Afghan street children take their lunches at Afghanistan's Children-A New Approach center in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Musadeq Sadeq / The Associated Press)
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KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan street children are packed into classrooms, raising their hands to answer math questions and bending their heads over art projects as part of a program funded by the European Union.
But the money is about to disappear after a four-year grant expires next month, and the Afghan government isn't ready to fill the gap. That leaves thousands of poor children who spend most of their days hawking goods on the street poised to lose their only access to an education.
The impending withdrawal of U.S. and other foreign combat forces means more than a loss of firepower. International aid is also on the decline because of donor fatigue and fears of deteriorating security after nearly 12 years of war.
The pullout of most international troops by the end of 2014 will leave many areas without the protection required for foreign aid workers. Even those workers who have more freedom of movement are concerned violence will increase as Afghan troops take over and the Taliban push to regain control.
Worried about losing hard-won gains, many Afghan and international aid organizations are racing to finish projects or find new sources of funding to provide basic services such as health care, education and electricity that the weak central government has been unable to deliver.
"The situation in Afghanistan is day by day becoming critical, but the international community is less interested," said Mohammad Yousef, founder of the children's program Aschiana.
Afghanistan has received $60 billion in international civilian assistance since 2002. In a bid to defuse concerns about a mass exodus, international donors last year pledged $16 billion in development aid for Afghanistan through 2015, but they also promised to channel half of that through the Afghan government despite concerns about corruption and mismanagement.
The money that has flowed into Afghanistan since the 2001 U.S. invasion that ousted the Taliban and their al-Qaida allies has led to drastic improvements, with nearly 8 million children, some 40 percent of them girls, enrolled in school — up from just over 1 million when girls were banned from school under the Taliban.
The U.S. Agency for International Development in Afghanistan also has built or refurbished more than 680 schools, and child mortality has been halved with improved health facilities and other services.
But Afghan and international activists are worried projects could be abandoned and progress reversed.
"There is the prospect of a lot of white elephants being left behind. That's a really sad prospect," said Louise Hancock, head of policy and advocacy for Oxfam in Afghanistan.
"People are fed up with Afghanistan," she said. "A lot of people are worried they haven't got value for what's been put in."
With its own development budget for Afghanistan slashed nearly in half, the U.S. has shifted its priorities from quick-fix projects showing immediate results such as building schools, clinics and other infrastructure to trying to help the Afghan government operate and maintain the facilities and develop programs.
The European Union is maintaining its development aid levels at about 250 million euros ($330 million) a year, but it too is increasingly channeling that money through the Afghan government.
Afghan officials insist the shift may mean more money but that it will be used more efficiently after years of uncoordinated spending.
"The government of Afghanistan has been working hard to face the challenge," Economics Minister Abdul Hadi Arghandiwal said. "Sooner or later the government has to be able to provide these services."
Jonathan Crickx, the EU's media adviser in Afghanistan, said the Aschiana grant had been scheduled to end in 2012 but already was extended once.
"The reason why this project is not going to be renewed is that the Afghan government asked the European Union to concentrate its funding on specific sectors, increase alignment with national priorities and deliver more aid on budget, through relevant Afghan ministries," Crickx said.
In line with that request, the 27-nation EU is "phasing out its social protection projects and strengthening its action in the health sector," he added.
The Aschiana program, founded in 1995 by Yousef, an Afghan engineer who was touched by the story of a boy shining his shoes, provides educational and vocational programs as well as an emergency shelter and assistance for displaced children. Those activities, along with programs in the cities of Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif, will stop on March 31, when the EU funding comes to an end, the organization said.
"Kids don't get enough focus even though they ... face danger of falling prey to drug dealers, prostitution and international trafficking," Yousef said during an interview in his second-floor office, heated with a wood stove in a Dickensian complex on the edge of Kabul.
Abdul Qadir, a 14-year-old who makes about 150 Afghanis (about $3) per day selling plastic bags to drivers and people buying fruit and vegetables at outdoor markets in the afternoons, spends his mornings practicing carpentry at Aschiana.
He said he dropped out of school to help earn money for his family.
"When I'm working on the street, I don't feel comfortable because of the dust and pollution," he said. "I'm doing this now because my father needs my help. In the future, I want to be a good carpenter."
While the bulk of international financial assistance goes to military costs, more than $6 billion a year, or nearly 40 percent of Afghanistan's gross domestic product, has been spent on civilian aid, the World Bank said in a report last May.
"Such aid dependency is almost unique," the World Bank said, adding that only a few smaller entities such as Liberia and the Palestinian territories have on occasion received more aid per capita.
The World Bank and activists have urged international donors to pull back gradually.
"The economic system we have created is not a real economy. It's a fake economy," said Mohammad Zafar Salehi of the Afghan women's rights group Young Women for Change. "If the international community withdraws too suddenly, all this hard work that they did over the last 10 years will vanish."