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An Afghan woman holds her child as she and others wait to receive packages being distributed by a Turkish humanitarian aid group at a distribution centre in Kabul, Afghanistan, Dec. 15, 2021.ALI KHARA/Reuters

A donor conference for Afghanistan has fallen almost US$2-billion short of its target, the latest example of a humanitarian crisis struggling for global support at a time when the world’s attention is fixed on the Ukraine war.

The United Nations is trying to raise US$4.4-billion in desperately needed help for Afghanistan, where it estimates that a million severely malnourished children are on the brink of death. At the conference on Thursday in Geneva, Switzerland, 41 countries pledged a total of US$2.44-billion, leaving nearly half of the target unfulfilled.

The shortfall is partly a result of widespread concerns about discrimination by the Taliban, which has prohibited girls from attending secondary schools. But it also reflects a growing shortage of donor funds in a world of proliferating wars and humanitarian disasters.

Relief agencies have been unable to reach their funding goals for many other crises around the world – including those in Yemen, Syria and the Horn of Africa – despite mounting evidence of catastrophic losses of life and the threat of worse to come.

A recent donor conference for Yemen raised less than a third of its US$4.3-billion goal, and the UN World Food Programme has been obliged to cut food rations for both Yemen and Syria because of a lack of money. The two countries are among the world’s most devastating humanitarian emergencies, with a total of 32 million people needing food aid because of war and poverty.

At the latest donor conference, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the situation in Afghanistan has “deteriorated alarmingly” in recent months and its economy has effectively collapsed.

“Without immediate action, we face a starvation and malnutrition crisis in Afghanistan,” he told the conference. “People are already selling their children and their body parts, in order to feed their families.”

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About 95 per cent of the population does not have enough to eat, 24 million Afghans need food aid to survive, nine million are at risk of famine, and a million children are on the brink of death because of severe malnutrition, Mr. Guterres said.

“And global food prices are skyrocketing, as a result of the war in Ukraine,” he said. “This spells catastrophe for Afghans struggling to feed their families, and for our aid operations.”

Several donor governments, however, voiced their concern about the Taliban government’s continuing restrictions on education for girls. They made it clear that all of their pledged funds would go to UN agencies and other relief organizations, rather than to the government.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, said the United States will contribute US$204-million to humanitarian agencies for the “immense and dire needs” of the Afghan people. But the Taliban’s decision to ban girls from secondary school after Grade 6 is “inexcusable” and must be reversed, she told the conference.

“It is impossible not to feel a sense of profound outrage when we see girls and young women across Afghanistan racked with tears as they learn they will have to leave their classrooms,” she said. “No society can succeed if half of its population is held back from participating in its civic and economic life.”

Canada announced a $50-million increase in its funds for humanitarian needs in Afghanistan, including food, health care, water and sanitation. An expanded response is crucial to prevent an “unprecedented disaster” among the Afghan people, International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan said in a statement.

“With every day that goes by, the situation is getting worse for them, and there is no doubt that Afghanistan is on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe,” he said.

Yet the Afghanistan crisis is just one of many disasters around the world that are suffering from neglect and underfunding. Many humanitarian agencies have voiced fears that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is overshadowing other severe emergencies.

The UN humanitarian chief, Martin Griffiths, says the situation in Syria is becoming bleaker every month and its people are afraid that the world has forgotten them. More than 14 million Syrians need humanitarian aid – more than at any time since the war began in 2011, he told the UN Security Council last week.

The UN’s food agency, the WFP, says it has only 24 per cent of the funding it needs in Syria and only 31 per cent in Yemen. It has already been forced to reduce food rations in both countries, and any further cuts “risk pushing people toward starvation,” the agency warned on Thursday.

In Africa, there are multiple crises, from northern Ethiopia to the Sahel region of West Africa. Persistent drought in the Horn of Africa has left 13 million people facing severe hunger, and only 3 per cent of the needed US$6-billion has been raised for the latest UN emergency appeal for Ethiopia, Somalia and South Sudan.

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