Providing Greater Food Security for Communities in Afghanistan under COVID-19
By: Christopher James Wahoff
“I have to look after my own eight children as well as a widow and five orphans left behind my martyred brother. We cannot find any job due to the Coronavirus pandemic these days. We have slept with empty stomachs for several nights. Both my household and my widowed sister-in-law received the relief packages provided by the government. The distribution of relief packages in such a critical time has saved our lives.” – Abdul Hadi, 28 years old, Mandozai Village, Mehtarlam, Laghman province.
Food Security Challenges in Afghanistan under COVID-19
Seasonal hunger is a pervasive issue in Afghanistan. Long before the COVID-19 pandemic reached Afghanistan, cycles of political conflict, economic stagnation, droughts, and high unemployment have disproportionately impacted low income urban and rural areas that depend on seasonal agricultural work and jobs in the informal economy. Approximately 12 million Afghan citizens face acute food insecurity and lack access to stable jobs and income, which places them among the most vulnerable populations in a country where over more than 93 percent of the population lives on less than $2.00 a day.
With the first cases of COVID-19 reported in March 2020, lockdowns further exacerbated the incidence of hunger and malnourishment in these vulnerable communities by limiting the few options they had to provide income and food for their families. According Bakhtiar of the Mandozai Village in Laghman province, “Most of the people in our community were already poor [before COVID-19]. Most men in our community support their families as daily wage-earners, which is also my case. We were deeply infected with COVID-19, […] and are now encountering economic difficulties as we have lost our jobs.” On a national scale, border closures and the recent lockdown of major cities have led to massive disruptions to productive economic activity and consumption, rapid inflation, reduced exports, negative impacts on remittances, and will likely lead to a 30 percent decline in government revenues.
COVID Relief Efforts for Afghan Communities and Households (Dastarkhwan-e Meli) Project
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Afghanistan has 55,265 cases of COVID-19 and 2,407 deaths caused by the pandemic as of February 2021. As a result of this scenario, the government of Afghanistan and the World Bank Group developed the COVID Relief Efforts for Afghan Communities and Households (Dastarkhwan-e Meli) project to help alleviate the pressures of hunger and unemployment among the country’s most vulnerable communities. The Dastarkhwan-e Meli project leverages and complements existing projects, such as Citizens’ Charter Afghanistan Project (CCAP), to provide critical food and economic support to selected households in targeted communities that comprise approximately two-thirds of the country.
To achieve this ambitious goal, the Dastarkhwan-e Meli project is channeled through three different implementing agencies: i) the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development (MRRD) covers an estimated 2.2 million households in 234 rural and peri-urban districts and 19 provincial capital cities; ii) the Independent Directorate for Local Governance (IDLG) covers approximately 450,000 households in 14 provincial capital cities; and iii) the Kabul Municipality covers approximately 630,000 households in Afghanistan’s capital. Program resources are channeled directly through the community development councils (CDCs) that purchase the relief packages from local providers to create jobs and stimulate local economies.
It is worth mentioning that as of early February 2021, 390,614 households received relief packages under Dastarkhwan-e Meli, with $41,525,952 total funding transferred to 3,695 CDCs.
Bibi Sakina (pictured), 80, lives in Herat City and received her first relief package under Dastarkhwan-e Meli from the Solah CDC. Upon receiving the package, she remarked, “This is my first time receiving a relief package from the government or any humanitarian organization.” Sakina and her family faced health issues before COVID-19, due to a stroke she suffered and her husband’s diabetes. Their situation worsened when Sakina’s husband, Hassan, contracted COVID-19 at the virus’ peak and was hospitalized for 18 days. She and her family were forced to take a loan to pay for his treatment and are still in debt. According to Sakina, “It was very hard to even buy a bag of rice and cooking oil. [Dastarkhwan-e Meli] has resolved some of our most pressing issues.” The relief packages are valued at AFN 4,000 (US$51.78) a household and, as in Sakina’s case, provide two to three weeks’ worth of food and supplies at an especially critical time for Afghan families.
Challenges and Moving Forward
The very nature of COVID-19 and related mobility restrictions complicate distribution as CDCs and beneficiaries try to stop the continued spread of the virus. Furthermore, the Afghan parliament has voiced concern regarding opportunities for corruption along the project’s value chain. To mitigate this threat and ensure the proper use of resources and successful delivery of the food and hygiene packages to families in need, Dastarkhwan-e Meli project has a dedicated grievance redress mechanism (GRM) to receive complaints from Afghan citizens and investigate allegations of corruption or abuse related to the project. The GRM system and related processes have also been regularly publicized through TV, radio and social media to raise awareness and discourage any attempts at corruption and graft.
Dastarkhwan-e Meli efforts are just beginning and are expected to provide relief to a total of 5,063,721 beneficiary households who are currently suffering under the compound effects of COVID-19, conflict, and unemployment. The highlighted beneficiaries’ experiences are only two examples of millions of similar situations across Afghanistan and reinforce the vital importance of continued relief efforts focused on the country’s most vulnerable households. Dastarkhwan-e Meli will continue its efforts to address the pressing needs voiced by Bakhtiar and Sakina until it reaches all five million beneficiary households.