Despite the Challenges, Donors Must Continue to Support Struggling Nonprofits in Afghanistan
In the year since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, hundreds of stories have emerged highlighting the efforts of Afghans to advocate for rights, justice, and dignity in the face of severe humanitarian and human rights crises. Such stories reflect the courage and tenacity of Afghan civil society that drew the three of us to philanthropic work in the country in the first place. Unfortunately, those same groups now tell us that funding has dried up, and many Afghan organizations focused on building peace are struggling to survive.
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In the year since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, hundreds of stories have emerged highlighting the efforts of Afghans to advocate for rights, justice, and dignity in the face of severe humanitarian and human-rights crises. Such stories reflect the courage and tenacity of Afghan civil society that drew the three of us to philanthropic work in the country in the first place. Unfortunately, those same groups now tell us that funding has dried up, and many Afghan organizations focused on building peace are struggling to survive.
Following the Taliban takeover, a large number of civil-society leaders, particularly women, were forced to flee the country, and a severe lack of funding and a repressive operating environment led many organizations to shut their doors. No public data is currently available on how many of these nonprofits are still functioning. But in his first report as the U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights in Afghanistan, Richard Bennett expressed concern about the county’s rapidly shrinking civic space.
The lack of funding for Afghan civil society is driven by several factors, including economic sanctions imposed by the United States and the U.N. and a diversion of resources to address humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan, where 92 percent of the population is food insecure. Additionally, the war in Ukraine has resulted in many donors shifting resources to meet the needs of that population.
Although the U.S. government has authorized support for humanitarian and nongovernmental activities in Afghanistan, the sanctions leave banks wary of transferring funds to nonprofits in the country. And many governments have strict policies in place that do not allow aid to enter Afghanistan.
The Taliban has also increased restrictions on civil-society organizations, mainly allowing only humanitarian efforts to continue. As a result, most nonprofits that were focused on rooting out the causes of conflict and addressing women’s rights have shifted to humanitarian aid as they regroup and explore new strategies for continuing their work in the current social and political environment. For example, the nonprofit Equality for Peace and Development in Kabul struggled to maintain its longstanding work on human rights and the role of women in government following the Taliban takeover. One year on, it has had to shift its focus to funding for local women and youth groups and community projects.
Essential to Building Peace
Funding for Afghan civil-society organizations, especially those that are women-led, must be part of any strategies to build peace in the country. The activities these groups engage in, such as community organizing, economic development, trauma recovery, and policy advocacy, help to create and sustain peaceful societies. Even in the context of their current humanitarian work, they incorporate inclusive gender-sensitive approaches to mitigating conflict. They are groups such as the Afghan Women Skills Development Center, which worked to advance women’s economic empowerment during the Taliban rule of the 1990s and then advocated for women’s rights throughout the 20 years of the Afghan Republic.
Continuing investment in such organizations keeps the door open to long-term development and stability during this period of crisis. These groups will help maintain the knowledge, expertise, and networks developed during the past two decades and will continue their efforts even when international attention has moved on.
Avenues to support Afghan nonprofits remain despite the legal and practical restrictions on international financial transfers to the country. Several donors, for example, have established procedures to comply with existing sanctions. Peace Direct, where Harriet is deputy CEO, established a partnership with Amanacard, an independent third-party financial monitor that helps people in crisis areas. The organization provides a secure and transparent method for sending funds to Afghan organizations and individuals outside of the formal banking system.
Similarly, the International Civil Society Action Network, where Malalai works, has successfully used hawala — an informal money-transfer network — to move resources to groups inside the country. And the Peace and Security Funders Group has set up a network where donors interested in Afghanistan can brainstorm and develop strategies to overcome common challenges. Because many Afghan nonprofits keep a low public profile for security reasons, there is immense value in donors sharing information about organizations they are supporting.
Some grant makers may not be able to take advantage of these creative solutions because of their internal processes or organizational capacity. Fortunately, many indirect ways are also available to support Afghan groups. This includes funding grant-making organizations such as MADRE, Uplift Afghanistan Fund, and the Global Fund for Women, which have strong networks in place for getting resources to Afghan organizations.
Another option is to support Afghan nonprofits that are registering outside of the country, such as the Afghan Women’s Network and Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organization. With networks inside and operations outside Afghanistan, these groups are well positioned to link international advocacy with local needs. Governments may not be able to fund them with dollars designated for conflict-affected countries, so private donors can help fill the gap.
Despite seemingly endless challenges, Afghan civil society will continue to play a central role in creating and building peace, defending rights, and sustaining prospects for justice. Donors must continue to find equally innovative ways to support and stand with them.