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Humanitarian Leader Warns Of Economic Collapse In Afghanistan

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Afghanistan is already one of the poorest countries in the world after decades of war and foreign intervention. And now some are warning of an impending economic crisis since the Western-backed government collapsed in the face of a Taliban takeover some six weeks ago. Among those sounding the alarm is Jan Egeland. He's the secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council and just returned from Kabul, where he met with Taliban officials and spent time with Afghan families. Jan Egeland, welcome.

JAN EGELAND: Thank you very much.

FADEL: So your takeaway from the visit was that Afghanistan's economy is spiraling out of control. Can you walk us through why that is - the reasons why this is happening?

EGELAND: Well, I met with lots of displaced people, families. What they told me was that there is now a free fall in the little economy that was there. These were people who could scrape together a minimum and was able then to sustain themselves. Now the economy is gone. There is zero work. There is zero income. Many of them are living in the open. They have also been recently displaced.

FADEL: If you could walk through the specific reasons this free fall is happening - do people have access to cash? Are they collecting salaries? Like, what is happening that's leading to what you saw?

EGELAND: First of all, when all of these NATO nations left with all of their personnel, they took with them also the development money. One example, 70% of public employees - these are teachers, nurses, doctors, water engineers, garbage collectors and whatnot - were basically on a World Bank payroll. All of those had their last salary in May. They didn't even have it at the end of the previous regime. And there is no money now for them during this new Taliban government.

FADEL: So let's talk about that. This is a country, as you said, now governed by the Taliban and, by extension, the Haqqani network, and that's sanctioned by the U.S. And it was only recently that the U.S. made exceptions for humanitarian assistance, as well as the possibility of the import of basic needs like food, medicine. How much are these sanctions contributing to the situation?

EGELAND: Well, there is thankfully now exceptions to all of these sanctions. And what I think we should remember is that it is the same 40 million Afghan civilians that were left behind when the NATO countries rushed for the door. It's the same girls and women. They are there. And I see my organization has 2,000 relief workers and teachers on the ground. We basically are completely overwhelmed by the situation. And on top of that, we cannot even transfer money to the country because the banking system is in ruins. There is no financial transactions. So the U.S. and the other Western donors need to enable a financial system. The money should go straight to the people, straight to the doctors through the United Nations and other trusted channels.

FADEL: How much responsibility does the U.S. bear for the current state of the Afghan economy?

EGELAND: The U.S. was keeping afloat much of this public sector. So when there is a collapse overnight, of course, you have some co-responsibility for the very good civilians who are caught in the middle of this conflict. The Taliban took over, also, an enormous responsibility. I mean, there is no doubt about that. When I met them, I bluntly talked about the need for female staff workers to be treated equally to men, that we cannot do education for boys only.

FADEL: What did they say?

EGELAND: What they said? They said to - yes to all of these things, the central, top Taliban leadership. But I don't live by promises. I live by acts on the ground. And I'm glad to see that we are opening girls' schools. We're getting female workers back in many provinces, but not yet in all. So there are...

FADEL: But we also have seen Taliban officials say one thing and then, on the ground, in parts of the country, do completely different things, which has been a concern. In your talks with them, do they have a plan to right the economic situation?

EGELAND: What they said was that they admit that public employees have not been paid since May, and they had said that we admit our responsibility to seek to pay all. On the ground, there is no money. The people cannot even extract the money they have in the bank. People are selling their last possessions for food now, including public employees. So I cannot emphasize enough this free fall. And therefore, I wrote to the secretary-general of the U.N. today and the president of the World Bank and said the World Bank money needs to be channeled to public employees through U.N. trust funds. Not in a month - it has to start before because so urgent is it to avoid that the suffering is beyond belief this winter.

FADEL: That was Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council. Thank you so much for your time.

EGELAND: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.