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The Taliban are not the only threat to Afghanistan. Aid cuts could undo 20 years of progress | Kevin Watkins

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Watching Afghanistan’s unfolding trauma, I’ve thought a lot about Mumtaz Ahmed, a young teacher I met a few years ago. Her family fled Kabul during Taliban rule in the late 1990s.

Raised as a refugee in Pakistan, Ahmed had defied the odds and made it to university. Now, she was back in Afghanistan teaching maths in a rural girls’ school. “I came back because I believe in education and I love my country,” she told me. “These girls have a right to learn – without education, Afghanistan has no future.”

Ahmed’s story was a reminder of Afghanistan’s achievements in the face of adversity. Western efforts at nation-building may have been a case study in hubris. But in this remote mountain village, two decades after the Taliban had closed schools, viciously suppressed girls’ education and banned female teachers, was a class of girls.

Today, Afghanistan’s achievements are under threat, and not just from the Taliban. Western governments are cutting the aid lifelines that sustain the country’s economy and finance health, education and other services. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank suspended operations. Bilateral donors have collectively pulled the plug on anything other than humanitarian support.

The policy is counterproductive. It threatens to reverse the human development gains made possible through 20 years of aid investment, allied to the quiet heroism of teachers such as Ahmed, health workers and Afghan civil society organisations.

Sadly, the UK is complicit. Fears that the Taliban will roll back the gains of the last two decades are justified. The caretaker cabinet announced last week is a lineup of the Taliban old guard. It is all male, overwhelmingly southern Pashtun and led by hardline clerics. The education minister’s primary qualification for office appears to be a deep aversion to education.

Donors face tough choices. How do you engage with a government which, apart from a cast featuring on UN sanctions lists, is manifestly ill-equipped to run a country facing economic crisis, a humanitarian emergency and daunting human development challenges? Not by imposing an aid cold-turkey regime.

Afghanistan is the one of the world’s most aid-dependent countries. Donors have invested $65bn (£47bn) in grants since 2002. Aid accounts for about 40% of GDP and three-quarters of government spending – paying for teachers’ and health workers’ wages, the construction of schools and health clinics, and economic infrastructure.

The results have been extraordinary. There are more than 9 million children in school – nine times the number of when the Taliban were ousted in 2001 – including 3.6 million girls. The under-five mortality rate dropped from 191 to 50 deaths for every 1,000 live births from 2006 to 2018. The aid-financed Sehatmandi programme is the closest thing Afghanistan has to a national health service, operating 3,000 clinics across all 34 provinces. Aid has also supported a flourishing movement of civil society organisations.

Britain has a major stake in what has been achieved. The UK has been one of Afghanistan’s biggest donors, providing about 8% of aid. That has trained thousands of teachers and delivered stipends that keep girls in school and out of early marriage. The prime minister, Boris Johnson, rightly told the House of Commons that the UK could be proud of the legacy of girls’ education in Afghanistan.

Aid withdrawal poses a real and present danger to that legacy. Hundreds of health clinics face the immediate threat of closure. Schools are already closing. With the suspension of the World Bank-managed multidonor Afghanistan reconstruction trust fund (ARTF), the largest source of financing for basic services has dried up. Reduced aid, coupled with US sanctions and the IMF’s move to freeze resources, has squeezed liquidity, driven up prices and reinforced a banking crisis.

Donor reluctance to operate through a Taliban-controlled budget is justified. The failure to identify alternatives is not – there are alternatives. Most basic health services are delivered by Afghan NGOs that could be supported through the ARTF and the World Health Organization, bypassing the government budget. In Yemen, the World Bank and bilateral aid donors operate through UN agencies and NGOs. That model could be applied in Afghanistan.

Education is more difficult. Most schooling is provided through the state system. But subject to stringent auditing, a way could be found to pay teacher salaries, and to support UN agencies and NGOs that have negotiated with the Taliban to deliver girls education.

Donors need to develop a plan of action for supporting basic services and preventing economic collapse. However difficult, that will involve talking to the Taliban, rethinking the sanctions regime and developing a collective plan of action. Unfortunately, western governments are now bringing to aid for Afghanistan the same shambolic lack of leadership evident in so many other areas.

