Due to financing problems, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is likely to stop financial operations at 25 Afghan hospitals by the end of August, a spokesperson told Reuters, amid mounting fears over a drop in aid to Afghanistan.
“Although we continue to engage with government ministries, donors, and organizations to find alternative sustainable support mechanisms for the hospital sector, the phase-out of the Hospital Program is expected to happen tentatively at the end of August,” ICRC spokesperson Diogo Alcantara reported to Reuters on Thursday.
“The ICRC does not have the mandate nor the resources to maintain a fully functioning public healthcare sector in the longer term,” stated Alcantara.
In April, the ICRC said that its governing board had approved 430 million Swiss francs ($475.30 million) in cost cuts during 2023 and early 2024, as well as a rollback of operations in some regions since humanitarian aid budgets were likely to fall.
“The financial difficulties the ICRC is facing have sped up, in transparency with IEA (Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan) authorities, the expected return of the full responsibilities of the health services to the Ministry of Public Health,” Alcantara was referring to the Taliban regime.
The program’s termination comes amid mounting concerns over cuts to Afghanistan’s humanitarian aid, two years after the Taliban took over and most other types of international support, which served as the economy’s backbone, were curtailed.
The Geneva-based agency will continue its other health programs in Afghanistan, including rehabilitation assistance for people with impairments.
The Taliban-run Afghan health ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
It was unclear how much money was required to pay for the operations, which fund wages and other expenditures at several of Afghanistan’s biggest hospitals, which serve millions of people, and whether Taliban officials could cover the bill from the fiscal budget.
According to an Afghan finance ministry spokesman, the budget for this year has been finalized but has not yet been made public.
The ICRC has been supporting the hospitals for a few months after foreign forces left in August 2021.
As the Taliban – which has not been publicly recognized by any government – assumed control of Afghanistan, development money was halted. The unexpected financial shock jeopardized key public services such as health and education.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and other organizations, notably the United Nations, stepped in to fill the void.
“The (ICRC) took this decision back then to save the healthcare system from collapsing due to the financial crises that Afghanistan was experiencing and because many development agencies and other organizations left the country while the ICRC stayed,” Alcantara explained.
The ICRC hospital program originally covered 33 facilities, eight of which have already been phased out, paying for almost 10,000 health workers’ wages and certain medical supplies. The hospitals offered thousands of beds and served nearly 25 million people or more than half of the population.
A senior government official in neighboring Pakistan told Reuters that the country is closely monitoring the situation. According to officials, Pakistan, a significant destination for Afghan healthcare, receives thousands of medical visa applications on a regular basis.
“We are concerned about a further influx of medical patients,” said the Pakistani official, who declined to be identified in order to discuss delicate diplomatic problems openly.
The foreign office of Pakistan did not respond to a request for comment.
There is rising concern over aid cuts to Afghanistan, where the United Nations humanitarian plan for 2023 is barely 25% financed, even after the requested budget was reduced from $4.6 billion to $3.2 billion.
Concerns over Taliban restrictions on women, as well as competing global humanitarian situations, are leading donors to withdraw their support, according to diplomats and aid officials. The Taliban has ordered that most Afghan female aid workers not work, with exceptions in health and education.
According to relief organizations, about three-quarters of Afghanistan’s population now requires humanitarian help.