A major focus of the international humanitarian response to Afghanistan’s economic collapse has been a ramped-up distribution of food aid, as large parts of the population no longer have the income to buy enough food for their families. In this fourth instalment of our economic research based on interviews conducted across Afghanistan, we look at the reach, scope and implications of food aid distribution at the community and household levels. In our sample, we found that around half of the families had, by mid-February, received some form of food assistance at least once, although the quantity, food items and methods varied. Interviewees were grateful for the much-needed help and hoped it would continue, but there was also a recurring concern that those who needed aid the most may not be receiving it. Interviewees in particular described favouritism and interference in the selection of beneficiaries and, to a lesser extent, corruption and capture. And while the aid had provided relief and allowed the interviewees to feed their families, many were acutely aware that it did little to address their long-term need for employment, livelihoods and a revived economy.A man holds a document near sacks of wheat distributed by the World Food Programme (WFP) in Kandahar.
Photo: AFP/Javed Tanveer, 19 October 2021.
Afghanistan’s economic collapse following the Taleban takeover in August 2021 led to widespread poverty, precariousness and food insecurity. The United Nations responded with a wide-ranging Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP) to the tune of USD 4.4 billion – its largest single-country appeal to date. Around half of the requested funds were earmarked for food security and agriculture, and aimed to reach 22.1 million Afghans, which is around, or over, half of the country’s total population. The programme, however, has had to readjust its ambitions due to underfunding and may need to contract even more in the future. Whereas the UN had intended to increase the size of the food aid basket to accommodate 100 per cent of an average household’s needs, it has had to downscale to a smaller size of 50 or 75 per cent. It had also intended to increase the duration of aid per household, from four, to eight or twelve months, depending on the severity of the food insecurity.
According to the World Food Programme’s (WFP) 2021 annual country report, a total of 12.3 million people received WFP food aid in 2021 (15 million, if also counting nutritional aid) – a 67 per cent increase compared to 2020, and 14 per cent more than initially planned. In the month of December 2021, around 7.9 million people received food assistance, compared to 1.5 million people in August (when numbers were probably particularly low, due to the conflict and political upheaval of the Taleban takeover). Since then, WPF has significantly scaled up its assistance, reaching more than 17.5 million people in 2022 so far, and hoping to assist 18 million people in May.
In June, however, WFP will begin to scale down its assistance, to reach around 10 million people – almost halving the number of people who will receive food and nutritional aid. After that, the assistance will be scaled up again in October, in line with the onset of the ‘lean season’ – resources permitting. The scaling down in June will, according to WFP, be in line with the harvest season. However, it also reflects the impact of significant funding shortfalls, as indicated in the sombre warnings of the latest IPC, or Integrated Food Security Classification, report, which foresees the possibility of an even greater reduction in assistance:
With below average prospects for the harvest in most of the country, several factors are further expected to hamper the foreseeable seasonal improvement.… More specifically, at household level, the situation is compounded by the forecasted reduction of Humanitarian Food Assistance after the month of May.
HFA is expected to decrease from 38% of the population receiving on average two third food ration in the current period, to 8% in the June-November projection due to lack of funding.
The funding gap WFP currently faces is USD 1.4 billion for the 2022 response. It is beginning preparations for the much-needed prepositioning of food stock in hard-to-reach areas ahead of the 2023 winter season, but will require USD 150 million to do so.
Humanitarian programmes in Afghanistan had to scale up quickly, given the immense needs, and under difficult circumstances. They have, according to the 2022 HRP, been faced with impeded access, decreased operational capacity of partner organisations on the ground, ambiguities on the role of local Taleban authorities, a lack of clarity surrounding new rules, including around the employment of women, logistical problems and the difficulties posed by the country’s struggling banking system (see also this AAN primer). The lack of sufficient funding, moreover, means that difficult choices have needed to be made on where and how to focus resources. It is against this background that Afghans across the country spoke to AAN about their experiences of food aid, whether they had received any yet, and what they knew and thought about the distribution process.
This report is part of AAN’s ongoing research on what it is like for Afghans to live in a country where the economy has collapsed. In our first round of interviews, carried out in November and December 2021, we found that some households had already received food aid. We then added a series of new questions to our second round of interviews, specifically focusing on people’s experiences and perception of the delivery of aid. The findings of this piece of qualitative research are based on thirty-six in-depth, semi-structured interviews, conducted between 24 January and 16 February, by phone or in person. The research sample includes men and women in twenty-two provinces across Afghanistan and represents a wide range of ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. The findings are complemented by general information about the humanitarian food assistance programme provided by WFP.
In the interviews, we found that food aid distributions had indeed been taking place, including in remote areas. Almost all interviewees said there had been recent food aid provided in their village, district or neighbourhood and a little over half of the interviewees had themselves received aid at least once since August 2021. The few who said they did not know whether aid had been provided in their area, tended to be, sometimes previously, wealthy people who lived in a large city. The report focuses on the aid provided and administered by WFP, since this was what most of the interviewees had experience or knowledge about (although in a few cases other organisations were also mentioned).
The interview questions did not explicitly focus on problems with the aid distribution or beneficiary selection so it was striking how many interviewees told us that they thought the process was unfair and subject to manipulation. Many believed that the beneficiary selection was marred by favouritism and interference, and that the delivery of aid was vulnerable to corruption, capture and abuse. Several interviewees called on the UN and the NGOs who manage the food distribution programmes on the ground, to tighten local management and step up verification and monitoring efforts.
It is not always easy to determine from the interviewees whether the allegations may be true, or if they are mainly based on misunderstandings, or generalised perceptions of unfairness and abuse, but it was striking that it made very little difference whether interviewees were thankful that they had received aid, or frustrated that they had not been given any. Even people who said they had not pursued assistance because they believed they were better off than most, expressed misgivings about the fairness of the process. There was, in particular, a general sense that those in charge of the beneficiary selection favoured the people they knew, and/or were unable (or unwilling) to withstand the pressures to include those who were actually undeserving of aid.
