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More than half of Afghanistan's population faces hunger

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The United Nations World Food Programme has warned that 22.8 million Afghans - that is more than half the country's population - now face hunger. Some parts of the country which have been under Taliban control since mid-August are already being hit hard by hunger. PBS NewsHour correspondent Jane Ferguson joins us from Kabul. Jane, thanks for being with us.

JANE FERGUSON: Thanks for having me on.

SIMON: Please tell us what you just saw in Herat, the western province that's on the border with Iran.

FERGUSON: We traveled to Herat because we knew it was one of the hardest-hit areas. The western side of the country has been hit by the kind of perfect storm of crises. Not only do you have the economic collapse, the freefall that happened since the government collapsed here, but you also have a severe drought that has destroyed many of the crops - or the wheat crops this year. So that has, of course, had an impact on the price of food. Added to that is the fact that the government or authorities that are out here have their foreign financial assets frozen. So it's not easy for them to buy grain from outside to make up for the shortfall. In the hospital, not only in Herat but also here in Kabul, we're seeing tiny, malnourished babies in record numbers - three, sometimes four to a bed - because they're so overrun with babies that need intensive care just to keep them alive. The doctors have told us that out of every 10 that come in, two or three won't make it.

SIMON: That's hard to hear and hard to see, I'm sure. Help us appreciate how the Taliban takeover has affected the economy.

FERGUSON: The reality here is quite unique and unusual internationally in that the economy was so heavily reliant on international aid and support. Think of all the people who worked for the government, and then think of all the people who would have relied on that one salary, maybe a huge extended family. Anybody from a schoolteacher to a road sweeper to a bureaucrat would have been reliant on a salary that essentially would have been paid by the international community. And so when that disappeared, that had a huge knock-on effect. On top of that, you had a lot of aid organizations here that not only provided aid but provided employment for many people. You also have capital controls on the - that the banks are enforcing. So even middle-class Afghans who have savings can't access them. They can only access $200 a week of their own money. And so you just have the most severe capital and cash crunch across the country.

SIMON: I gather you were at a hospital that's run by Doctors Without Borders. What organizations are still there? Which ones have left?

FERGUSON: Doctors Without Borders are still running the maternity clinics that we visited in Herat, and they're able to provide a certain good level of service to those who make it there. But we have to remember that many of the clinics across - the smaller clinics in the rural provinces have collapsed. They don't have any money left to pay their staff. They can't operate. There's still a massive shortage of medicines, getting medicines in because of that cash crunch. I think that, essentially, organizations that are able to keep their staff here, their international staff here and keep their funding independent of sending it to a government in Kabul do have more leeway. But if you're dealing with the World Bank, if you're dealing with the United Nations and you have to, in some way, go through authorities here, that's where you're going to run into trouble. And that's where a huge amount of the aid is getting stuck.

SIMON: And, Jane, are there still protests in Kabul and elsewhere in the country?

FERGUSON: There are very rare and very small protests by a very brave group of young women here. Now, on my first day in the country, I witnessed one of those protests. And I witnessed it very briefly because the Taliban were extremely aggressive and loud about pushing us journalists back into our cars. The women that were protesting - they were protesting for their right to education, and they were protesting against the economic situation here and saying that they want action. We got out of the car to film a protest, and a large amount of Taliban gunmen forced us back into the car within minutes. Even filming out the window caused a huge confrontation with the fighters, who eventually forced us to leave.

SIMON: Jane Ferguson of the PBS NewsHour, thanks so much for being with us.

FERGUSON: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.