The UK is a case in point. As president of the G7, a member of the UN security council and a major donor, the government is well placed to lead. Instead, it has followed an incoherent donor consensus that is leading Afghanistan to disaster. The key elements include issuing the Taliban with tough but vague and unenforceable human rights demands, while pledging more humanitarian support. Long-term development aid is not even mentioned in the last UN security council resolution – jointly written by the US, UK and France.

Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, says his primary aid concern is averting “humanitarian disaster”.

That is either naive or disingenuous – or both. It is naive because you do not respond to an impending humanitarian catastrophe by pushing the economy over a cliff and destroying the health system. It is disingenuous because the UN has been trying for months without success, and with limited UK support, to fund a $1.3bn humanitarian appeal, but barely 40% is currently covered.

Applying sweeping aid sanctions to punish the Taliban ignores a simple but hard truth: the human cost of those sanctions will be borne by millions of vulnerable people, including the girls in Ahmed’s class who dared to hope for a better future. If ever there was a moment for solidarity with those girls, that moment is now.

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‘It helped me get away from crime’: Cape Town’s College of Magic – a photo essay | Global development

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To fans of JK Rowling’s books, the story may sound somewhat familiar: a young boy living in difficult circumstances is enrolled in a mysterious school far from home, where his life is changed for ever by the transformative power of magic.

Anele Dyasi’s story is no fairytale, though, and the school in question is not Hogwarts, but the College of Magic in Cape Town, a unique institution that has been training some of the continent’s most skilled illusionists since the 1980s.

Confetti falls on performers from College of Magic at the end of a show at the Artscape theatre centre, Cape Town.
Jugglers from the College of Magic.
Emilie van den Hooyen, a performer and student at the College of Magic, has her face painted before a performance at the Artscape theatre centre.
Ayabonga Tshofui, a College of Magic student, has his face painted before a performance at the Artscape theatre centre.

Dyasi, who grew up in the sprawling township of Khayelitsha, where violent crime is rife and opportunities are few and far between, was 10 when the college began to train him in the ways of magic and sleight of hand. Within four years he was representing South Africa at magic competitions as far afield as Las Vegas and Beijing and had become a role model for a new generation of budding magicians.

Anele Dyasi.

“I think of it more as a college of life,” says Dyasi, now 23, and a teacher at the college. “It helped me get away from the crime and gangsterism.”

Dyasi says the most important things he learned in his six years as a student at the college had less to do with magic and more to do with self-confidence and effective communication: skills that he feels have left him in a good position to face life’s challenges.

Deyna Viret, a College of Magic student, practises a juggling routine in her dressing room ahead of a show at the Artscape theatre centre.
Illusionist Khanya Rubushe, a College of Magic student, before a performance at the Artscape theatre centre.

On this particular Saturday, clad in a flamboyant polka-dot blazer over a plain white T-shirt, he is teaching closeup card magic to a class of fifth-year students who scrutinise every move of his fingers as they try to figure out the trick. Outside the window, younger students are juggling with batons and doing circuits around the car park on unicycles.

Students practise outside the college

Less research has been done on the educational benefits of learning magic than other performing arts such as music, dance or circus. But the studies that do exist have linked it to physical and psychological benefits such as improved focus, a greater ability to solve problems and think laterally, better interpersonal skills, increased self-worth and an enhanced aptitude for teamwork.

David Gore, founder and director of the College of Magic.

“When we started out we never thought of all the spin-off benefits,” says David Gore, founder and director of the college. “We didn’t realise just how powerful magic was as a tool.”

The college’s students frequently give public performances at local venues, and Gore says he has observed how, within a matter of months, first-year students who arrived at the college shy and recalcitrant routinely end up being confident enough to perform on stage in front of hundreds of strangers.

Anele Dyasi enters the college dove coop

  • Above: Anele Dyasi enters the college’s dove coop. Right: students help each other prepare for a performance
    Below: a box of diabolos, batons and other juggling props, and face paints

College of Magic students Emilie van den Hooyen and Maelle Oudejans help each other get ready for a performance at the Artscape theatre centre.
Equipment used in magical and circus tricks lies in a box at the College of Magic.
Face paints on a table backstage during a performance.