In the report below, we will first look at who received aid, who did not, and what was received. Then we will look into the process of beneficiary selection, in urban and rural areas, and the allegations of favouritism, corruption and abuse. We will discuss how some communities have tried to sidestep these problems by redistributing the aid they received, as well as the slippery line between Taleban involvement and interference. We will then, finally, look at what humanitarian food aid can and cannot alleviate.
I. Who was selected to receive food aid and what did they get?
In terms of who had received food aid in our sample we found that:
- More than half of the interviewees – 20 out of 36 – reported that, by mid-February 2022, their household had received food aid at least once.
- Nine interviewees, or a quarter of the sample, indicated that they had not tried to receive aid or had even declined it when offered. They said they believed the aid was not meant for them, since they were not as poor as most others.
- Seven interviewees, or close to a fifth of the sample, had not received food aid by mid-February, even though their situations seemed dire as well. Three had been registered or surveyed in some manner, but had yet to be given actual aid distribution cards. Four others had not been surveyed or listed, even though they had tried a lot.
Interestingly, we found that in some cases the food assistance had been redistributed among a much larger group of people than it was intended for. At least three interviewees explicitly described the process, while two or three others also seemed to imply this is what happened in their area (see below, for more details). This means that more people reported to us that they had received aid than the NGOs providing the aid are likely to have counted. It also means that each person receiving aid in this way, received a lot less than WFP and its partners considered they were, nutritionally, in need of.
According to WFP, the contents of a standard food assistance package are calculated based on the daily caloric needs of an average household of seven and the IPC categorisations of the provinces. A 100 per cent daily kcal for people is 2100. In IPC-3 provinces – with a food security crisis – people receive 50 per cent rations, and in IPC-4 provinces – where they have a food security emergency – this is a 75 per cent ration size. In IPC-4 provinces, this translates to approximately 75 kg of wheat flour (or other cereals), 7 kg cooking oil, 9 kg of pulses (yellow split peas, red beans, lentils) and 0.75 kg of salt. In IPC-3 provinces this translates to approximately 50 kg of wheat flour (or other cereals), 4.5 kg of cooking oil, 6 kg of pulses and 0.5 kg of salt.
This package, however, may vary. In some cases, commodities may be substituted according to local availability or community preferences, while maintaining the kcal requirements – for example, by providing rice instead of fortified wheat flour. Access to funds and the timing of resources can also impact the availability of food. Procurement begins after the funds arrive and it takes on average 4-6 months from the time the funds arrive to deliver the assistance on the ground, especially when commodities are sourced regionally or internationally. Unforeseen supply chain disruptions can cause additional delays.
This largely matches what the interviewees told us. Out of the twenty families who had received food aid at least once, most of them had received a sack of flour and some bottles of cooking oil, with one or two, sometimes more, other items added.
I received aid four times in the past months. The first and second time, they gave me a sack of flour and a sack of wheat. The third time, I received a sack of flour and some yellow peas. This month, I received a sack of flour, yellow peas and five one-litre bottles of cooking oil. – Homemaker from Jawzjan (five children, husband is away)
We received aid from WFP three times, with the same [aid distribution] card. The first time we received flour and salt, and the other two times they gave us flour, oil and 20 small packets of something that prevents malnutrition in children. – Former government employee from Badakhshan (extended family of twelve)
I received aid from WFP twice. Both times, they gave us a sack of flour and a five-litre bottle of oil. The first time they also gave us something for the children, to prevent malnutrition. – Teacher from Laghman (family of ten, with one son in Turkey)
We received aid once. In total, around 70 families in our area received [aid distribution] cards. They all received flour, oil and beans.– Muezzin from Balkh (household of four)
We received aid twice, a sack of flour and a bottle of oil. All the people [in our village] received it. – Teacher from Nuristan (household of nine)
I received aid twice. The first time I received a sack of wheat and some oil. The second time I received oil, a sack of flour and a small amount of lentils. – Labourer from Ghor (household of eight)
We received aid from WFP twice. Both times they gave us a sack of flour, 24 kg rice, a five-litre can of oil and 3.5 kg salt. – Former government employee from Paktika (extended family of fourteen)
The starting point of the assistance may vary per household, since WFP has been adding new beneficiaries each month. In terms of the duration, WFP had planned to provide monthly assistance to food insecure households for a period of eight or twelve months. This may, in practice, not materialise, due to funding shortfalls, issues with the availability or timing of resources, or possible reprioritisation based on overall levels of vulnerability.
Out of the twenty families in our sample who had received food aid between August 2021 and mid-February 2022, eight families had received aid once; seven families had received aid twice; four families had received aid three times and one family had received aid four times.
The woman who had received aid four times, had however been told that she had come to the end of the validity of her distribution aid card:
I received aid four times, once every month. But now my card’s expired. They told me my turn was finished and they’d given the new cards to our neighbours, even though some of them are rich and have big houses.… My other neighbour and I went to the provincial administration office recently to submit an aid request letter [arizeh], but they returned the paper and said it wasn’t possible. Now my name is not listed for any other future aid. I don’t know what to do. – Homemaker from Jawzjan (five children, husband is away)
Another interviewee seemed to believe that people were listed – or possibly vetted – for each separate distribution:
I received aid from WFP, flour and oil, twice. WFP has again listed our name, but they haven’t contacted us yet. – Teacher from Laghman (household of ten)
Most households we spoke to, who had received aid cards, did not know how long the card would be valid for, or how often they would receive aid. This can probably be largely explained by the fact that funding uncertainties make it difficult for NGOs to make firm commitments to local communities, but it does add to a sense of insecurity and possibly a perceived lack of transparency.
