Jointly hosted by the Governments of Afghanistan and Finland along with the United Nations (UN), the ministerial pledging conference for Afghanistan was held on 23-24 November 2020 at the UN headquarters office at Geneva, Switzerland. The aim of the conference was to reaffirm the commitment of the international community towards the Afghan government to determine shared developmental objectives for the next four years. Due to the severe pandemic situation and the ongoing lockdown in the city, the “2020 Afghanistan Conference” took place virtually with participation of representatives from 70 countries and 32 international organisations who unanimously called for an end of war and durable peace, stability and prosperity in Afghanistan. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohammad Hanif Atmar, led the Afghan delegation and was accompanied by Afghanistan’s Minister of Finance, Abdul Hadi Arghandiwal. They co-chaired the conference with their counterparts from Finland and the Special Representative of the Secretary-General and the Head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA), Deborah Lyons.
Through the conference, Afghanistan witnessed a strong reaffirmation of support and commitment from the international community for the critical period between 2021 and 2024. Considering the severe financial strain that has been caused due to the COVID-19 pandemic globally, the pledge of over $13 billion by the global community, as a part of their continued support for Afghanistan is a significant development. To begin with, donors pledged about US$ 3.3 billion for the first year of the upcoming quadrennial, with annual commitments expected to stay at the same level year-on-year.[i] Every four years, the international community have been coming together to show their commitment towards Afghanistan, this year the pledges were made as the country entered the final four-year cycle of its Transformational Decade. According to Tahir Qadiri, the Chargé d'Affaires of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to India, “This also signifies that despite all the inroads that Afghanistan encountered, it successfully forged a global consensus.”[ii] Similar conferences were previously held in 2012 and 2016 in Brussels and Tokyo, respectively.
Although international donors reiterated the need to bring an enduring peace in the country and pledged billions of dollars in civilian aid for the country, it was made aptly clear that international assistance is not a blank cheque that can be encashed without conditionalities. Countries such as United States (US) and Germany imposed tough conditions on future funding pending on progress in peace talks underway between Kabul and the Taliban. Addressing the conference virtually, the US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale stated, “We’re pleased to pledge today $300m …with the remaining $300m available as we review progress in the peace process.”[iii] US is one of Afghanistan’s foremost donors, having contributed roughly $800 million a year in civilian aid in the recent years. Germany, another important donor while pledging Euros 430 million ($511million) in 2021 indicated that it would keep contributing until 2024, but also emphasised that progress towards ending the nearly two decades of war is imperative. The United Kingdom (UK) on the other hand, announced pledges covering only one year. Afghanistan’s international partners welcomed the second version of the Afghanistan National Peace and Development Framework which provided Kabul’s vision, strategy and plan from the next five years.[iv] There would be senior officials meeting in 2021 and a biennial meeting in 2022 to review the progress in the country.
India’s Commitment at 2020 Afghanistan Conference
External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar led the Indian delegation at the Conference, reiterated India’s long-term commitment to the development of Afghanistan. India pledged US$286 million for the construction of Shatoot Dam that will provide safe drinking water to 2 million Kabul residents and $80 million (Rs. 592 crores) for 150 High-Impact Community Development Projects.[v] As of now, India’s total assistance to Afghanistan stands at $3 billion, which cover all gamuts of economic and social activities in the country. It has 400 plus projects across the board in all the 34 provinces of Afghanistan. In contributing to the development of Afghanistan, India has lost a lot of lives in terms of project workers, who have been victims of different forms of terrorism, but has continued its projects regardless. To help Afghanistan address the COVID-19 challenge, India supplied 75,000 MT of wheat, life-saving drugs and other medical equipment through the Iranian port of Chabahar.[vi] India further announced to continue providing resources for the existing programs in the country under the Strategic Partnership Agreement, including annual scholarships awarded to Afghan students by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR). In the past decade alone, more than 65,000 Afghan students have also studied in India.[vii] Such initiatives are likely to play a crucial role in bolstering Indian presence in Afghanistan and strengthening the domestic Afghan narrative for peace. In his address, the External Affairs Minister also expressed India’s concern regarding the ongoing peace negotiations and stressed on the importance of protecting the gains of the past twenty years and the preservation of the interests of minorities, women and vulnerable sections of the country.
To conclude, it can be stated that the 2020 Afghanistan pledging conference took place at an extremely critical juncture not only for Afghanistan but for the world at large. At a time when the world’s strongest economies are shaken by the damages caused to the world economy and are struggling to cope with the Covid-19 catastrophe domestically, the commitment shown to Afghanistan is noteworthy. The Afghan government is highly dependent upon international financial assistance, which funds about 75 per cent of the government's budget[viii], as well as comprises a significant part of the national income- a dependency that was escalated by the pandemic. The fall in the government’s revenues has created a budget deficit of more than $800 million for 2020, in addition to the enormous structural budget shortage and high poverty rate in the country, from just over half to an estimated two-thirds of the population now living below the poverty line.[ix] This, along with the possible complete withdrawal of foreign forces next year at a time when insurgent attacks and violence levels in the country are at a record high, the significance of the show of support by the international community in Geneva becomes more important than usual. However, unlike the previous years, the conditionalities attached by the donor countries and making the fund availability contingent on the progess of the peace talks are not only indicative of the accentuated apprehensions about the outcome of the US-led Afghan peace initiative, but also an overall diminishing interest for Afghanistan.
*Dr. Anwesha Ghosh is a Research Fellow at Indian Council of World Affairs.
Discliamer : The views expressed are personal
[ii] Tahir Qadiri, “2020 Afghanistan Conference: A reinforced commitment”, Observer Research Foundation, November 25, 2020. Available at: https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/2020-afghanistan-conference-a-reinforced-commitment/ (Accessed on 28th November 2020)
[iii] Donors Pledge Billions of Dollars to Afghanistan, but with strings attached. AL Jazeera, November 24, 2020. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/11/24/donors-pledge-billions-to-afghanistan-but-with-strings-attached (Accessed on 29.11.2020)
[v] “India announces major commitment at Afghanistan Conference 2020”, Press Release, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, November 24-25, 2020. Available at: https://www.mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/33234/India_announces_major_commitments_at_Afghanistan_Conference_2020 (Accessed on 30.11.2020)
[vi] “India to use Chabahar port to send assistance to Afghanistan”. The Hindu, April 13, 2020. Available at: https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/india-to-use-chabahar-port-to-send-assistance-to-afghanistan/article31326064.ece (Accessed on 30.11.2020)
[viii] Mujib Mashal, “Afghanistan Needs Billions in Aid Even After a Peace Deal, World Bank Says”, The New York Times, December 5, 2019. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/05/world/asia/afghanistan-aid-world-bank.html (Accessed on 30.11.2020)
[ix] Kate Clark, “The Biden Presidency: What choices for Afghan policy remain?”, Afghanistan Analysts Network, November 12, 2020. Available at: https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/en/reports/international-engagement/the-biden-presidency-what-choices-for-afghan-policy-remain/?fbclid=IwAR0_cpU70zrxrRh_PHE185nLW6AV0RiOb1kcb7ExuYULSg8mLPADWudTaMQ (Accessed on 30.11.2020)