The European Union and other donors offered new funding for Afghanistan on Tuesday, as a UN official declared now is “not the time to walk away” from years of hard work in trying to build peace and stability in a poor country where Taliban fighters have made inroads against the internationally-backed government.
A largely virtual, one-day pledging conference in Geneva, co-hosted by Finland, drew representatives from over 70 countries in the first such event in four years. It comes as the COVID-19 crisis has commanded worldwide attention, and the virus outbreak in Afghanistan has compounded persistent ills like corruption and extremist violence.
Countries like Britain, the Netherlands and Canada stepped forward with hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of pledges for Afghanistan as the session got under way, after speeches from top officials like Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who hailed the country’s “ambitious agenda for development and reform.”
“The United Nations stands with the people of Afghanistan on the path toward peace, development and self-reliance,” Guterres said, expressing hope that donor pledges will “translate into real progress and concrete improvements for the people of Afghanistan.”
The European Union pledged 1.2 billion euros ($1.43 billion) in assistance to Afghanistan over the next four years, but like many others made its support conditional on the strife-torn country’s commitment to democracy, the rule of law, human rights and gender equality.
“Afghanistan’s future trajectory must preserve the democratic and human rights gains since 2001, most notably as regards women’s and children’s rights,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said. “Any attempt to restore an Islamic emirate would have an impact on our political and financial engagement.”
The conference came amid a complex situation in Afghanistan, 19 years after an international coalition led by the United States toppled the Taliban government that supported al-Qaida. Taliban rebels and the Afghan government are currently taking part in peace talks in Doha, Qatar, and the Trump administration recently announced a further drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Deborah Lyons, the UN secretary-general’s special envoy for Afghanistan, said the country was facing “a time of unprecedented opportunity but also deep uncertainty and rising anxiety,” and said Afghans were committed to preserving the gains of recent years.
“But they will need the ongoing support of the international community: political, financial, and technical,” Lyons said. “Now is not the time to walk away.”
Ghani touted a strategic plan for Afghanistan.
“A new Afghanistan has emerged over the past two decades, and with it, an entirely new set of expectations from our citizens,” he said, acknowledging “lessons learned” from abroad and the development of a robust civil society and free press.
“The main theme of our development agenda is to meet these new expectations by doing much more with much less in the face of daunting challenges,” he said.
Statistics in Afghanistan are still grim after decades of international help. The poverty level during the pandemic has shot up to 70% — up from 54% last year. Despite billions of dollars that have poured into the country in the last two decades, more than half the population lives on $1.14 a day.
A U.S. watchdog said over $19 billion of U.S. money alone had been lost to abuse, fraud and waste.
Lyons has said that despite some progress, Afghanistan remains one of the worst places in the world to be a woman or a child. She has criticized a sharp rise in casualties in fighting, both from Taliban assaults and U.S. and Afghan bombing raids.