Panorama” on Monday will have been truly shocked by the conditions that were highlighted. I hear what the Minister said about financial support from the UK, but it is at the same level as it was in 2019 when there was no crisis. At Oral Questions on 13 January and in the debate that we had on 24 January, I stressed to the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, the urgent need for the UN pledging conference to take place. Vicky Ford said this afternoon that we are co-ordinating support for that conference, which will now not be held until 31 March. The best way to encourage other nations to step up to meet the additional $4.4 billion asked for by the UN would be to take the lead. Can the Minister confirm today how much the UK will contribute to the UN fund? If he cannot do that today, when will we make the announcement?

I thank the noble Lord for his important question. As I said, we are strongly supportive of the announcement of the international pledging conference that is being organised by the UN. It is worth repeating that the $4.4 billion represents the largest humanitarian appeal on record. We have already announced a substantial donation and the noble Lord is quite right that showing a strong lead is important. More details will be announced soon.

It might also be helpful if I explain some of the other areas where the UK has taken a strong lead. We have played a lead role on releasing funds held with the World Bank’s Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund and in December £280 million was transferred out to support food security and healthcare. We continue to work with partners and the World Bank to release the remaining $1.2 billion as quickly as possible.

The UK supported the Asian Development Bank’s $405 million package of support and that money will be used for public health services, primary and secondary education and the provision of emergency food services. As I mentioned, the UK aid allocated since October is supporting over 60 hospitals, providing health services for 300,000 people and ensuring that 4.47 million people will get emergency food assistance through the World Food Programme.

My Lords, while the Taliban are overseeing a humanitarian catastrophe, the UK and others have a moral obligation to the people of Afghanistan. While I welcome the Government’s actions, it is a fact that they are too slow and too little. The UN is currently forecasting that there will be a significant shortfall in its appeal, so I would be grateful to know if that is also the Government’s assessment.

The International Rescue Committee has estimated that 90% of all health clinics in Afghanistan are in the process of shutting down and that outbreaks of preventable disease will completely overwhelm the country’s entire health service. What makes up the remainder of the £100 million that we are yet to disburse?

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, is absolutely right: statements from the Government that they are doubling our support, when actually they are simply restoring cuts, mean nothing. The question is what the additional amount will be for 2022-23. My understanding is that some of the commitments in the £286 million are anticipated to be spread over a number of years.

Finally, the Taliban are in Geneva today, talking to Swiss authorities concerning the distribution of humanitarian funds. The statutory instrument that the Minister referred to was welcome—that we are making exemptions in certain circumstances to ensure that humanitarian support goes to the people. We debated this in Committee and discussed it with the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, previously. But what is our approach to dealing with the Taliban now?

I thank the noble Lord for his question—actually, it was more than one. I think I said at the start that the £286 million will be disbursed by the end of the financial year. It might help if I outlined some of the partners and aid programmes that we have donated to, and the amounts. We have donated to various partners in Afghanistan £172 million—or, I should say, it has been allocated. The Afghanistan Humanitarian Fund has received £61 million; the World Food Programme £54 million; the International Organisation for Migration £17 million; and UNICEF £50 million. I am afraid I do not know the answer to the question about future funding.

Discussions and engagement with the Taliban are ongoing but, of course, difficult. Most recently, we have engaged with them in Oslo. Ongoing efforts are being made through the chargé d’affaires in Doha. I cannot comment beyond that at this point.

My Lords, it can take many months for food to be gathered, shipped and distributed within the country, and it can also be very expensive. Will the Minister say what efforts have been made to locate food resources that already exist in Afghanistan and perhaps neighbouring countries and to ensure that that food actually reaches the market so that people can buy it at affordable prices, because market hoarding is a very common factor in any food shortage, particularly in famine? What is the UK’s attitude towards sending money rather than material aid?

I thank the noble Baroness for her question. I cannot answer the question about how food is sourced; that is well beyond my remit. But I can say that we are supporting life-saving humanitarian assistance through the UN and other trusted organisations. They continue to ensure that vital aid reaches those who need it most. All UK aid is subject to strict monitoring and verification to ensure that it is used to help only the vulnerable people it is intended for.

I spoke to my noble friend Lord Ahmad this morning and I am sure that Members of this House will pay tribute to what we all know are his tireless efforts on this subject. He has reassured me today that key partners report that aid is getting through, but we have to remain vigilant.

I have mentioned the economy already. The FCDO is closely monitoring the lack of liquidity in the country. The UK is playing a leading role in the international efforts to address that lack of liquidity and the multiple causes of the crisis, including working with the World Bank and UN to find solutions that will allow NGOs to access the country.

My Lords, it is very good how much is being given. Operation Herrick cost us at least £22 billion and we managed to find that, so I hope we can release more generous aid rapidly. There is also a humanitarian issue for Afghans who have been freed and are now here but whose families are still in hiding for fear in Afghanistan. Can the Minister update us on how those people are going to be got out of Afghanistan?

I can certainly try, and I am sure many noble Lords, like me, received a rather harrowing email on the subject of a particular individual who is currently stuck in Pakistan. In case anybody is interested, that email has gone into the Foreign Office and the case is being looked at now by the task force.

We have engaged with Governments in the region, notably Pakistan and central Asia, to allow Afghan nationals to cross their borders from Afghanistan on humanitarian grounds. More than 3,400 people have left in order to move to third countries and then to the UK since the end of Operation Pitting. To date, the UK Government have been allocating money to those regions, so £17 million has gone to support countries and £10 million has gone to support preparedness in the region and to help mitigate widespread humanitarian disaster. That includes £3 million to Iran, £4 million to Pakistan and £2 to Tajikistan.

My Lords, we are partly responsible for this, with the scuttle in August. Can something not be done to bring forward the date of 31 March? Can we not summon colleagues, allies and friends to do something much more quickly? In six weeks, thousands of people will be dead and the devastation will be worse.

I think my noble friend is following on from the question from the noble Lord, Lord Collins. Of course, I agree. In a perfect world it would be nice to do that—but I cannot account for UN’s timetable, I am sorry.

My Lords, one of the detrimental effects of the crisis, both internally in Afghanistan and in its direct impact on the UK, is the Afghan economy running on zero. One of the banes of the lack of markets for farmers is the necessity to turn to the growing of poppies and therefore the production of opium. While I accept that commanders coerce farmers, what is being done to curb possibly the only potential for the generation of cash internally in Afghanistan and what was achieved by the allies when they were in Afghanistan in curbing this ghastly trade?

I am afraid I do not have the answers to those questions. I will have to write to the noble Lord to give him an update.

Sitting suspended.