A Lazeez food truck in Kabul, which caters to the wealthier residents of the city. For millions of other Afghans, food security and poor nutrition is the reality. Photograph: Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images
The UN has implored member states to keep humanitarian aid flowing to Afghanistan as the organisation seeks to limit its focus to life-saving assistance.
Although an estimated 8.1 million Afghans will need help this year – about one-third of the population, and 700,000 more than last year – the UN said on Wednesday it was lowering its request for funding inits humanitarian appeal from $405m (£283m) in 2015 to $393m this year.
The cut will primarily affect efforts to reduce food insecurity and malnutrition. Three million Afghans are malnourished. One million are in acute need of treatment. But the UN’s humanitarian aid will now only target malnutrition caused by displacement, not by poverty and general food shortages.
The UN’s humanitarian coordinator in Kabul, Mark Bowden, said the reason for the narrower focus is because malnutrition is mostly a development issue, not a humanitarian one.
“The problems of food insecurity have increased because poverty has increased,” Bowden said. “It’s not being dealt with as a development problem, and the humanitarian resources are not sufficient to deal with it.”
However, development agencies and the Afghan government are unlikely to be able to pick up the slack.
“I’ve been frustrated by the lack of response from both the international donor community and government on this. We’ve been talking about it for two years,” Bowden said. “We’ve been having meetings with USAid and others as to how to deal with it. It’s not being well prioritised.”
Humanitarian appeals are a balancing act between what is needed and what can realistically be achieved. Last year, the UN in Afghanistan received 70% of its request, one of the most successful UN appeals.
Humanitarian assistance makes up about 10% of the overall non-military assistance to Afghanistan, which also includes development and government assistance.
This year, donors are expected to renew commitments set out at the2012 Tokyo conference, where they pledged $4bn annually in assistance to Afghanistan.
The UK in particular, said Bowden, has pushed donor countries to boost aid. Last year, the UK gave the UN’s humanitarian appeal $16m, tripling 2012 levels and making the UK the third-largest national donor after Japan and the US. In total, the UK donated £25m in humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan last year, according to an embassy spokesperson in Kabul.
Diplomats in Kabul point out that for European countries, aid can be a way of reducing the inflow of migrants, of whom Afghans make up 21%.
“It is essential that the most vulnerable Afghans receive appropriate life-saving assistance, quickly. If their needs are not met, Afghans will choose to migrate out of their country as a last resort,” said the German ambassador to Kabul, Markus Potzel.
About half of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan – $141m – comes from the US, but the figure is dwarfed by the $4bn the US pays annually to the country’s security forces.
“I hate to say it but, for the US, humanitarian assistance really is small change,” Bowden said.
With the Taliban taking over territory across the country, civilian hardship is likely to worsen. The number of Afghans in need of assistance is expected to rise from 7.4 million in 2015 to 8.1 million in 2016, according to the UN. Mass displacement caused by armed conflict, the expulsion of undocumented Afghans from Pakistan and natural disasters, is a major driver.
“With it being El Niño year, the likelihood of more flooding is quite considerable. It’s certainly not going to be any better than last year,” Bowden said. “And, depending on how you see conflict developing, possibly worse.”
Pockets of Islamic State fighters, primarily in the country’s east, also present challenges. Isis seems less accepting of international agencies and immunisation campaigns than the Taliban, with whom the UN negotiates access to affected areas. After the Octoberearthquake in north-east Afghanistan, the Taliban offered a unilateral ceasefire to allow delivery of aid.
Although Afghanistan is still one of the most dangerous countries in which to be an aid worker, Bowden said “there is a great respect for international humanitarian law across the board”.
“Though there is a risk of some of that eroding, basically we’ve been able to work with all parties to get assistance through.”
Crucially, attacks on health facilities are becoming rarer, he said, “with the glaring exception of Kunduz”, where a US gunshipattacked a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in October, killing at least 42 staff and patients.