Who had not received any food aid (yet)?
The sixteen interviewees who had not received any food aid (yet) could be divided into two groups:
- those who needed aid and often had proactively, but so far unsuccessfully, tried to get it – seven interviewees, or close to a fifth of the sample;
- those who indicated that the aid was not meant for them because they were better off than other people (or who simply had not commented on whether they needed the aid or not) – nine interviewees, or a quarter of the sample.
A former NGO cook in Kabul city, who had not been included in the neighbourhood’s food distribution (but whose family had received some food from an NGO that supported former government officials) blamed the system of beneficiary selection:
It is mostly NGOs and private [charity] organisations that distribute the aid. There is no problem with them; the problem is with the people who make the lists. For example, the wakil-e guzars don’t work honestly. They misuse their position and write the names of their relatives and people they know. There are families who are really needy, but who don’t get anything. And there are people who aren’t in need, who’ve received aid twice. It’s not done fairly. – Former NGO cook from Kabul city (extended family of fourteen)
A former mullah from Helmand described how in the end, all families in his area had been registered after the people had vehemently complained, but said that none of them had received any aid yet:
The staff of the NGO, together with the Taleban, came to our area once, but they registered only two families from four villages. When the people criticised the registration, saying: You registered only two families out of a total of 40! they promised to come back and register each family. And they did, but I haven’t seen any of these forty families receive any aid yet. I think aid is important. It’s very important, for those who can get it. But it’s useless for those who are only registered and who don’t receive it, or for those who aren’t registered at all. – Former mullah from Helmand (household now of six, after the recent death of his two-year old son)
Despite the fact that many of the interviewees believed the Taleban interfered in the process in favour of their own members and relatives, the one Taleb in our sample had not received any aid yet and had not even been able to register (his status within the movement is unclear). He told us:
So far, the NGOs have distributed oil, flour and lentils, but my family hasn’t received any. The commanders, area and village elders introduce people to the NGOs, but they haven’t introduced us yet. No one listed our name or surveyed our house. I went [to the NGO] and asked them to include us, but they told me to go and ask our local representative.… Out of ten beneficiaries who received aid, I think only one might be really needy. The rest are people who have wasita [connections] and most of them are already rich enough. Of course, the government plays a role in this corruption too. – Taleb from Logar (household of twelve)
A landlord from Kabul city told us he had voluntarily opted out of receiving aid. He was as critical of the process as those who had so far been involuntarily left out – something we also found in other interviews, as we shall explore below.
They distributed aid several times in my area: food items, like flour, cooking oil and beans, and also money. Someone, probably the representative of our area, came to my door one day and asked for my ID and phone number. My son called me and said they wanted to provide us with assistance, so I told him to thank them and tell them we weren’t deserving of it and that they should give it to the poor people instead. It’s the right of the poor people, but in reality those who don’t deserve it often get even more than the poor. – Landlord in Kabul city (household of seven)
Interestingly, one of the interviewees who in an earlier round of interviews in December 2021 had also told us he had opted out of aid, now said he had relented and received the aid that was offered, after all. This is a reminder that people’s situations, and perceptions of how much they can handle, can change over time.
II. The tension-ridden process of beneficiary selection and aid allocation
The part of the process that elicited the most consistent criticism was that of the beneficiary selection and, to a lesser extent, the aid allocation per district and village. The interviewees described a process in which the beneficiary selection was done by the NGOs with the help of local representatives, in particular the wakil-e guzars and wakil-e kuchas (heads of city neighbourhoods and street representatives) in cities and towns, village councils and village heads (qarya dars), and possibly also local mullahs, elders and commanders. In some areas, there also appeared to be a role for government officials, either directly in the beneficiary selection or in a more general capacity. Several interviewees described visiting delegations of local government officials that accompanied the NGO‘s staff. Others described how they had petitioned the governor’s office or other government departments in the hope of being added to an aid distribution list.
The interviewees’ complaints included favouritism and an unfair selection on the part of the local representatives, interference and corruption by Taleban officials and other members of the movement, and a failure to prevent, report or stand up to these practices by NGO staff. Several interviewees called for tighter monitoring and better management of the allocation, selection and distribution processes.
Because the interviewees may be describing processes that they do not have full visibility on, we asked WFP to describe the beneficiary selection and aid allocation processes to us. They are, in short, as follows:
At the central level, WFP draws up initial plans, including its provincial targets, based on the resources available, with the aim of assisting all those facing IPC (emergency) 4 and a percentage of people facing IPC 3 (crisis). Actual distribution plans are made based on vulnerability analyses at the district level which draw on WFP’s Integrated Context Analysis (taking into account the factors such as the impact of drought, mass unemployment, conflict, remoteness, lack of services, historical poverty and marginalisation). WFP uses this same process at the community level with the help of local stakeholders and partners who are considered to have knowledge and experience of the specific contexts and conditions of the area.
The individual household selection is done by a committee of key community stakeholders, that aims to be inclusive and representative, based on 13 vulnerability criteria. The vulnerability criteria for households include: headed by a woman or child; no adult male; dependency ratio of 9 or more; no adult male of working age or adult working women; headed by a person with disability, chronic illness, or elderly; poor asset holdings; residing with or hosting other households; living in emergency or makeshift shelter; relying only on borrowing, begging, or zakat; relying on casual labour by one member; no source of livelihood or income generating activities; one or more members having disability or chronic illness; referred by protection agencies; a pregnant breastfeeding mother and/or child under 5.
Cooperating partners, usually an NGO, are obliged to provide a list of committee members so that WFP monitors can verify that these people exist and have fulfilled the roles they were selected for. The committee’s preliminary beneficiaries list is verified by the cooperating partner, usually an NGO, through individual interviews and/or household visits. The process is followed by WFP staff who carry out spot checks, as well as a network of third-party monitors.
