In Afghanistan, Private Aid Fills Void Left by Bureaucratic Failure

Small, private groups are working to feed the hungry and evacuate the endangered.


On March 17, Human Rights Watch reported that the food shortage affecting 95 percent of Afghans has led to the deaths of about 13,000 Afghan newborns since January 2022. Though the international community has long warned about the dire consequences of impending famine in Afghanistan, it has struggled to find a means to provide foreign aid that is not afflicted by endemic corruption and does not enrich the Taliban.

Since humanitarian aid, including aid from the United Nations World Food Programme, began flowing into Afghanistan after the U.S. withdrawal, some Afghans claimed it has benefited those with "influence and access." The Taliban have also been accused of using their "food for work" program to support associates, rather than the needy, diverting food aid sourced from China, India, and Pakistan.

Despite the Taliban's December theft, and ultimate return, of 3.7 million tons of World Food Programme flour, members of the group are nearly always present at the large public gathering where large aid groups distribute assistance. A World Food Programme official stated in January that the Taliban were not actively distributing World Food Programme aid, but their oversight of distributions makes it dangerous for Afghan allies and democracy activists to receive aid, as they often live in hiding due to fear of Taliban reprisals

The current distribution model is also problematic for single Afghan women and widows, who could incur the wrath of the Taliban if they leave home without a male relative. According to the World Food Programme's March 17 report, "almost 100 percent of female-headed households" in Afghanistan experience food insecurity.

Where long-established, bureaucratic aid organizations have failed to assist all Afghans in need, numerous private and nonprofit groups have developed a means to provide support directly to Afghans afflicted by hunger, though they lack the funding to implement their initiatives throughout the country.

Launched in 2018, the ASEEL App helped over 400 Afghan artisans bring 10,000 handmade creations to international buyers before the company's supply chain collapsed following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. As poverty gripped the country, international organizations that once provided support "were not fully functional," ASEEL's marketing lead Zahra Karimi says. ASEEL began responding to the crisis by creating packages of food, heating, baby, and survival supplies which could support Afghans in need for one month.

Most ASEEL donors purchase aid packages for specific Afghan beneficiaries, but Afghan suffering has outstripped unassigned donations. ASEEL receives hundreds of new requests daily from Afghans who have no benefactor. The organization can only support a handful of Afghans each day from a waitlist with a thousand families on it.

One Afghan civil engineer currently unable to feed his family says that when ASEEL provided him a one-month food package, he was told he would not be able to receive assistance in the future. Karimi confirmed this is how ASEEL navigates its shortage of funds. She said it "is really hard for us.…We don't want to give [families] any false hope."

Hope, or "Omid" in Persian, underpins ASEEL's newest initiative: a system for identifying and registering all Afghans in need. Every recipient of ASEEL aid now receives a unique Omid card that allows them to easily contact the organization for future assistance. Delivering on that hope will require additional funding.

ASEEL has a presence in 24 of 34 Afghan provinces, and plans to expand its operations as circumstances allow. Thus far, ASEEL has supported around 68,000 Afghans. In addition, the company has resumed selling handmade products, which Karimi expects will stimulate the stagnant Afghan economy. ASEEL is "not just about food packages, but giving people opportunity," she says.

Other groups are trying to help the thousands of at-risk Afghans who want to evacuate the country. In early 2022, the volunteers from 18 largely veteran-run evacuation groups banded together as the Moral Compass Federation. Together, they aim to support and find safe haven for about 33,300 at-risk Afghans, including former Afghan military personnel and their dependents, most of whom are living in hiding with no apparent path to U.S. citizenship.

In the seven months since the U.S. withdrawal, Moral Compass Federation affiliates established safe houses for the allies they support and developed logistics networks to coordinate medical care, and source and deliver food. "It wasn't just the Americans who pulled out," says Amy Sins, executive director of non-profit Fill the Needs, which works alongside the Moral Compass Federation. "[Non-governmental organizations] were no longer operating. Hospitals were no longer operating." Evacuation organizations had to put together "a web of response…to fill this huge void."

Some of the groups developed additional specialties, like Heart of an Ace, the charitable arm of Aces & Eights, which delivers packages of food, hygiene products, and basic living supplies to those in need. The organization primarily supports those who are unable to present themselves at international aid distributions, like high-level former government officials or military personnel, members of ethnic minorities, disabled Afghans, or widowed Afghans. Resources Director Matthew Young says any at-risk Afghan is eligible for aid.

Volunteers' duties have expanded with the passage of time. As Moral Compass Federation's founder Travis Peterson says, "We are doing the State Department's work for them." While supporting Afghans' daily needs, evacuation organizations help applicants navigate the special immigrant visa program, humanitarian parole, or the Priority-1 and Priority-2 programs within the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. When they can obtain an elusive pathway for a single individual or family to find safety in a third country, volunteers are facilitating movements by procuring expensive passports and transit visas.

The Moral Compass Federation is also engaged in diplomatic efforts with ambassadors and heads of state to find countries where Afghans could be evacuated and begin processing their visas or referrals. On behalf of the Moral Compass Federation, the Special Operations Association of America is advocating on Capitol Hill and throughout the U.S. government for new pathways to U.S. citizenship for Afghan service members.

Individual successes take effort and come with hefty price tags, primarily paid for from "the personal checking accounts of veterans," says Stacy Gentile of Operation North Star. Ben Owen, founder of Flanders Fields, has taken out $23,000 in personal loans to help Afghans.

Like ASEEL, the Moral Compass Federation and its affiliates could play a role in averting famine in Afghanistan. With rising prices in Afghanistan and donations increasingly being diverted to the refugee crisis in Ukraine, these groups need access to funding, or international aid, to support Afghans they have already identified as being in great need.