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Afghanistan faces ‘watershed moment’ and needs global economic support: UN chief

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Warning that Afghanistan faces “a watershed moment”, the United Nations chief on Monday urged the world to avoid the collapse of the country’s economy.

Secretary General Antonio Guterres also called on the Taliban to stop breaking their promises to allow women to work and girls to have access to all levels of education.

Eighty percent of Afghanistan’s economy is informal, with women playing an overwhelming role, and “without them there is no way for the Afghan economy and society to recover,” he said.

Guterres said the UN is making an urgent appeal to countries to inject cash into the Afghan economy, which before the Taliban took power in August relied on international aid that accounted for 75 percent of state spending. The country is grappling with a liquidity crisis as assets remain frozen in the United States and other countries, and disbursements from international organizations have been suspended.

“Right now, with assets frozen and development aid on hold, the economy is collapsing,” Guterres told reporters at the UN headquarters in New York. “Banks are closing and essential services, like health care, have been suspended in many places.”

The UN chief said that injecting liquidity to avoid Afghanistan’s economic collapse is a separate issue from recognizing the Taliban, lifting sanctions, unfreezing frozen assets or restoring international aid.

Guterres said cash can be injected into the Afghan economy “without violating international law or compromising principles.” He said this can be done through UN agencies and a trust fund operated by the UN Development Program, as well as non-governmental organizations operating in the country. He added that the World Bank can also create a trust fund.

G20 leaders to discuss Afghanistan on Tuesday

The leaders of the world’s 20 largest economies, the G20, will hold a special meeting to discuss the complex issues related to Afghanistan on Tuesday. On the issue of “the injection of liquidity into the Afghan economy,” Guterres said, “I think the international community is moving too slow.”

The Taliban invaded most of Afghanistan while US and NATO forces were in the final stages of their chaotic withdrawal from the country after 20 years. They entered the capital, Kabul, on August 15 without any resistance from the Afghan army or the country’s president, Ashraf Ghani, who fled.

Guterres noted the promises of the Taliban since taking office to protect the rights of women, children, minority communities and former government employees, especially the possibility that women and girls can receive the same education as the kids.

“I am particularly alarmed to see that the promises made to Afghan women and girls by the Taliban are broken,” he said, emphasizing that “their ability to learn, work, own assets and live with rights and dignity will define progress.”

SEE | Journalist and activist Mahbouba Seraj on what women need in Afghanistan:

Mahbouba Seraj on the fight to preserve women’s rights in Afghanistan

Mahbouba Seraj, director of the Afghan Women’s Network, discusses the return of the Taliban to power and the future of women’s rights in Afghanistan with Susan Ormiston from CBC. 5:02

However, Guterres said, “the Afghan people cannot suffer collective punishment because the Taliban misbehave.”

He said the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan is growing, affecting at least 18 million people, or half the country’s population.

Guterres said the UN has been engaging the Taliban every day in the safety of its staff, unimpeded humanitarian access to all Afghans in need and human rights, especially for women and girls. “Gender equality has always been a top priority for me,” she said.

While humanitarian assistance saves lives, it will not solve the country’s crisis unless an economic collapse is avoided, Guterres said.

“Clearly, the main responsibility for finding a way back from the abyss rests with those who are now in charge in Afghanistan,” he said.

However, he warned, “if we do not act to help the Afghans weather this storm, and we do so soon, not only they, but the whole world, will pay a heavy price.”

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