The beneficiary selection process as described by the interviewees
The interviewees’ description of the beneficiary selection process largely centred around the role of what WFP calls the local stakeholders and, to a lesser extent, the cooperating partners, or implementing NGOs.
In urban areas, many interviewees described a beneficiary selection process that seemed to hinge on the role of the wakil-e guzars (neighbourhood representative), who in a tiered system collected the relevant information from wakil-e kuchas (street representative) and passed it on to the NGO responsible for the distributions. Views on the exact role of NGOs in the beneficiary selection tended to vary. Several interviewees, like for instance this woman from Sheberghan, described how NGO staff carried out home visits to ascertain eligibility:
Our wakil-e kucha provided me with the aid card. He brought the observers to my home. They came and saw my house and kitchen. … Each month the [NGO] office gives out five new cards. They distribute the aid in turn, one village per day. – Homemaker from Jawzjan (five children, husband is away)
Others, however, indicated that they believed the NGO staff simply let the wakil-e guzar decide the beneficiary list – for instance, this man from Kabul, who had not received any aid and had not been surveyed:
Since the international aid began, it has been given through the wakil-e guzar and the charity organisations. The local representatives each make a list of the people, with their phone numbers and ID card numbers, and give it to the wakil-e guzar, who gives it to the relevant municipal district and to the NGO that distributes the aid. Then the representative of the NGO contacts the people and asks them about their situation. Sometimes they check and survey their homes, but most of the time, they just call and then the wakil-e guzar selects the people. – Former gardener and taxi driver from Kabul city (household of ten)
Like many others, he believed that those selecting the beneficiaries favoured their own relatives.
Our family and the people who live close to us haven’t received any aid…. Out of 50 families, five were selected by the wakil-e guzar to receive aid. Then, in turn, another five families were selected. However, the wakil-e guzar and the street or area representatives try to select their own relatives and people who come from their own area. Those who are really in need don’t get anything. They’re even not on the list. – Former gardener and taxi driver from Kabul city
A student from Farah city told us that, although their home had been surveyed, the family had not yet received an aid distribution card.
They came and surveyed our house, several times, but we still haven’t been given anything. The last time they came was two weeks ago. They didn’t give us a card and they didn’t call us. They just took [the details of] our tazkeras. – Student from Farah city (extended family of fifteen)
She described her frustration that they had not been able to receive any aid, despite trying, while others who did not need it, were getting aid more than once.
I know the process is based on wasita because I’ve seen neighbours receive aid, even though they’re rich and aren’t vulnerable. No, they’re not with the Taleban; they’re just well off. My father talked with the wakil-e kucha many times and each time, the man told my father: “Just wait, we’ll give it to you.” But whenever the aid arrives, he tells us it’s already finished. Each time the aid comes, it’s supposed to be for five needy families on our street, but it’s given to the same families each time. And the cash donations that are meant for widows are given to girls who are still single or to women whose husbands are alive. The distribution process should be transparent and clear and aid should be given to the vulnerable, not to those who will only sell it in the market. But it’s not transparent, nor clear. They come and survey our houses and then give the aid to others. But what can we do? Even if we raise our voices, no one listens. – Student from Farah city
One of the interviewees, who himself was not in need of aid, described the problem in a more round-about way, by saying that he had talked to the wakil-e guzar in his own area in an effort to persuade him to act honestly and to direct the aid to those who need it (implying that the man is not doing that now).
In general, of the aid and donations that UNICEF and other international organisations distribute, at least 50 per cent isn’t given to the poor and needy. It is the wakil-e guzar and wakil-e kucha who have the responsibility to introduce people to the NGOs or to divide the aid themselves. In our area, the wakil-e guzar has a list of people according to their different economic levels.… I talked with our wakil-e kucha, because the situation is extremely bad. We have to act honestly according to what our religion has ordered. So I told him, it’s not good to include rich people in the list of the poor and needy. I think he’ll now try his best to divide the donations among the needy people. – University professor from Herat (extended family of twenty)
Others described the tensions within the community and the pressures the wakil-e guzars were under, and how that sometimes meant that poor people who did not advocate their case forcefully were left out.
Those who don’t deserve it also get assistance and they often get even more than the poor people. They quarrel with the wakil-e guzar and because he doesn’t want to stand up to them, he just registers anyone who quarrels. There are poor people who haven’t received any assistance, because they don’t want to quarrel. Actually, the assistance has spread violence and tension among the people. Sometimes people argue with the wakil-e guzars and sometimes they argue among themselves. – Landlord from Kabul city (household of seven)
One of the interviewees was a wakil-e guzar himself. He first described the process in general terms and then explained the difficulties he faced, since not enough aid was arriving in his community and many families would complain to him about the selection process. He clearly found his responsibility testing:
When the organisation came, they called me to come. They asked one tribal elder and one mullah from each mosque in our area. We all gathered in a mosque and shared the [details of the] population of our villages with them. I helped them and took them to see my area; they met the poor face-to-face and interviewed them. First, they listed the disabled, widows and orphans, and then they listed the other needy people.
In my guzar (area), where I prepared the list, we have 800 families and 11 mosques. So far, they gave aid to almost 60 families. When the distribution happened, the Taleban sent their observers to monitor the process. The NGO is still surveying and selecting beneficiaries. A few days ago, they called the people and took their biometric data for the next round. No one knows what they will distribute, because they don’t disclose that to anyone.
The way the NGOs distribute aid is problematic because they only help 10 per cent of the people. So when they leave, the people come to me and complain and say: “Why didn’t you give aid to us too?” All the people are poor and hungry, but the NGOs give aid to only a few families and then they leave. When the others complain, I have to tell them that I have no solution and can’t help them. It’s like that: if one person receives aid, the others will complain and be sad.
