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It's been two months since the Taliban took control of Kabul and solidified their grip on Afghanistan. The country's banking system and economy is all but collapsing. Afghanistan needs urgent help, according to the head of one of the largest humanitarian aid organizations operating in the country. Jan Egeland, the secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council joins Nick Schifrin with more.
It's been two months since the Taliban took control of Kabul and solidified their grip on Afghanistan. Since then, living conditions have deteriorated. The banking system is said to be in freefall and the economy all but collapsing.
Afghanistan needs help, and it needs it fast. That was the message from the head of one of the largest humanitarian aid organizations operating in the country.
He spoke with Nick Schifrin.
For years, Afghanistan has been heavily dependent on international financial assistance and humanitarian aid.
One of the largest organizations that has been working in Afghanistan is the Norwegian Refugee Council, which provided help to hundreds of thousands of Afghans. But, with the Taliban takeover, the council's ability to help has been severely disrupted, as the weather is beginning to turn cold.
Jan Egeland is the secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council. He recently returned from a trip to Kabul. He joins me now.
Jan Egeland, welcome back to the "NewsHour."
We have seen these scenes in Kabul, not only of the internally displaced, but of entire families selling all of their furniture simply to stay alive. How desperate is the situation there?
Jan Egeland, Secretary-General, Norwegian Refugee Council,:
It is beyond desperate, really.
Listen, I have been to Afghanistan many times over recent years, always a crisis, violence, horrors, displacement. But, this time, you feel like the whole population is in, like, a freefall. The mothers and the children, the fathers I met in the camps around Kabul, these are people who have fled to Kabul over the years, including now very recently.
They told me:
We have no reserve. We have no income. There is no food. We will freeze and starve to death this winter unless aid is able to flow and the public sector is able to resume services, including paying public servants.
The U.N. secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, said this week that the Taliban are cooperating and are allowing humanitarian aid workers to move in the country.
Is the Norwegian Refugee Council able to do what it needs to do?
Yes, we are.
We have been negotiating access now province by province, not only through the meetings that I and others had with the top Taliban leadership in Kabul. The most important thing has to happen with the leaders, the commanders, the men with the guns locally.
They have allowed us unimpeded access, with male and female staff, in one province after the other. I think it's sinking in with them now that the population that they now control are in a desperate situation, and they need our help to help people.
And what are the greatest needs? What are you delivering for that help?
No, I mean, now we're in lifesaving modus really.
They do not have heating. They do not have shelter. They do not have food at the moment. There's been a collapse in the economy. There is no banking system functioning. We cannot transfer money to our aid workers. This has to restart again in Afghanistan if we are to save lives.
The international community is concerned about supporting the Taliban, about giving the Taliban any kind of recognition.
Do you believe aid can be delivered without the Taliban benefiting from it?
Yes, it can.
We are in situations all over the world where the rulers, those in control, are not to the liking of our donors. We, as humanitarians, are impartial, neutral, independent. But we can, as international actors, do the direct relief.
We can help millions through the U.N. system, the international NGOs there, and the Red Cross, Red Crescent system. But, on top of that, we need to get the public services up and running again. There are 300,000 publicly funded and paid-for teachers. They were on the payroll of the World Bank, up until now, the health sector as well.
Unless there are trust funds held by the U.N. directly funding these teachers and nurses and doctors and water engineers, with the World Bank money which is sitting in Washington, we will fail, because we, as humanitarians, cannot do it all.
Well, let's talk about that money sitting in Washington. Senior U.S. officials tell me they're in no rush to unfreeze billions of dollars that have been frozen since the Taliban took over.
Are you saying that the U.S. must unfreeze billions of dollars that are currently being held in order to prevent or at least confront this humanitarian crisis?
Listen, I understand that nobody wants to help their previous enemy, but this money is not for the Taliban. These are the civilian population that were left behind. It's the same women and children who were there before.
The urgency has to be given now to the decision-makers. I was not that impressed when I saw that the G20 countries on one hand agreed with me that it is urgent, and then didn't come up with a formula that can be put into practice now.
We don't have — we don't have weeks. We have days to fix this.
And what you're saying is, is what's important, not only to unfreeze the assets, but also banks in Kabul need to be allowed to function again, right?
The U.S. needs to take the lead in unfreezing the assets of these banks, so that they will function, so that we can do aid work. They need to unfreeze the funding that needs to go to the public sector.
But the two things have to happen in the next days. We have no time to wait, because people will perish this winter.
When you met the Taliban, you told them that they must respect human rights, they must respect women's rights, which is one of the key requirements that the international community says the Taliban have to live up to in order for money to flow.
Today, in Northern Afghanistan, we see some girls going to school, but many in Kabul are not. Do you believe the Taliban are respecting human rights?
In many places, not.
But in more and more places, we are able now to negotiate what is important, free, unimpeded access to all minorities, religious, ethnic, et cetera for male and female staff. Boys and girls education, also yes.
But it's mixed. It has always been mixed. But we are doing a tremendous disservice with the women and children that we are so concerned with if we are sitting now doing a sort of a hands-off exercise, sitting on the fence, and seeing how this moves.
If we wait for the last girls education corner in Afghanistan, we will wait for years. It would be the ultimate insult to these girls that we do not provide food for them because we're still negotiating secondary or tertiary education.
Jan Egeland, thank you very much.
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Nick Schifrin is the foreign affairs and defense correspondent for PBS NewsHour, based in Washington, D.C. He leads NewsHour's foreign reporting and has created week-long, in-depth series for NewsHour from China, Russia, Ukraine, Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, Cuba, Mexico, and the Baltics. The PBS NewsHour series "Inside Putin's Russia" won a 2018 Peabody Award and the National Press Club's Edwin M. Hood Award for Diplomatic Correspondence. In November 2020, Schifrin received the American Academy of Diplomacy’s Arthur Ross Media Award for Distinguished Reporting and Analysis of Foreign Affairs.
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