By Jenny Gibson
In this interview, Mary-Ellen McGroarty, Country Director of the UN World Food Programme (UNWFP), discusses her experience working in development aid, her current role in Afghanistan, and what the future holds for the Afghan people.
JENNY GIBSON: As a woman from rural Donegal with a Bachelor’s Degree in Law and Economics from NUI Galway, how has your career trajectory led to you becoming the Director of the UNWFP in Afghanistan?
MARY-ELLEN: I did my degree in NUI Galway. This coincided with the Rwandan genocide so I came out for a year to work with GOAL (an international aid charity based in Dublin), thinking it would just be a year, and I fell into something that I loved and was good at. I worked with GOAL for a while, then with a British NGO before joining the WFP in 97’ in Rwanda. Following that, I traveled to several countries and cities including Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, Burundi, Rome, Chad, South Sudan, and now Afghanistan. During this time, I had numerous roles in the WFP and worked my way through the ranks starting as a UN Volunteer. The humanitarian sector has developed a lot since I joined the WFP. In 2018 when I went back to do my LLM in Peace Operations, Humanitarian Law, and Conflict, it was interesting to see how much the field had grown. It’s challenging at times, but it’s work I enjoy.
Prior to your current posting, you worked in South Sudan and Chad. How does your experience of working in Afghanistan compare?
I knew when I came here in October 2020 that it wasn’t going to be easy. In terms of security, it has been extremely dangerous with attacks and conflict raging across the county. So I was interested to see how the peace negotiations with the Taliban were going to play out. But suddenly to find myself in August/September 2021 with the Taliban “back in the palace” was a very different situation. The geopolitics in Afghanistan far outstrips anything I ever came across in Chad and South Sudan, where navigating international politics was much simpler.
In the media, stories, since the Taliban took over, have largely focused on the terror, violence and human rights abuses inflicted by the Taliban. How would you describe the current situation faced by the Afghan people?
2021 was going to be an extremely difficult year for Afghanistan, irrespective of what happened on the 15th of August (when the Taliban took control of Kabul). It was the second drought in 3 years and the most severe in 30 years, contributing to a 40% reduction in wheat production and a 200 million tonne deficit. The quick succession of droughts meant people were forced to sell their animals and move. A combination of conflict and natural disasters saw the displacement of over 600,000 people in the first seven months of 2021. Covid-19 further exacerbated economic fragility, uncertainty, and insecurity.
Following the 15th of August, in the absence of political agreement, international development support was suspended and overseas assets were frozen. The recent images of Afghanistan have been of those trying to get on planes at the airport, where about 130,000 people managed to leave. However, 40 million people remain here in Afghanistan. You have millions of innocent people who are not Taliban and because of geopolitics and the mistakes of others find themselves on the brink of survival through no fault of their own.
Given the dire economic conditions in Afghanistan and the rising food prices, how scarce has food become?
The government budget was 75% funded by international assistance. That tap has now been turned off. As salaries are not being paid, people cannot support their families. The middle class has been ruptured, the construction industry is paralyzed and the economy is in tatters. Our latest assessment shows that 22.8 million people are in “severe food insecurity,” and of that, 8.7 million are one step away from famine-like conditions. These people have huge gaps in their food intake and have to make desperate decisions to put just one meal a day on the table. There are women who don’t eat for days because they want to feed their children. There are men who tell me they are salvaging behind hotels to try and find food that has been thrown out to bring home to their children. What we are seeing is a dire situation that is rapidly deteriorating.
Furthermore, Afghanistan is facing a harsh winter. Due to economic stagnation and assets being frozen, the local currency has depreciated. In a country that is heavily dependent on imports, the price of food and fuel has increased. People are terrified, wondering how they will feed their children and keep them warm during the winter months. The hospitals are already packed with emaciated children that are one step away from starvation.
The WFP served 1.7 million food-insecure people in June of 2021. How has the role and the demand for the WFP services in Afghanistan changed since the Taliban takeover?
We served 5 million people in October and 4 million in September, bringing us to about a total of 13 million so far in 2021. Come January, we are hoping for a massive scale-up in operations to approximately 12-14 million people per month. With 22.8 million people in a dire situation, we need to get emergency food assistance out to as many people as possible. For us to do our job, we need to reach at the very least the 8.7 million who are suffering the most and more. Otherwise, these people will slip into destitution, or pick up their bags in search of support elsewhere or become radicalized.