It has created a lot of discord. Some people link the process to ethnicity. They think the wakil-e guzars give aid to their own tribe and relatives, but in reality the NGOs do the distribution and the wakil-e guzar has no role or interference. It’s very difficult for us to make all these people understand how the NGOs operate. – Businessman from Baghlan (household of ten)
Elsewhere in the interview, he had described how his own economic situation had been steadily deteriorating, as prices rose and his business floundered. The one distribution of food aid he had received had helped, but he would apparently not be given any again – precisely because he was a wakil-e guzar:
We received aid once: a sack of flour, oil and lentils, from WFP. It was good because it was at a time when we really needed it and it lasted for at least a few days. But they didn’t put me on the list for future aid because I am a wakil-e guzar. I told them to take my name, because I’m not rich and I need the aid, but they said it was their rule that they couldn’t do this for me. – Businessman from Baghlan (household of ten)
In the rural areas, interviewees described a similar process, with lists of the village populations and vulnerable families drawn up by the village council and passed on to the NGO by the village council head. Several interviewees described how the staff of the NGO travelled to the area to survey the village:
We received the donation from an organisation that mainly works in the east of Afghanistan, I don’t remember the name, but they implement the WFP projects. They travel to different areas and villages to find needy people. When they came here, I told them that I needed help. They saw our house and gave us the card with which we could get the aid. – Teacher from Laghman (household of ten)
Although the selection process in the rural areas was sometimes described as more communal than in the urban areas, the criticism was similar. See for instance this former government employee from Paktika, who blamed those in charge for ensuring their own relatives benefited (even though he had also received aid twice):
The lists are drawn up by the local [village] council, in cooperation with the elders of each village, and handed over to the UN representative. Each village selects their families, depending on the number of people that live there. After they are selected, a card is made for them. Then, the organisation calls the people, in turns, to come to the district and receive the aid.
But the people who need it most haven’t been helped; in our area, we have ten families who are really starving [and who didn’t receive aid]. Aid is mostly given to the relatives of the Taleban and the local council and the village elders. They lie to the media and say: we helped the people who deserve it, but in reality it doesn’t reach them. People are living under the poverty line and are dying. We thank the countries of the world who are helping, but unfortunately the aid hasn’t reached the people who need it. – Former government employee from Paktika (extended family of fourteen)
Interviewees said they believed the amount of aid allocated per village or area was determined by population size, but the overall process was opaque to them and some of the interviewees alluded to controversies over possible manipulation, or bias.
Representatives of the institutions say: we take the list of your councils from the district and the province and divide the aid according to the population of the council. Based on that, the share of each council is determined, but I don’t know if this is exactly how it happens, or not. And sometimes there are controversies that this or that council was given a greater share. – Disabled shopkeeper from Daikundi (household of nine)
Others said they feared that the more remote areas were being overlooked, either due to discrimination or because it was simply a greater hassle to get there. A man from a remote village in Ghor’s Hazara-majority area, for instance, told us:
There have been other distributions in the district, but our village received help only once because it’s very far from the district centre. The aid is very good for the people, but the distribution is not fair. Employees of the NGOs do their own thing (khodsari mikonad) and don’t go to the remote areas. The local authorities are also not interested in a fair distribution and there’s no monitoring body. The NGOs always give good and excellent reports to their headquarters and donors, while the reality is different. If they had a monitoring section for the aid distribution process, I think the distribution would be more transparent. – Truck driver from Ghor (household of ten)
Several interviewees, like the truck driver from Ghor, said they believed that better monitoring mechanisms could make the distributions fairer and more transparent. We checked back with WFP to see what mechanisms were currently in place. They said that, in addition to the verification steps in the selection process described above, and the presence of monitors at distribution sites, there were several complaints mechanisms that allowed WFP to triangulate complaints about a particular targeting and selection exercise with the communities and cooperating partners. Families who feel unfairly excluded can, for instance, use community feedback mechanisms and the interagency AWAAZ call centre to complain.
However, not all people will know where to complain, not all complaints will be passed on, and in a programme this vast, with suspicions so widespread and access often precarious, it is unlikely that all complaints, or even most of them, can be followed up.
In our interviews, we came across a specific practice of a community-level redistribution of aid. The interviewees who described the practice to us were all from remote Hazara-majority areas, but it is possible something similar may be happening in other tightly-knit communities as well.
Initially, the interviewees described the same beneficiary selection process as elsewhere.
It’s like this: representatives of the NGOs come and tell the chairman and members of the village council, “Based on the population and the list of your village council, we will give you so many aid distribution cards; you should introduce the most deserving people of your village.” Then the council gives them the ID card [details], according to the number of cards that were allocated. This is how the survey and identification of the poor is done. – Disabled shopkeeper from Daikundi
The difference however is that, in the end, everyone receives something, not just the people who were selected:
The village council had prepared the list of people who were in dire need of help. Whenever aid comes, the village council meets and divides the village residents into three parts: the poorest families who are put on every aid list; the families who are [also] deserving of help and; the families who are better off than the others. But in the end, they try to make it so that everyone receives some aid. Because everyone is poor, only the degree of poverty differs. – Former police guard from Daikundi (household of four)
The shopkeeper from Daikundi, who was quoted above, gave more details:
In our village council, we have a rule that if, for example, an NGO helps 30 people in the village, but we have 60 families, we will divide the aid for the 30 families among the 60. Whenever the aid is handed over and brought into the village, it is distributed among [all] the people of the village. Even though the NGO says that the card is the share of one family and nobody else has the right to that aid, the other residents don’t listen to them. Because the aid doesn’t reach everyone and there is always controversy over the distribution. – Disabled shopkeeper from Daikundi
Another interviewee from Daikundi told us that, although the redistribution was not fair to the poorest in the community, it was necessary to avoid tension and maintain village cohesion. This would, in turn, ensure that all villagers were able, and willing, to pay the new Taleban taxes, so that the village could avoid unwanted government attention and possible retribution.
