Aid workers in Afghanistan seek careful balancing act after Taliban takeover

Published : August 25, 2021 19:10 IST

NGOs were running schools for Afghan girls across the country. Photo: Shamshadnews/REUTERS

German aid organizations worry about their local staff but also want to continue to operate under the Taliban.

The statement is short and to the point and describes the mood of many who have worked in humanitarian aid in Afghanistan and want to continue their work: "35 million people need help." These were the words of Marga Flader, chairwoman on the board of the Afghanistan Schools association, which has been active in the country for more than 30 years.

The organization decided early on not to work in the Afghan capital, Kabul. In the northwest of the country in particular they help to keep schools running and make sure their staff is qualified. "Even during the first period of Taliban rule, people asked us to keep all the schools open," Flader told DW. She says that today it is important not to abandon the Afghans.  

A preference for local staff

Many humanitarian aid organizations are planning on continuing their work despite the Taliban takeover by working with experienced local staff rather than Germans. Pirmin Spiegel, CEO of the Catholic relief organization Misereor, says it is the main message of the twelve partner organizations with which they work. "We continue to need your support and your solidarity," he told DW.

Misereor has worked with these partners for decades. The Welthungerhilfe — one of the largest private aid organizations in Germany — says they are now in the process of reopening their offices in Afghanistan.

The current humanitarian aid situation in Afghanistan is complex. German soldiers are working with forces from other countries to help their compatriots and Afghans who worked with them leave. Saving local staff in general and those who worked on projects that benefit women, in particular, is important because of fear of Taliban reprisals. Nonetheless, aid workers know that not only aid workers will need assistance in the coming weeks and months.

Many Germans have now left Afghanistan. German news magazine Der Spiegel reported that about two weeks before the Taliban captured Kabul, a German doctor and his wife flew to the capital to train with local forces. They then left the country last week on a German evacuation flight.

Stefan Recker of Caritas International was in Kabul when it fell and is now also in Germany. He flew out with the Bundeswehr "on the instructions of his employer," according to Deutschlandfunk public radio. As a result, the focus has switched to evacuating local staff.

A long relationship

Organizations are in contact with the relevant German ministries and are concerned about the whereabouts and departure of local Afghan staff. But experts also know of many on the ground who want to continue providing aid in their country. In an interview with DW, Der Spiegel called the situation in the country "desolate" and "contradictory," but says it would be the "wrong signal to stop development cooperation."

Der Spiegel finds a case from the north of the country to be revealing. When the Taliban took power in the region weeks ago, they removed the signs for an educational institution for women and girls. But after talks with local Taliban representatives, they were allowed to stay open. Under the agreement men were no longer allowed to teach women and women had to be accompanied to school by a man. As a result, several women now come to school in a convoy of rickshaws accompanied by a man.

Der Spiegel said their vision is different and the situation is not ideal, but the work is continuing.

Pay to stay

Over the weekend, news concerning the German development agency Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) made headlines. According to a report in Der Spiegel confirmed by the Development Ministry, the GIZ will pay Afghan local staff who want to stay in Afghanistan a year's salary in advance even though they will officially no longer be employed. The funds are intended to help "bridge the difficult situation."

The ministry said that for legal reasons the recipients of the payments would have to agree not to be included in the program for the repatriation of local staff to Germany. But if they change their minds or are at additional risk, "then they can still have themselves put on the departure list," a ministry spokesman said.

For humanitarian aid organizations less close to the state, the situation seems more clear cut. "If colleagues want to leave the country, we will do everything we can to support them," said Simone Pott of Welthungerhilfe. She did not provide information about the number of local staff being evacuated. Pott said rather than trying to evaluate the reasons for the recent changes they are trying to stay ahead of the next possible crisis such as food shortages and drought.

'The Afghan state has long been dysfunctional'

"We have decided not to let the Afghans down," said Marga Flader from the Afghanistan Schools association. That is the goal of sustainable development. So far schools with some 150 employees have remained open in the province of Faryab in the northwest of the country, as well as a training facility and three women's centers.

Flader acknowledges that local employees are not safe. The country's swift fall also surprised locals. But she says they know the importance of their work and "they have known for a long time that the Afghan state isn't functional."