Trying to Help
Updated: Oct 4, 2021
Updated on 3 October, to include the conditions GoFundMe is now imposing for withdrawal of donated funds.
“I’m weak,” said the man on the phone. “That’s my big problem.”
Weak? A decade had gone by since last I’d seen him. Had he aged that much? I tried to picture him in the mud brick house he’d built outside Kandahar, where I reached him at night, as he had requested. It was safer.
I’m withholding this man’s name and changing a few details below for obvious reasons.
He was a farmer, a cultivator of melons and apricots. And I remembered: even by Kandahar standards, his way of speaking was rustic.
“Could you explain what you mean by weak,” I asked. “My Pashtu isn’t what it used to be.”
“Weak,” he repeated. “I mean food. I can’t put food on the table. I can’t leave the house except slinking at night, like a thief. Anyway there’s no work. Even for a dollar a day, there’s not a job to be found. And everything’s so high!”
That’s what I thought. He didn’t mean ailing. He meant helpless in the face of the earthquake that had just struck — the sudden collapse of his country into the grip of an unreconstructed Taliban. He meant unable to provide for his family.
As though that were his fault.
Not till the end of the conversation did he to mention the knock on his door two or three days before. His young son had answered.
“Where’s your father?” demanded the man at the threshold, a Talib -- or a jealous neighbor who'd joined their ranks. Violent chaos offers excellent cover for score-settling.
“He’s not home. He’s in Farah Province, buying some things to bring here to sell.”
Thus do children learn to lie on their feet when life is at stake. The bodies of former government officials were showing up amid the grapevines. Or people simply disappeared.
The Talib asked more questions about where his father worked, and told the child they wanted to talk to him, then left.
This man is one of a dozen former employees whom I and two colleagues are trying to help. They’re just regular Afghans — not the English speakers or cooks who worked for the military or the CIA or New Yorker Magazine, and were eligible for the privilege of being wrenched out of their lives to safety. These men and women made sweet-smelling soap and bath oils in a small atelier launched by a couple of Americans who believed in our own promise of a future for Afghanistan.
Right this second, what these people need is money. “That is something we can do,” said Jennie Green, who ran North American operations for this venture. She set up a GoFundMe page, and soon dozens of generous people around the world -- regular people, including many of you -- had contributed a total of $15,000. It was a godsend. It was enough to make life possible for a dozen families for a few months, while they waited to see the shape of their future. The instant response reminded me of the bake sales school children outside Boston organized back in 2002, to buy books and pens and pay local carpenters to make tables and benches for children in Kandahar. That same outpouring. That overwhelming desire to help.
We started reaching out to our people in Kandahar, locating more, and working on ways to get that desperately needed money into their hands.
A few banks were opening back up, but the Taliban slapped stringent weekly withdrawal limits on all accounts, so a straight wire transfer wouldn’t work.
Ordinary Afghans in Kandahar don’t have bank accounts, anyway.
What about money transfer services like Western Union or MoneyGram? That was our next thought. But the same withdrawal limits applied to them. And lines stretched outside their offices for blocks -- in Kabul, that is. None was open in Kandahar.
Withdrawal limits were more generous for corporate bank accounts — accounts opened in the name of businesses or relief organizations. So the next plan was to wire the money to a local NGO that provides humanitarian support to displaced families. We’d set aside a small percentage to support its operations, and ask its director in Kabul to use the traditional money-transfer service, hawala, to dole out about $170 every two weeks to each of our friends in Kandahar.
Then he reported what he learned at his bank. By Taliban order, only 20% of any given wire transfer may be taken out per month. So 80% of whatever we sent would be sitting in that NGO’s bank account for thirty long days. Then 60%, and so on. I was imagining confiscations or even bank nationalizations by the cash-strapped regime. The last thing I wanted was for contributors’ money to land in Taliban coffers.
In the midst of this, I received an email. “Trying to help,” read the subject line.
Yeah. And how.
The other dear friend and colleague who is working to get this relief into the hands of our former employees is a Kandahar native who ran financial operations for our little cooperative. As of today, he and his family are out of the country and to safety, by dint of unflagging efforts by a large network of his friends, classmates, and colleagues, including civil servants in at least three different governments, the dean of a major university, and one of the top-ranking military officers in the world.
Despite the numbers of people rescued you may have heard U.S. generals citing in congressional testimony at the end of September, this is the reality of evacuating irreplaceable Afghan partners as we have experienced it.
In the Western city that will be his new home, he located one of those traditional money transfer services, a hawala. It’s expensive, but it can get the precious dollars into Afghanistan. Just arrived in this metropolis, he doesn’t have a bank account, and can’t get one till the government delivers his identity documents. So to get the funds to him, we were back to companies like Western Union or MoneyGram.