After we receive the aid, regardless of how many poor people there are, it is equally distributed among all the families of the village. Of course, this is very cruel towards the poor, but they have no choice but to accept it. It was not like this before; it has only become like this in the last few months. Under the previous government, if someone was considered eligible and received aid, they wouldn’t have been willing to share it with anyone else. Now they have to, because if the aid is not divided, villagers may stop paying the government taxes and people are afraid of a quarrel with the government. So they have to come to terms among themselves. In my village, we have 30 families and whenever aid comes, everyone gets some of it, according to the general agreement. But it’s not a lot. I just got some flour. – School principal from Daikundi (household of five)
Such arrangements are most likely to take place, and be considered fair, within relatively homogenous or well-integrated communities that have a tradition of relative self-governance. There were allusions in other interviews to similar forms of community solidarity, but it was not clear whether this involved a similar systematic redistribution of aid.
III. Taleban involvement and interference
In the period shortly after the Taleban takeover in Afghanistan, discussions within donor countries often revolved around the question of whether it was possible to deliver aid to Afghanistan without dealing with the Taleban and how to ensure that the movement would not benefit from or be able to redirect the assistance. In practice, humanitarian agencies and NGOs need to, at the very least, engage with local authorities to coordinate activities and/or negotiate access, while upholding the humanitarian principles (impartiality, neutrality, operational independence and eligibility of assistance based solely on need). This is often a difficult balancing act.
The Humanitarian Response Plan has as one of the caveats to ramping up aid delivery that partners, usually NGOs, need to “have access to the affected population without any interference by the authorities.” At the same time, it mentions several incidents, including interference in the beneficiary selection “most likely as a result of attempts of de facto authorities to direct humanitarian aid to areas they deem to be more critical.”
What interviewees described to us ranged from the, possibly unproblematic, involvement of local government employees in aid allocation processes, beneficiary selection and aid distribution, to attempts or instances of outright interference and misdirection, as well as situations where the lines seemed blurred.
In some cases, interviewees seemed to indicate that the government employees were part of the aid allocation or community-based targeting process, as for instance described by a former NGO worker from Zabul, who himself had opted out of receiving aid because he said others needed it more.
The government, together with the NGOs, made a selection committee. The committee has representatives from the Provincial Disaster Management Authority (ANDMA), the refugees’ department, different [technical] sectors, the provincial governor’s office and also from the community, such as the wakil-e guzar. – Former NGO staff from Zabul
A businessman from Baghlan told us:
Almost two months ago we received a sack of flour, oil and lentils from WFP. Their team came to the village and surveyed the needy and disabled; those who were vulnerable received coal, cash, and foodstuff. They coordinated with the department of rural development and the municipality, and were helped by the development councils. They took the list of the needy people from the department of rural development. – Businessman from Baghlan (household of ten)
A teacher from Laghman described a similar process:
Seven people select the beneficiaries in the different villages. One person is from the organisation that distributes the aid, one from the national security service, one from the department of rural development, one from the department of agriculture and irrigation, and a few others. Together they travel to different areas to find the needy people. When they came here, I told them I needed help. They saw our house and gave us a card with which we could get the aid.
The Taleban are checking the organisation’s distribution process to see if it’s done honestly and correctly. Out of the seven people who are selecting the beneficiaries, six of them are Taleban government employees and only one of them is a WFP [NGO] worker. – Teacher from Laghman (household of ten)
Although he did not object, in principle, to the involvement of local Taleban/government officials, he criticised the fact that, in his view, the members of the selection committee manipulated the lists to make sure their own constituents were prioritised:
In villages where the families or relatives of the Taleban live, they call them first and include them in the list. For instance, if there are five families, they’ll say we have 20 families here, so that the five families are included in the list with the help of the Taleban who are there as observers. Then they also include five to seven other families from the village, so they won’t be questioned by anyone. – Teacher from Laghman (household of ten)
A farmer from Paktia blamed both the Taleban and the village maliks (heads) for favouring their own people. He suggested that a larger, more varied selection committee might be able to keep its members honest.
The UN provides the aid with the help of the Taleban and the village malik. There’s a survey going on now; they’re distributing cards to people. The head of the village prepares the list and gives it to the aid organisation. Then, a representative of the organisation, with a Taleb, goes from house to house to select the needy people. But they mostly select the people who are introduced by the Taleban and the head of the village. The people who are affiliated to them receive the largest share, because when the aid comes, the Taleban distributes it to their men and to the families who have lost members in the war. Poor people wait in line all day and don’t get help. Instead, we see people and vehicles belonging to the Islamic Emirate come and receive aid.
