epa09315935 Afghan farmers crush wheat on the outskirts of Kandahar, Afghanistan, 01 July 2021. Wheat is the most widely grown crop in the world. In Afghanistan, wheat being the staple diet is the most important crop and cultivated on the largest acreages, in almost every part of the country. EPA-EFE/M SADIQ
epa09315935 Afghan farmers crush wheat on the outskirts of Kandahar, Afghanistan, 01 July 2021. Wheat is the most widely grown crop in the world. In Afghanistan, wheat being the staple diet is the most important crop and cultivated on the largest acreages, in almost every part of the country. EPA-EFE/M SADIQ

Only in Afghanistan do government workers get paid in wheat

By Shannon Ebrahim Time of article published Nov 7, 2021

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Many countries are mired in poverty, but one is hard-pressed to think of a country that is at the precipice of such total collapse that it is forced to pay its government workers in wheat.

Few anticipated that a Taliban takeover would bring Afghans to their knees to this extent, where survival means you work in your profession in return for wheat, as the government has run out of money.

Among the workers who are considered essential are those needed to urgently build defences in the capital Kabul, against flash flooding that poses a serious challenge in the rainy season. The municipal workers are in a race to dig ditches in order to channel water into the city's reserves.

Strengthening the city's water and drainage systems is not something that can wait, and so the Afghan government is resorting to compensating these workers with 10kg of wheat a day.

In most other countries, workers would rise up in violent protest but in Afghanistan workers are thinking in terms of survival, and whether their families will have enough to eat, so they don't reach the point of starvation.

Taliban officials recently announced a public works programme under which 66 000 tons of wheat will be distributed to about 44 000 workers.

For a country that may have one of the world's largest deposits of lithium – the precious resource needed to make the batteries for electric cars, among a host of other things – one would think the major powers would be lining up to provide financing to Afghanistan in order to secure a supply of lithium in the future, especially when, this week, the world is charged with the urgency of reversing climate change, and the need to make a switch to renewable energy before it is too late.

There is no doubt that certain powers are positioning themselves as allies of the new Taliban government in order to be first in line to exploit the country's rich natural resources.

Where is the lifeline of assistance that the country desperately needs when UN agencies estimate that only 5% of households have enough to eat regularly?

What seems criminal is that $9 billion (about R139bn) in Afghanistan's central bank reserves are frozen outside the country.

While concerns are widespread that the Taliban is not a government that will safeguard the rights and civil liberties of its people, especially its women, it is not reason enough for foreign governments to watch while Afghans starve, while withholding desperately needed currency that belongs to the Afghan people. It is reminiscent of how Western governments have refused to release the gold being held in their coffers which belongs to Venezuela, despite the fact that Venezuelans have been starving in recent years, and were in dire need of those resources in a time of economic crisis.

Where is the moral compass of these foreign governments that are so intent on determining the future political trajectory of other countries that they deny governments they consider unpalatable their own assets while allowing their populations to starve? This seems to be a tragic hold over of the colonial mindset, and a warning to developing countries to keep their foreign reserves and assets within their own borders.

While the world headlines have shifted from the crisis in Afghanistan to the imperatives of reducing carbon emissions, international aid has largely dried up for Afghanistan. It is Afghanistan's neighbours who are more committed to stave off disaster, out of concern that their borders will be flooded by Afghan refugees. They have been donating thousands of tons of wheat to stem the humanitarian crisis that has engulfed the country.

What has also compounded the Afghan government's cash crisis is the millions of dollars in lost customs revenue and income that could have been generated from exports, as a result of key trade crossings having been blocked for weeks.

For those Afghans with bank accounts and money in them, withdrawals have been capped at $200 a week, and long queues have formed outside banks. It all sounds vaguely familiar if one considers the number of times Zimbabweans have had to line up at bank machines for small amounts of money that have been rationed, given their own government's economic meltdown and cash crisis.

As was the case with Zimbabwe, panic within the Afghan population is palpable, and their sense of hopelessness pervasive as they feel like they have been abandoned by the international community.

It is time that we learn the lesson as a global community that one nation's crisis will ultimately have an effect on all of us, and we ignore their plight at our own peril.

* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Group’s Foreign Editor.

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