Western Union is suspending transactions into Afghanistan as America withdraws troops from the troubled country now in the Taliban’s control.
The suspension cuts off one financial option for those who need help inside the country, but there are other ways for foreigners to send assistance.
“We recognize that our services provide a vital channel for our customers to support their loved ones, and we will continue to closely monitor this rapidly-developing situation and keep our customers and associates apprised of any developments,” the company said in a statement.
Western Union WU, which has the capacity to wire money from the U.S. to more than 200 countries and territories, said the perilous situation left it with no choice but to temporarily halt money transfers into Afghanistan, effective Aug. 16.
The widely-seen footage of Afghans clinging to a U.S. military plane as it took off from Kabul airport was a stark image marking the close of 20 years of American intervention in the country. But the Western Union announcement is a reminder of the less-visible assistance Afghan families have been receiving via formal and informal financial channels from family and friends abroad.
Remittances — money beamed from abroad to people inside Afghanistan — constituted nearly 4% of the country’s gross domestic product last year, according to World Bank data. Last year, Afghanistan’s GDP was $19.8 billion, the World Bank said.
People in Afghanistan received $788.9 million last year in remittances, the World Bank said.
Western Union and MoneyGram are the two big money transfer companies in most countries, according to Paul Vaaler, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management.
People living in urban areas like Kabul will be the ones feeling Western Union’s absence, said Vaaler, who has been studying the effects of remittances on the developing world, including Afghanistan. In rural areas, however, the informal hawala money transfer network found in Muslim-majority countries will continue on, he said.
MoneyGram did not respond to a request for comment on the status of its Afghanistan operations.
In the big picture, remittances accounting for approximately 4% GDP may not sound like a significant number, but anything could help in the war-torn country.
Afghanistan has a population of 37.4 million people and 54.5% live in poverty, according to the CIA’s World Factbook. (The poverty estimates are from 2016, the CIA notes.)
When it comes to the hawala networks at least, Vaaler said “that money is incredibly important. It’s literally the lifeblood of the rural economy.” For him, the big open question is what happens next for the hawala networks. “Those groups, they know how to work with or avoid the Taliban,” he said.
Where to donate to help in Afghanistan
But with narrowing formal avenues to offer financial help, where does that leave anyone now who wants to find a way to aid people in the country?
searches on Monday for the phrase “how to help Afghan refugees” were up 1,050% over the past day worldwide. In America, searches under “how to help Afghanistan” were up 300%.
One possibility is donations to the United Nations Children’s Fund, known as UNICEF.
The UN agency focused on children’s health and nutrition still has “a presence in every single one of the regions in Afghanistan, and we’ve been working in areas that were under Taliban control before these latest developments,” said UNICEF spokesman Joe English.
English said UNICEF will continue its work “no matter who the authorities are, who’s in charge. And so we will continue to work with our local partners on the ground to make sure that kids have been receiving the vaccinations they need, to make sure that they’re in school, and that includes girls. That is a core part of our work. It’s not something which we’re going to step away from.”
Other organizations with a presence in the country include Save the Children, the Red Cross, and Oxfam, English noted. “All of them do critical work, and none of us have the funding and support that we need,” he said, adding that if there’s an organization someone’s supported before “then, by all means, look up what they’re doing in Afghanistan and support that.”
For example, Women for Women International is urging people to donate, saying on its website, “We URGENTLY need more donors to help the women of Afghanistan. Your emergency support is a lifeline for the most vulnerable.”
One anonymous donor will match up to $500,000 in donations, the organization said.
The charity rating site Charity Navigator suggested three highly-rated nonprofits operating in Afghanistan: Child Foundation, an Oregon-based nonprofit with an office in Afghanistan; Global Giving, which has set a goal of raising $3 million for an Afghanistan emergency fund; and World Help, which says a $35 donation provides a week’s worth of food and water for a refugee.