Gore was just 19 when he and a colleague marched into the offices of a local newspaper wearing top hats and tailcoats and announced that they were starting a school for magicians. The newspaper published a story and before long 34 children had signed up. In the 40 years since, several thousand more students have come and gone through the hallways of the ramshackle Victorian mansion that houses the college.

A student juggles outside the college.
Students leave a classroom with walls covered with posters of illusionists.
Magic students walk downstairs after class.
Puppets, photographs and posters on the walls of the college

Built in the late 1800s, the building has a distinctively Hogwarts-esque feel, replete with crooked staircases, secret doorways hidden behind bookshelves, and a special enclosure for the rabbits and doves occasionally used in performances.

“It’s a lot more fun than my other school,” says Duma Mgqoki, a fourth-year student and aspiring magician, who says he enjoys wowing the other children in his neighbourhood with the tricks he learns at the college.

Duma Mgqoki practices a card trick.

While many of the college’s alumni have careers in magic and its associated arts, performing at children’s parties or corporate functions, or becoming TV entertainers, others say the college helped prepare them for a range of non-magical careers.

“Growing up, I went through a lot of trauma and depression. But here I felt free,” says Anela Gazi, a recent graduate of the college from Mfuleni township, who is starting her own shoe-cleaning company.

“This place prepared me for everything. It made me grow. It made me strong. I didn’t even know I could become the person I am now,” she says.

Anela Gazi.

  • ‘This place prepared me for everything. It made me grow. It made me strong,’ says Anela Gazi, a recent graduate

At the college, students from some of the city’s most underprivileged townships are learning alongside others from the wealthiest suburbs.

Twenty-seven years after the end of apartheid, Cape Town remains one of the world’s most divided cities, and many schools, indeed whole neighbourhoods, offer little in the way of ethnic diversity.

Students attend class.

“We believed what we were offering should be available to everyone, and we did that from day one,” says Gore, who flouted the laws of the apartheid regime in the 1980s by insisting on teaching multiracial classes.

The college operates as a nonprofit organisation, and helps to find sponsors to cover the fees of those who could not otherwise afford the courses. It also arranges transport to enable those from more distant areas to attend.

Performers from the College of Magic at the Artscape theatre centre, Cape Town.

“This is the rainbow nation,” says Dyasi after his class, pointing up at the building behind him. “We don’t judge each other here. Everyone is here to achieve the same thing: to become better magicians. It brings out the best in everyone.”

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Polls open in Russia’s parliamentary election

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Russians will head to the polls on Friday. Widespread anger over the stagnation economy has been rising in recent years, and the ruling party, United Russia, polls at historic lows. But it is expected to find a way to maintain its hold over the State Duma. Due to the size of the country, the polling takes three days. Voters will be able to cast ballots through to Sunday.

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Texas anti-abortion law shows ‘terrifying’ fragility of women’s rights, say activists | Global development

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The new anti-abortion law in Texas is a “terrifying” reminder of the fragility of hard-won rights, pro-choice activists have said, as they warn of a “more aggressive, much better organised [and] better funded” global opposition movement.

Pro-choice campaigners have seen several victories in recent years, including in Ireland, Argentina and, most recently, Mexico, where the supreme court ruled last week that criminalising abortion was unconstitutional. Another is hoped for later this month when the tiny enclave of San Marino, landlocked within Italy, holds a highly charged referendum.

But Texas’s law, which bans abortions after about six weeks, once embryonic cardiac activity is detected, and does not make exceptions for incest or rape, has sent shock waves around the world, making pro-choice activists realise they can take nothing for granted.

Sarah Shaw, head of advocacy at MSI Reproductive Choices, said: “Even though we have seen little gains here and there, in some places, we can never, ever be complacent because we’re only ever really hanging on to these rights by the skin of our teeth.”

She said the Texas law was “really terrifying” because of the emboldening message it sent to other anti-choice governments and organisations, with the fact it had happened in the US giving it “a huge weight and legitimacy”.