In my opinion, to identify the needy people, specific teams should go with the help of the elders. For example, a representative of the aid organisation, a representative of the Taleban and a representative of the village should go from house to house, in the presence of the imam of the mosque to correctly identify the needy and write down their names. It’s not fair when the malik makes a list, but then the aid is given based on the order of the Taleban. – Farmer from Paktia (household of twelve)
Several interviewees mentioned that they believed the Taleban was redirecting aid to their own people, however without providing details. For instance:
The humanitarian aid of the international community has been given to people who consider religion, region, tribe and ethnicity when distributing the aid. And some of them have committed corruption. … For the Taleban, the people who cooperated with them in the past 20 years are the most important. So they distribute the aid to their relatives and the people they know. Whether someone is a khan (landowner) or a poor man isn’t important to them. So the aid hasn’t been given to the needy, particularly not to the displaced people who came from other provinces to Khost. – Journalist from Khost (household of sixteen)
A few interviewees, from the more remote areas, mentioned instances of direct interference by local Taleban officials, including demands for money or aid, and attempts to influence which villages would receive assistance from NGOs. For instance, two interviewees from Daikundi said:
Very little aid arrives in our village, which is at the farthest point of the district, about 90 km away from the district centre. The aid that was distributed was very valuable to the people, but unfortunately, there was a lot of abuse in our district by those who were locally responsible. The Taleban gathered money from the shuras [councils] where aid was distributed for the second and third time, and kept it for themselves. They also took a share from the total aid, which they openly sold in the market. Nobody can say anything against it. – Teacher from Daikundi (household of three)
Of course, distribution of aid is very good if it’s well-managed, but unfortunately, it isn’t. Local employees of the Islamic Emirate interfere in the work of the NGOs and actively collect money from the people for themselves. Local employees of the NGOs, who are often Wardaki and Jalalabadi Pashtuns, don’t go to the remote villages very much, unless villagers bribe the district government officials. Then the officials force them to go to the remote villages. The NGOs are aware of this, but they keep silent and the local staff don’t report it to the foreign officials.
Corruption in the distribution of aid has become widespread. There is no authority to control the situation and people can go nowhere to complain; no one dares to say this Taleban official demanded or took a bribe from me. It’s as if the local officials of the Islamic Emirate are trying to devour the money of the Hazara people. It has become normal for them to take money under all kinds of pretexts. – Former government employee from Daikundi (household of ten)
On the other hand, one of the interviewees who described corruption in the distribution process said that not much had changed compared to the previous regime; the only thing that was new were the actors:
Both the government and NGOs provide aid in my area. But people say that if the Taleban distribute the donations, they don’t give it to everyone who needs it. For example, when the district governor receives cash to distribute among the people, he gives the money to his favourite people – his friends and followers. He doesn’t give it to the people who were in the previous government or army. I heard that one month ago he distributed cash donations of 15,000 or 20,000 AFS (170-200 USD) among his own people.
In the past, we [also] didn’t receive any aid or donations. During the previous regime, the aid distribution was the same as it is now; nothing has changed. The previous government also distributed aid among their own relatives and friends, just like the Taleban is doing now. There is so much aid and most of it isn’t distributed correctly. When the Taleban can access it, they even sell aid items because they don’t need them. Both now and before, during the previous regime, when the aid falls into the hands of a specific group, they never distribute it honestly. But if the people who need the aid actually receive it, of course a huge change can take place in their lives. – Teacher from Nuristan (household of nine)
A common refrain was the call for closer monitoring:
The international community should ensure that the donations are divided fairly, in a transparent way, in the presence of media representatives and civil society activists, so they can reach those in need. I think the international community should have full and direct control over the distribution of humanitarian aid to distribute it fairly to all provinces and not just to a particular class. – Journalist from Khost (household of sixteen)
IV. What the aid alleviates – and what it does not
It was clear from the interviews that the aid had alleviated real stress and suffering. For many, it had addressed the fear of or actual experience of hunger, at least for a short while, and several interviewees expressed gratitude and sense of relief.
I received aid four times, once every month. It was very helpful for me. I prayed a lot for those who gave me the aid. My husband is not here with us, and the aid enabled me to give some food to my children. – Homemaker from Jawzjan (five children, husband was unsuccessfully trying to enter Iran in search of work)
I think these donations are the best thing in the current situation when most families don’t have food to eat. May God bless those who help the people because they have saved many lives. – Shopkeeper from Kunduz city (household of six)
I think the aid reached the people well and on time. Many families that I know in our village would not have had any food at all, if the aid hadn’t arrived. – Former police guard from Daikundi (household of four)
Two to three months ago, the situation was much worse. Everyone had lost their optimism and hope for the future because no one was receiving a salary. Now that the salaries are paid, people’s situations are better. And the aid that was distributed in the last three months changed people and had a positive impact on their morale. I can’t imagine what people might have done if the salaries hadn’t been paid and the aid hadn’t been distributed. The situation was so bad and was getting worse every day. – Former government employee from Badakhshan (extended family of twelve)
But even interviewees who clearly wanted to say something positive, probably for fear of sounding ungrateful or in hopes it might prevent the aid from stopping, often still hinted at tensions and problems:
The distribution of aid was very useful and important for the people and it reached them in a very good and timely manner. Although there are reports that the distribution of aid had its problems, the spirit of the aid was very good. – Local doctor from Daikundi (extended household of twenty-one people)
I didn’t receive aid from NGOs or the government because the aid is for the poor and vulnerable. In my area, I know 18 families that received aid; some received cash, others received food. Three of them were really poor; the other 15 families were rich people, some of them even had several shops. I think the distribution process is transparent, to some extent. Although rich people are also getting assistance, [at least] the poor are not left out. – Factory owner from Kandahar (extended family of ten)
Most of all, many interviewees commented on how the aid, though briefly helpful, was only a fraction of what was really needed, since it could only help some, and only for a while.
