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Rural Afghanistan Faces Humanitarian Crisis, FAO Official Says

Rural Afghanistan is “facing a very concerning situation,” where households live in a “quite desperate’” situation facing extreme food shortages and acute malnutrition, said a U.N. official who visited Afghanistan in recent weeks.

Rein Paulsen, the director of the Office of Emergencies and Resilience at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, told VOA “the situation is concerning. Households lack basic supplies. They lack often seeds to produce staple foods. They may lack animal feed to keep animals alive.”

The U.N. Food agency, World Food Program, said Monday it “urgently” needs $800 million in the next six months to help Afghans in need as a “catastrophic hunger knocks on Afghanistan’s doors.”

Paulsen said beyond immediate needs, the agriculture sector in Afghanistan has to be supported to help people produce for themselves as it is “one of the most effective ways to make sure people have food at a precarious time.”

In a Skype interview, Paulsen told Shaista Sadat Lami of VOA’s Afghan Service that all their programs “benefit either directly or indirectly” women in the country in addition to having some activities that are focused on households headed by women.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

VOA: Could you please shed some light on Afghanistan’s need, as we know the situation is dire in the country, when it comes to food shortages and malnutrition?

Rein Paulsen: Afghanistan’s rural populations are facing a deep crisis and the risk of a collapse of rural livelihood is real. The situation is deteriorating. Obviously, the winter months have been difficult. We’re in a lean season, but just to put some numbers around this, the latest estimation we have that approximately 20 million people are facing what’s called acute food insecurity. This is in the range of about 46% of the total population. So, this means that we have a population at risk with rising levels of malnutrition, acute malnutrition and situations that are quite desperate, families facing extreme food shortages and acute malnutrition, like I said, disease levels are high. So, the situation is concerning. Households that are in this type of a situation lack basic supplies. They lack often seeds to produce staple foods. They may lack animal feed to keep animals alive, which are vital for protein and for access to milk. So, all in all, we’re facing a very concerning situation, which is why the FAO has been expanding its response in Afghanistan to address the needs of some of the most vulnerable people in rural areas.

Just last year in 2022, the FOA directly supported more than 6 million Afghans, and this was spread across all 34 provinces in the country, and we do it through different packages of what we call emergency agricultural assistance. Some of those are focused on protecting livestock. So, this is concentrated animal feed and it’s about animal health, veterinary support to keep animals alive. Some of it is focused on allowing people to plant key crops. We had a very large campaign for the winter wheat season as well as now for the spring cropping season, where we give seeds and fertilizers, but also training to help farmers. We also give cash to vulnerable families who may not have an opportunity to grow for themselves. These are then the most food-insecure households. And indeed, we also support women directly, female-headed households, and this can be through poultry support programs, provision of chickens to allow access to protein or indeed to allow cultivation of vegetables at a backyard garden level. So, we’re talking here about tailored packages that respond to vulnerable households’ particular needs.

VOA: How do you determine who should be helped? And how do you set your priorities?

Paulsen: As a specialized technical agency of the United Nations, one of our strengths is on a needs assessment on understanding vulnerabilities and resilience and doing surveys and assessment within communities that identify the families that are in most need of urgent support. And then we triangulate that information through speaking to key stakeholders, even using independent monitors to verify the information. We want to make sure that the people we support are really those that are most vulnerable, most in need of support. And this is an experience that we have in Afghanistan over years and decades and, indeed, globally over years and decades, so people can have confidence in the impartiality of the activities that we implement.

VOA: How does supporting the agriculture sector help with the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan?

Paulsen: It’s vital that we get a key agricultural input in the hands of farmers so that they can take advantage of planting seasons as they’re coming in. I should say that one of the most cost-effective ways to support people is actually not trucking in and providing international assistance. One of the most cost-effective ways is to allow people to produce themselves. I mentioned the winter wheat campaign. So, this is to allow a family of seven to produce all of the cereal that they need for a 12-month period. It costs just $220. It’s a package that allows the family to produce enough food to meet their annual cereal needs. It even typically leaves a bit of a surplus for them to sell. So incredibly cost-effective interventions that allow people to support themselves. Natural disasters do create an additional challenge and for Afghanistan specifically, we know that as we were in 2022, this was the third consecutive year of lower-than-normal rainfall and drought conditions, which has really created problems.

VOA: We have reports on the shortage of aid activities. How worried are you that the aid might not be enough for all the needy people?

Paulsen: I should say that donors provided a lot of funding last year, in 2022, and really stepped up to respond to the drought situation. And organizations like FAO were able to scale up our activities as a result. If I talk about the most cost-effective way to respond, it’s because the dollars aren’t enough. We really do need to maximize the impact of every single dollar that we receive for funding, and this is why some of the agricultural interventions that I mentioned are so important. This $220 wheat package that I talked about before, if a family had to buy wheat flour for 12 months, if they had the money and if the flour was available on the markets, it would cost maybe four to five times as much to buy. If you had to provide international in-kind food assistance, the cost could be eight, nine or 10 times as much. So, allowing people to produce for themselves is one of the most effective ways to make sure people have food at a precarious time. Beyond responding to immediate needs, people are then able to keep seeds for the next season, they may have animals so there is a multiplier effect. You can tell I’m a true believer in the role of agriculture in terms of meeting emergency needs.

VOA: How many women are being helped through these agriculture programs, as we know many women are the breadwinners of families due to four decades of war in Afghanistan?

Paulsen: All of the agriculture emergency activities that we implement in Afghanistan benefit women either directly or indirectly and we have activities that are specifically designed to support vulnerable, landless, food-insecure, female-headed households. This is one of our key priority groups for all the reasons you mentioned. Our emergency activities are really driven by who are the most vulnerable. And so, unsurprisingly, there’s a segment that’s focused on female-headed households, in that regard. But indeed, women play a vital role in agriculture in Afghanistan as they do in really every country around the world. And it’s important to target the right types of activities and support to female-headed households.

Source: VOA News