“This is all happening in the context of a rising, much more aggressive, much better organised, better funded and much more legitimised opposition movement than we’ve ever seen before,” Shaw said.

Pro-choice campaigners say they have faced increasingly vocal opposition from organisations that started on the US religious right but have spread to other countries, such as 40 Days for Life, a group that distributes graphic and misleading leaflets to women outside UK abortion clinics.

Heartbeat International, a conservative US Christian federation, funds and coordinates a network of anti-abortion “pregnancy resource” centres, many of them in sub-Saharan Africa, to provide women with what it calls “true reproductive help”.

“It’s a transnational movement now,” said Shaw. “What we’re seeing is them [US organisations] exporting their playbooks and their money overseas.”

Abortion-rights activists in Buenos Aires celebrate as Argentina’s Congress voted to legalise elective abortion.
‘Green wave’ abortion-rights activists in Buenos Aires celebrate as Argentina’s Congress voted to legalise elective abortion last December. Photograph: Natacha Pisarenko/AP

Attacks on abortion rights usually happen in countries where other human rights are under threat, according to analysts. Last year, more than 30 countries, many of them led by authoritarian strongmen or rightwing populists, including Belarus, Uganda, Hungary, Egypt and Donald Trump’s US administration, signed a non-binding anti-abortion document known as the Geneva consensus declaration. The text was also seen as being anti-LGBTQ, as most of the signatories had not legalised same-sex marriage and several prosecute their LGBTQ+ citizens.

In one of his first acts as president, Joe Biden removed the US from the declaration in January, as well as ending the Mexico City policy, known as the “global gag rule”.

Among the signatories was Poland, which is one of only three countries to have significantly rolled back abortion rights since 2000, according to the Guttmacher Institute. The other two are Nicaragua and the US.

In October last year, Poland’s constitutional tribunal ruled that terminations due to foetal defects were unconstitutional. Three months later, a near-total ban on abortions was imposed. Abortion is now only legal in the case of rape, incest or a threat to the mother’s health.

Meanwhile, human rights observers have said that a Nicaraguan law punishing abortion without any exceptions, passed in 2006, has simply forced women to seek unsafe backstreet terminations.

Marge Berer, coordinator of the International Campaign for Women’s Right to Safe Abortion, said setbacks were all too common, with breakthrough moments often followed by backlashes.

A protest against restrictions on abortion in Krakow in March. Poland has imposed a near-total ban.
A protest against restrictions on abortion in Krakow in March. Poland has imposed a near-total ban. Photograph: Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto/Rex/Shutterstock

“My experience of this is one step forward, two steps forward, or one step back, 10 steps back,” she said. “And much of it, if not all of it, depends on who is the head of the government of the day.”

Berer, who has been involved in the pro-choice movement for almost 40 years, said the overall picture was brighter than it had been then: fewer deaths from unsafe abortions, and many more countries where terminations are legal.

But, she added, she was not hugely optimistic about the future. “There’s so much misogyny in the world. And I don’t know how anybody is going to make that go away,” she said. “For me, that’s the real problem. It’s that when misogyny takes over on a policy level, it’s very nasty.”

However, there is more hope among activists in Latin America, where the marea verde, or green wave, has swept through first Argentina and, last week, Mexico, where the supreme court struck down a state law that imposed prison terms for having an abortion. While it did not automatically legalise abortion, the decision is thought to set a binding precedent for the country’s judges.

Eugenia López Uribe, regional director of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, said the legal change was the result of “40 years of hard work” by campaigners, with mass demonstrations, backroom lobbying and “a mainstreaming” of women’s rights in public discourse.

She said the ability of the Catholic church to tell people what to do when it came to abortion and contraception had been greatly reduced. “What we know from different surveys … is that in reality Catholics … feel that this is a private decision that you have to do with your own conscience.”

As women in Texas bear the brunt of the law brought in by the governor, Greg Abbott, their Mexican allies across the border were planning to take the fight north, she added.

“The ‘green wave’ hasn’t reached the United States so this is a very good opportunity for [it] to cross the border of the Rio Grande and go to the United States. We can make it go even further. We’ve been used to thinking about it in Latin America. Now is the time for North America.”

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