World

Afghans sell possessions amid cash crunch, looming crisis

People sell their items at Kabul's Chaman-e Hozori neighbourhood amid a liquidity crunch [Ali M Latifi-Al Jazeera]

Shukrullah brought four carpets to sell in Kabul’s Chaman-e Hozori neighbourhood. The area is full of refrigerators, cushions, fans, pillows, blankets, silverware, curtains, beds, mattresses, cookware and shelves that hundreds of others carried to sell.

The goods line the blocks surrounding the once grassy field that has turned to dirt and dust, the result of decades of inattention and drought. Each item amounts to a part of life families built over the last 20 years in the Afghan capital. Now, they are all being sold at a pittance to feed those very households.

“We bought these carpets for 48,000 Afghanis [$556], but now I can’t get more than 5,000 Afghanis [$58] for all of them,” Shukrullah says, as people rummage through the goods on display.

Afghans have faced a cash crisis since the Taliban took control of the capital on August 15. The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the US central bank cut off Afghanistan’s access to international funds in recent weeks. Banks across Afghanistan were shuttered and many automated teller machines were not dispensing cash.

While many banks have since reopened, a weekly withdrawal limit of 20,000 Afghanis ($232) was imposed. Hundreds of men and women have spent their days queueing outside the nation’s banks, waiting for the chance to withdraw funds.

For families such as Shukrullah’s though, waiting outside overcrowded financial institutions is not an option.

“I need to make enough to at least buy some flour, rice and oil,” he says of the 33 people in his family who have all moved into one house over the last year.

Even before former President Ashraf Ghani fled the country and the Taliban took control, Afghanistan was already facing a slowing economy that was exacerbated by the global COVID-19 pandemic and a protracted drought that has further devastated an economy highly reliant on agriculture.

In a report released last week, the United Nations warned more than 97 per cent of the population could sink below the poverty line by mid-2022.

On Monday, UN chief Antonio Guterres convened a high-level humanitarian aid conference on Afghanistan in Geneva in an effort to raise $600m, about one-third of which will go towards food aid.

The global body has previously expressed deep concern about the economic crisis and the threat of “a total breakdown” in Afghanistan.

According to the World Bank, a nation is considered aid-dependent when at least 10 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP) comes from foreign aid. Over the last 20 years, 40 per cent of Afghanistan’s GDP came from international aid and now, with many countries refusing to recognise the Taliban’s government, experts have warned the country is hurtling towards economic catastrophe.

‘I served my country’

Speaking at the Atlantic Council earlier this week, Ajmal Ahmady, the former governor-general of Afghanistan’s central bank, said the nation could see its GDP shrink by 10-20 per cent if global sanctions are not lifted.

Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s spokesman, said his government is hoping China and Russia will make up for the shortfall in Western economic assistance. But so far neither Beijing nor Moscow has been able to compensate for the shortfall.

The impending crisis and the current liquidity crunch is already evident in several neighbourhoods across the city, where people are selling off anything they can to buy food and other basic staples.

Abdullah, a former soldier in his 40s, is another example of the nation’s looming economic disaster. He used to make about $200 a month as a service member. Although the Taliban has asked the nation’s security forces to report back to duty, Abdullah has yet to receive a call.

He has found work as a labourer, carting the goods people buy and sell to make a few hundred Afghanis a day, in hopes of clearing his 3,000 Afghani ($35) monthly rent and providing food for his family.

“I did what I was supposed to. I served my country, but now I’m still relegated to breathing in the dirt and dust carting goods to feed my eight children.”

‘Bitter reality’

Even with the huge influx of goods, the makeshift shopkeepers operating their businesses on the pavement say they too are not turning a profit.

Zalmai, one of the shopkeepers, was going through a new stock of rugs and cushions that just arrived on the roof of a taxi, but said like everything else he has sold over the last month, it will not amount to much.

“The ministries and offices are closed, unemployment has soared and prices have gone up. People sell their goods at a huge loss and buyers pay almost nothing for them when they do buy,” he says while a customer asks him whether a Sony Bravia TV is functional.

That TV would previously have sold for several hundred dollars, he says, but today he is willing to let it go for 11,000 Afghanis ($127) if the customer will pay on the spot.

“This is the bitter reality we’ve found ourselves in,” he says once the customer walks away.

Abdul Qadi, another shopkeeper who is selling shelves and bedframes across the street, says his business is also struggling.

“Who can think of making a profit when you have to put food on the table every day?”

For many of the people near Chaman-e Hozori, the blame for the current situation in Afghanistan goes beyond the Taliban.

A driver delivering household items turned to a nearby shopkeeper and said: “Someone takes a picture and send it to Ashraf Ghani,” the former president who fled to the United Arab Emirates on August 15.

“Send it to him and say, ‘I hope you’re having a nice life. Now take a look at the mess you’ve left behind for the country.’”

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