If we are speaking about emergencies, then yes, the aid helps. But overall, I don’t think this assistance will change the lives of poor people. It can save them from hunger for a few days, but it won’t benefit them longer than that. – Landlord from Kabul city (household of seven)
The people in the villages of Afghanistan are all in need. We could survey the people with our eyes closed and add all of them to the list because they’re all poor. They have no money, no shops and no businesses. They’re just waiting for spring and summer, hoping someone will ask them to work. The aid isn’t enough, both what they give to each family and the number of families that are listed. In my area of 800 families, only 60 received aid, which means that 740 families remain. Out of these 800 families, maybe 40 of them are rich, the rest are all needy. – Businessman from Baghlan (household of ten)
Almost all people are poor here; if someone can pay for their winter food, he is the richest among us. If there was no aid, people could really die of hunger. So the aid helped everyone a lot. Some people had nothing to eat and now they at least have some food for one or two months. On the other hand, it’s not really enough. Families are big and there’s no income or work at this time of year. – Labourer from Ghor (household of eight)
Almost 95 per cent of people are poor in Afghanistan, so if the aid increased and each family received some, it would be so helpful. But it shouldn’t be corrupt, with one family receiving multiple times and another family not even once. I hope it’s done honestly, but I don’t think it’s transparent enough. And also, in general, it’s not enough: one bottle of oil and one sack of flour is not enough for a large family. – Teacher from Laghman (household of ten)
Finally, many of the interviewees hoped for the kind of aid that could create sustainable solutions, through jobs and livelihood opportunities, so they would no longer need to depend on donations.
I think the aid could be distributed in a better way. Now, the NGOs and international organisations buy the food from other countries for a high price and then distribute it here. They could create employment instead and provide salaries, or give people the aid in cash. Someone who is poor and needy will work for the money, but the way they’re doing it now the aid will be given to commanders and others. – Taleb from Logar (family of four)
I think the aid is not enough. And it’s not good that it makes people dependent. In the past 20 years, people received aid and they became used to it. Suddenly it stopped and now they’re in a bad condition. We shouldn’t wait for others to help us. If today they receive oil, wheat and flour, what will they do tomorrow, when it’s finished? We shouldn’t rely on short-term benefits. We should work on long-term solutions for our economic problems. – University professor from Herat (extended family of twenty)
If employment opportunities are provided, so people can earn money themselves, I think that’s better than this aid. Because the aid will make people into spongers, who will always have to wait for the help of others. – Psychosocial councillor from Sar-e Pul (family of seven)
This report, taking its cue from the people it interviewed, has explored the concerns that current processes may not ensure that food assistance is indeed reaching the people who need it most. At the same time, we don’t want to ignore the fact that over half of the interviewees had received aid – even in remote areas, and before the post-winter scale up – and that food aid is arriving in people’s homes in a significant way. This is a testament to the determination and hard work of countless NGO employees, community members, government civil servants and UN staff, often under extremely difficult circumstances.
The aid has clearly been important to the families and communities who received it. Many interviewees said they did not know how they would have managed without it. So it is concerning that the level of aid, in terms of quantity, duration and number of people reached, looks likely to be reduced as a result of funding shortfalls.
The findings of this report also point to problems, particularly with the beneficiary selection and, to a lesser extent, the aid allocation and the potential for capture, redirection and manipulation. It was striking how many interviewees talked about this without us asking. The aid distribution system is, in general, largely the same as it was before the Taleban takeover (even many of the actual individuals involved may still be the same, including some of the NGO staff, many of the local points of contact with the communities, and possibly even some of the local government officials, particularly the more junior and technical staff). What seems to have changed most of all is the size and scope of the operation and the fact that access has to be renegotiated and coordinated with the new authorities.
The implementation and monitoring of large-scale humanitarian aid in Afghanistan has always been difficult, even under the best of circumstances, but that does not mean that concerns can be ignored or set aside as minor issues of perception. Particularly, with a programme this size that had to be scaled up as fast as it was, it is likely that the monitoring and follow-up mechanisms have been unable to sufficiently keep up with the rollout.
The fact that the beneficiary selection leans heavily on local representatives – in particular the wakil-e guzars and village heads – seems to be both a strength and a potential vulnerability. While their close community relations provide local knowledge and a form of accountability, these ties can also leave them open to immense pressures and allegations of bias, favouritism and abuse.
It is, of course, not easy to determine from the interviewees to what extent the allegations are true. Distribution processes are often fraught and riddled with suspicion, especially when needs are so acute and widespread. Some of the complaints may be based on misunderstandings or generalised perceptions of unfairness and abuse, but in that case, it appears that greater transparency and clearer messaging, at both the local and central level – including on what people are supposed to receive, for how long and based on which criteria – could lessen the doubts and tensions.
It is also interesting to note how the reputation the Taleban may have had when they were still an insurgent movement, of being less corrupt than the then government, is now under pressure, as the movement seems to struggle – or is uninterested – to enforce discipline and accountability across its ranks.
At the national level, the Taleban government is seeking to formally increase its control over the aid delivery. In early May 2022, the Ministry of Economy announced the establishment of a committee to oversee the distribution of humanitarian aid, although it provided few details of what it would do. According to a prime-ministerial decree, dated 15 January 2022, provincial governors are now “barred from [allowing] aid distributions without coordination with the provincial ANDMA [Afghan National Disaster Management Agency].” Although coordination with ANDMA and other technical departments is in itself not an unreasonable request, the decree may embolden provincial governors and local officials to try to redirect or strong-arm the aid to their liking. It will probably continue to be a struggle for NGOs on the ground to stop engagement with and involvement by local authorities from veering into outright interference.
Fortunately, the fears of widespread famine that were raised last year did not materialise, at least not yet (although there are pockets, for instance in Ghor). The humanitarian food assistance definitely helped, as did the fact that the payment of government salaries restarted again, but it will in itself not be enough. Most of the people who received food aid continue to struggle to feed their families and meet their basic needs (see, in particular, this AAN report from March, where we discuss in greater detail how all the interviewees were doing economically when we spoke to them).
Afghans are resilient, determined and inventive, and they work hard to help themselves, and each other, but most communities are currently stretched far beyond their usual coping mechanisms and many people have depleted what reserves or options to borrow or sell they may have had. The current food aid allows them to feed their families, something at least, even if only for a short time, but Afghans desperately need their economy to restart, the government and its salaries to become dependable, and conditions for small businesses to improve.
This article was last updated on 1 Jun 2022