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Afghanistan's hunger crisis

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

To Afghanistan now, where the United Nations estimates that nearly 23 million people are at risk right now for potentially life-threatening hunger, which is why last week, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres issued an urgent plea to the international community for $5 billion in humanitarian aid to help Afghans get through what could be a devastating winter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONIO GUTERRES: Without a more concerted effort from the international community, we'll make that virtually every man, woman and child in Afghanistan could face acute poverty.

MARTIN: This humanitarian crisis comes just months after the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan last August, which led to the collapse of the U.S.-supported government in Kabul and the Taliban taking control of the country. Despite that turmoil, some humanitarian aid organizations continue to work there. Action Against Hunger is one of them. Mike Bonke is the group's country director in Kabul.

MIKE BONKE: Before August, we didn't have half of the population in the country that is going to bed hungry at night. We didn't have a complete collapse of the economic situation. Currently, the biggest, let's say, challenge that we have to face right now is the fact that people are suffering.

MARTIN: Even before the U.S. withdrawal, Afghanistan depended heavily on international development aid to keep its basic infrastructure running - everything from the power grid and roads to the country's hospitals and schools. Now that the international aid has dried up, Bonke says the country's economy has all but collapsed, leaving many Afghans without any income.

BONKE: And although there has been a significant uptick in terms of the humanitarian aid that we're delivering - and I'm very thankful for that - we do see that just making sure that people are alive is not enough. And that really has changed.

MARTIN: How are people coping?

BONKE: Oh, well, that's a very good question. I think that the people in Afghanistan, they're used to a lot of hardship. And I think that most of the people will say, OK, this is another challenge that we have to face. But if we see that by spring, there is no progress and no improvement in the situation, then I think that, like the 1990s, we'll again see a lot of Afghani people leaving Afghanistan and going to neighboring countries.

MARTIN: Is the crisis visible? I guess what I'm asking is that people who've traveled to other countries that have been under severe duress say they can actually see it. Like, they see people actually losing body weight, which is a...

BONKE: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Kind of a sense of listlessness that takes over because people are - literally are not getting enough calories. I mean, is this something that - a crisis that you can actually see?

BONKE: Yeah. And Action Against Hunger, we actually go to the people in villages and check on their health status. And we see people in these villages who have been, you know, skipping over meals. We find cases of severe malnourishment, you know, underfed children that are - really are starving. And that's horrifying.

MARTIN: With the Taliban in power, how safe is it for your group to operate in the country? Does the Taliban approve of or support what you are doing?

BONKE: In terms of acceptance by the Taliban and the new administration, the programming that we are doing is quite well-received because also the Taliban, they don't want their people to hunger. And in that sense, there is support from the new administration in order to facilitate our activities.

MARTIN: I mean, I'm sure you understand the geopolitics of all this is that governments that have been at odds with the Taliban, who don't agree with their systems of governance, you know, their human rights framework, which they disagree with, they don't want to be seen as supporting or propping up this regime. On the other hand, this is a crisis of massive proportions. What...

BONKE: Yeah.

MARTIN: What would make a difference?

BONKE: Well, I think that the problem is getting so big that we risk of losing control of the situation. And I think that the Secretary General Guterres already said very rightly that we have to engage with the administration in Kabul. It doesn't mean you have to accept their values and their policies. But you do have to engage with them. And I think that cutting off Afghanistan from the rest of the world is not a way to, No. 1, help the people, but also to make sure that the values that we hold dear as humanitarians in terms of the rights of people and in terms of giving them opportunities to develop themselves, the only way to basically bring over that message is to engage with people. And I think that that is really something that we have to do.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, you know, you're there, and we're here. Is there - I mean, obviously, in order to do the work that you're doing and to do it as long as you've done it, you have to steel yourself to do it every day. But I'm wondering, is there something that's keeping you up at night right now?

BONKE: Well, there's many things that keep me up at night. And although the situation is very dire, I am hopeful because I do see that there's a lot of support from the international communities. And I think also a lot of people are supportive of the people in Afghanistan. And we can see that through, let's say, the support that we get. I mean, we have a lot of private donations coming in. And the only thing that I can basically hope for is that that support will continue because we need to make sure that we get through the winter in order to start rebuilding the country and the structures that were there. And for that, we need more support and not just this year, but also next year. And I really hope it will still be in place when it's needed.

MARTIN: Mike Bonke is the country director for Action Against Hunger. And he's talking to us from Kabul, Afghanistan. Mr. Bonke, thank you so much for talking with us.

BONKE: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.