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'Hell on Earth': Afghans have to choose between feeding or heating, according to WFP


Absolutely hell on earth. That's how our next guest describes the situation in Afghanistan. David Beasley is the executive director of the World Food Programme, and what he's talking about is the lack of food in Afghanistan. To underscore the urgency here, I'll add a number. U.N. officials are warning that 1 million Afghan children are at risk of starvation - 1 million children. David Beasley joins us from Rome. Mr. Beasley, welcome.

DAVID BEASLEY: Thank you. Thank you very much.

KELLY: We've caught you in Rome today, but I know you were recently in Afghanistan, where, as you saw, it's not just children. Your statistics are that it's 95% of people in that country currently do not have enough food. Just paint me a picture of what that looks like - 95% of people, not enough to eat.

BEASLEY: Mary Louise, it really is hell on earth. I was just in Kabul, and I've been in the region now three or four times in the last few months since the collapse, as we say. And out of 41 million people, 23 million are marching towards starvation. I mean, they're in serious trouble. And as you said, 95% don't have enough food to eat. But 23 million are in serious trouble right now. And out of that, about 9 million are on famine's door as we speak. It is hell on earth. And now the winter months are here. So families - mothers are having to choose, do I buy - if I have any money at all, do I buy cooking fuel or heating fuel? Do I freeze my child to death, or do I starve my child to death? That's what they're facing now.

KELLY: Wow. The numbers you're citing are so huge. It's hard to wrap your head around. Can you tell us the story of one family, one person who you encountered that's going to stay with you?

BEASLEY: You know, I was not only in Kabul. I went out in the countryside in Kandahar, one of the more conservative areas, and met with families from hospitals out in the field. And I talked to mothers who literally - families were having to sell a child in hopes that they have a better hope of surviving and then taking that money and feeding their family. Or in the hospital, where I saw children dying right before my very own eyes - and these are the children that were the lucky ones that would make it to the hospital.

KELLY: Yeah.

BEASLEY: If they survive, they get the support they need. But then when they go back home, Mary Louise, they don't have any food back home. So it's a cycle. It's horrendous.

KELLY: How did this get so bad? I mean, I understand, of course, that it has been chaos. The government just collapsed. But this is a country that has grappled with malnutrition for many years. What you're describing is a crisis of a different order of magnitude.

BEASLEY: Well, it's a perfect storm. You've had 20 years of just conflict along with a country that was already very, very poor compounded with climate extremes. I mean, what we're looking at now is a 40% loss of wheat production because of droughts and then COVID economic deterioration. Then on top of all that is the lack of liquidity because the international community has frozen all the assets that the country normally would have. And so what we're telling the international community is that, look. Put that money directly to us so that we can feed the people without it going through the Taliban, without it going through any government entity at all. We can guarantee that those moneys go to the children, to the people in need.

KELLY: Can you guarantee that people will have enough food to share? I mean, your organization, I know, has helped millions of people. But what do your supply lines look like, particularly, as you note, with winter setting in?

BEASLEY: Winter's setting in. We just prepositioned enough food in the most difficult areas of Afghanistan of about 5 million people you can't reach in the hard winter months. But then you're left with 18 other million people that we have to reach. The price tag for the next six months is about $220 million per month. That's 50% rations. We're not talking about full rations. That - and right now we're about...

KELLY: Subsistence, just staying alive.

BEASLEY: Just staying alive. And right now, with 45 million people around the world knocking on famine's door, where are we going to take the money - from the children in Yemen, from the children in Ethiopia, from the children in Syria? Somehow we've got to get the money to keep these people alive. If we don't, not only will they die. But ISIS, al-Qaida, extremist groups will use their food to recruit. And they're doing that as we speak right now.

KELLY: I was going to ask what you and other aid organizations working in Afghanistan need most right now. It sounds like the answer is cash.

BEASLEY: Cash. Bottom line, we need the money, and we need it now.

KELLY: But let me just push you. If you get the money, can you get food out there? We keep reading - I mean, the airport is still not fully operational. How do you get it where it needs to go?

BEASLEY: Not a problem. Our operations are existing now. We're reaching about 7 to 9 million as we speak. Scaling up to 23 million will not be difficult for us. And here's what's really been fascinating. We've been meeting with the Taliban. They control, you know, obviously, access areas inside Afghanistan. And they have assured us - and they actually have delivered on this promise - that they will allow us to be impartial, neutral and independent. And that has been the case.

They have not interfered with our operations in any way, shape, fashion or form. They're allowing us, in fact, to hire women. They're allowing us to use women in our operations. And they're allowing us to reach schoolgirls, which has all been surprising as we continue to push in many different fronts, not just feeding people but also make sure girls don't get left behind.

KELLY: And this prompts a question. You're working with the Taliban, which I get. They're running the country. But can you assure people listening that, if cash comes to you, it will not reach this regime in violation of sanctions?

BEASLEY: Well, you know, we work in very complex areas all over the world all the time, whether it's in Syria or Yemen, dealing with hostile environments. And so that is not a problem. As I have met with the Taliban leaders on this issue, they've promised and assured us that they will not stand in the way, and they have not. And all of our operations are completely independent of Taliban in that regard. So we can assure everybody that the funds will go 100% to the people.

KELLY: David Beasley. He's the executive director of the World Food Programme. Mr. Beasley, thank you.

BEASLEY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BALMORHEA'S "SKY COULD UNDRESS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.