As of October 1, our friend had received a first installment of $2,000. Western Union, note, also imposes withdrawal limits, not to mention fees and a "brutal exchange rate," as he put it. Jennie had transferred the second tranche, but the Western Union office on the receiving end didn't have enough ready cash to make the payment. Our friend would have to trek across town again the next day.
Then came news from GoFundMe. Our entire campaign, we were informed, is "under review," and no further disbursements would be made till we answered a battery of questions.
A list of all beneficiaries' full names, including "the family names of those individuals as it appears on their government ID" -- even though most Afghans go by nicknames, not even their first given names, and don't even have last names. And most ordinary people in Kandahar don't have government ID cards, and wouldn't be able to get them now.
A list of "goods and services you or the recipient of the funds will obtain."
"Documentation of the activities. This can include...photos, permits, etc."
Information on the beneficial ownership structure of the organization we plan to work through, including the full legal name of all individuals with a 25% stake or more.
And the kicker:
"After funds are withdrawn from GoFundMe, how will the funds be sent to the intended recipient(s)? Please include the names of any banks or money transfer service that will be used to send funds. We cannot accept the current plan via hawala. ... I'm sorry to hear Western Union is not active in Kandahar."
Don't get me wrong: I've spent my career trying to understand and combat corruption and its spiraling repercussions. For almost twenty years, I have been calling for in-depth vetting of companies implementing major development projects as well as any government officials in countries like Afghanistan who are considered partners.
"Beneficial ownership transparency" is another crucial weapon against the corrupt. It's no use stealing money if they can't stash it somewhere. So they hide behind anonymous shell corporations which open bank accounts in tax havens like Malta or Wyoming. The name on the corporate documents is a local lawyer whose office is a post office box.
That's how kleptocrats move their money. They bounce it around between different phony companies like this, which connect to each other in a tangle of ways, till all trace of the original depositor is hidden. Then one of the companies buys a mansion in London or Palm Beach, or a soccer team, or makes a donation to an Ivy League college, and the money -- and the kleptocrat -- are cleansed. (You can read the most recent details of such practices in the Pandora Papers, the latest blockbuster investigation by partners in the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.)
These practices must be ended. I was thrilled when a measure passed on January 1 requiring that all corporations operating in the United States provide the name and identifying information of the person who really benefits from them (not just that lawyer with the PO box) to the U.S. Treasury Department.
But we aren't talking the Cayman Islands, here, or billionaires, or even a private corporation. We're talking melon farmers and a hospital bookkeeper whose husband is stricken with clear cell sarcoma, who can't go to work because she lives in in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where the Taliban have ordered women to stay home and where there is no functioning formal financial system, and where government offices are largely shut. We're talking a tiny Afghan NGO, which has been providing food packages to hundreds of desperate families who fled the fighting over the past months, and are living in tents in camps. We're talking a country run by a regime headed by international terrorists and narco-traffickers, where all international humanitarian organizations have suspended operations, and systems are collapsing.
You'd think some flexibility might be warranted.
For now, we are stuck. We can't send money to Afghanistan via bank transfer, because 80% of it will be locked up in an account in Kabul, where the Taliban could confiscate it if they get panicky enough. And we're not allowed to get money to Kabul or Kandahar the only other way we could do it: the efficient and reliable traditional money transfer system that we used regularly at our soap factory in a shooting gallery, and which has moved money around the Muslim world since at least the 10th century. Carrying cash into the country in suitcases isn't exactly an option either.
GoFundMe doesn't even have a telephone number or live chat. So, though they have acknowledged that the situation in Afghanistan is a "crisis," we're losing 1-3 days between every email exchange.
And note: though "all withdrawals are paused" pending the review, "this does not affect your fundraiser's ability to receive new donations."
That is, keep them dollars rolling into GoFundMe's corporate account, to earn interest, perhaps, or buy and sell stocks in super-fast algorithmic trading, or serve other profit-making purposes. Under cover of due diligence, GoFundMe could leverage the donations of generous people however it wants. I don't know that the company does this, but forgive me for sounding suspicious. Long study of money-maximizing tricks has made me snap to the warning signs.
Both Jennie and I have replied to GoFundMe, attempting to clarify conditions in a dust-blown city that's been a theater of war for a dozen years, and was captured just forty days ago by hordes of shaggy-headed fighters on motorcycles, who are too busy murdering corrupt and sadistic former government officials and keeping females off the streets to govern. If they even know how.
We await GoFundMe's answer.
One of the things involvement in Afghanistan has taught me is how hard it can be to help — to help the people who need and deserve that help, to avoid the cascading unintended consequences, to shield the precious offering and the love behind it from the claws of all the self-serving opportunists who see generosity as a weakness they can exploit.
What I have also learned is that the best way to fail that test is not even to try.
So in spite of the ridiculous hurdles that always arise, let’s keep trying — with more determination, ingenuity and joy -- to help.