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International assistance to Afghanistan needs to adapt to the ‘new normal’

As we approach the third anniversary of the change of leadership in Afghanistan, it is high time for donors to move from a reactive strategy to a proactive one.

Trucks painted bright blue, yellow, and purple dot the arid emptiness of Spin Boldak in southern Afghanistan. Their roofs are laden with the entire possessions of families who have returned from Pakistan after decades of displacement. Hundreds of thousands have preceded them in recent months following a ruling that undocumented migrants must leave or face deportation. Most have never been to Afghanistan before. They must build new lives from scratch.

Many are so poor that they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. They certainly don’t have the capital needed to start a livelihood. When they arrive in Spin Boldak, they receive medical care, some food, and a little cash from humanitarian agencies. They are grateful, but when I ask them what they want, they all underline the same thing – jobs, start-up capital – a chance to survive economically.

Very few will get such help. Not because humanitarian agencies don’t want to support them but because international aid in Afghanistan is still largely geared towards survival, not resilience. This is true for returnees from Pakistan and for responses to floods and earthquakes. As a result, there is a growing divergence between donor strategies and the expressed needs of Afghans facing climate and poverty-related exclusion and displacement risks.

That there is divergence is not surprising. Many of the major donors of international aid are from Europe and the United States. Memories of conflict are still fresh. On top of that, clashes in values with Taliban authorities, particularly regarding access to work and