There is a huge challenge ahead for agencies like the WFP and UNICEF, to help people get through the winter. Hopefully, the international community will come up with some solutions to the economic stagnation that we have around sanctions as soon as possible. The international community needs to come together to find a way to resuscitate the economy and to incentivize the private sector. Humanitarian assistance is only a band-aid. We cannot cure everything. The lifeblood of a country is the economy. If that doesn’t happen sooner rather than later, the situation will further deteriorate.
Is it possible to reach all of those in need?
We have 500 staff across the country and 6 offices. We are increasing our staff and working with about 70 different NGOs in different communities to conduct more consultations with local communities to have an idea of what’s going on. Due to the fall of Kabul, we no longer have widespread warfare. In that respect, our humanitarian access is much more open. One of the big issues now is the cash liquidity crisis. It is quite difficult now to get cash making it more difficult to pay salaries and suppliers. All of these factors are adding to the complexity of what we are trying to do.
The WFP reports show a 234 million dollar shortfall in funding from July to December (2021). What future challenges are you anticipating in terms of food supply?
We have had some very generous donors come in and help us reduce that gap, but looking into 2022, the funding situation is uncertain - We need 220 million dollars per month for 2022 as it costs us about 110 dollars a year to feed one person. There are also crises in Syria, Yemen, Ethiopia, the Sahel, South Sudan. Our world is on fire in terms of humanitarian needs right across the globe, so fundraising will be a challenge.
The persistent legacy around Afghanistan and the narrative will be a huge part of the fundraising challenge. There are ongoing controversial conversations in places like the US about how the project in Afghanistan finished, reflecting on the 20 years and the return to power of the Taliban. We are facing these issues as we try to mobilize funding. One can only hope to appeal to the sense of solidarity and humanity across the world and not to penalize the children of Afghanistan because of geopolitics.
We must also consider that if the international stand-off continues, how will this impact the Taliban regime? Will there be civil unrest or more violence if the situation gets worse? It could start to get much more complicated for us.
Considering the extremely difficult circumstances and the threat of conflict, how challenging have the workings of the WFP's operation been as a neutral and Western organization?
The Taliban didn’t just arrive on the 15th of August; They have been in contested areas of Afghanistan for many years. When I arrived in October 2020, I think they controlled 65% of the territory. Over the years we have engaged with the Taliban quite a lot. We engage based on the humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality, operational independence, and humanity. The focus is on talking to whoever we need to talk to, in order to reach innocent people in need.
Very few people from the international community are still on the ground in Afghanistan and you have bravely vowed to stay there. How have you and your large staff of 500 been coping under such conditions?
You have to be aware of where you are at all times. Getting out and about through the country remains difficult. Now that we are no longer in open conflict, the situation has eased a little in that sense. However, the threat of IS-K (a radical jihadist militant group) remains. Afghanistan is regarded as one of the most dangerous places for humanitarian workers because of conflict.
Although the Taliban say they want us here and say they will look after our safety and security, there are always spoilers. One would be naïve not to worry. When out and about, we have to be very conscious of security and what is going on around us. There is always the danger of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. As Country Director, it is one of the things that keeps me awake at night because I have to make sure I am making the right decisions for the entire team and am putting the correct procedures in place. As heads of agencies, there is a UN security network in which we all engage, assessing the risks and the measures that we need. However, as the Representative and Country Director, you are still responsible for your team.
What more can the international community and humanitarian organizations do to improve the lives of the Afghan people?
We need the funding for a huge humanitarian response to help us help the people of Afghanistan get through the winter. In addition, we need some solutions which will help revitalize the economy. The international community needs to continue to engage with Afghanistan. While they talk about counter-terrorism and radicalization, the only way you can prevent these is to continue engaging with the country and to refrain from sewing the seeds which allow that to grow. Back in the 90’s when the Soviets left, everyone forgot about Afghanistan until 9/11 occurred, followed by the 20 years of US occupation. To forget again about Afghanistan would be to repeat the mistakes of history. It is complicated, but geopolitics and diplomacy is complicated - There are no simple answers to difficult questions. The international community needs to work with the regional partners to find ways to revitalize the economy. Afghanistan cannot remain on humanitarian life support indefinitely. Furthermore, it is important not to blame ordinary Afghan people for what has happened over the last couple of months and years just because the Afghanistan project did not end the way many thought it would.
Thank you Mary-Ellen for sharing your thoughts and experiences with us and shedding light on the ongoing issues in Afghanistan. Best of luck as you head into a challenging winter in Afghanistan.
If you would like to donate to the amazing work the WFP is doing in Afghanistan, the live link is available here