Afghan Pensioners Losing Hope

Retired Afghan state employees are unlikely to be compensated for years of unpaid pensions.

Afghan Pensioners Losing Hope

Retired Afghan state employees are unlikely to be compensated for years of unpaid pensions.

Tuesday, 22 February, 2005

With the first real prospect of peace and security in their country for over 23 years, long dormant social problems are beginning to re-occupy the minds of Afghans. The country's fractured social system is a major source of problems, as demonstrated by the huge numbers of former civil servants who haven't received pensions for several years.

It is estimated that over 62,000 retired government employees are owed hundreds of millions worth of dollars in unpaid pensions.

The plight of Mohammed Amin, a former colonel and civil engineer, who worked in various high-ranking posts at the ministry of defence, is typical of many ex-government employees. Encouraged by recent events, Amin decided to try to collect the twelve years worth of pension he has not received. Arriving at what he thought was the right address, he found a ruin.

The office which now deals with pensioners is the finance department for retired state employees. The office has a staff of around 117 people in Kabul and 60 in the provinces, but the difficulties it faces are legion. Not least is the damage the past year's fighting has wrought on the premises: windows are smashed; there is no drinking water and toilets are blocked and unusable. Only the director's office has electricity.

Officials say they haven't received any funds to refurbish the building, despite submitting a budget itemising the various problems.

Such everyday problems aside, officials were non-committal about the likelihood of the pensioners receiving the money owed to them. For the moment, the authorities have prioritised government employees.

At the beginning of February, around 6 million dollars of international funds were used to pay a month's worth of overdue salaries to the country's 220,000 civil servants who haven't received their wages since last July - well before the Taleban were overthrown. State employees flocked to central bank in Kabul to collect sacks full of afghanis.

The money was part of the 20 million dollars the UN special envoy Lahkdar Brahimi Brahimi raised to keep the interim government ticking over until the first of the 4.5 billion dollars of aid pledged at the Tokyo conference starts to arrive, possibly later this month.

"We feel a responsibility for the wages," said A. Khaliq Fazal, minister of public works. "The hope people had was that a different government would bring change right away. People are coming to work in the belief they will be paid. We have to follow through to maintain their trust."

It's questionable whether there will be enough money to provide civil servants the rest of their salary arrears, as there are so many more pressing financial commitments to meet - such as, for instance, paying the police and security forces.

All this does not bode well for pensioners. Even those lucky enough to be receiving some sort of stipend often find the payment of little help in the face of the extreme inflation which plagues the Afghan economy.

Abul Ghayas, a retired headmaster, recently had his application for a state pension accepted. Unfortunately, the stipend he is entitled to - about 30 dollars - does not even cover the expense of travelling to collect it.

"The government is trying to make sure that state employees get paid, but hasn't given us much thought," complained one pensioner from a village on the outskirts of the capital, who like many other former government employees needs the money to help support his impoverished relatives.

Having lost his two sons during the fighting of recent years, he is now the sole breadwinner for a ten-member family. The pension he is owed amounts to only around 8 dollars. Paltry though the amount is, it is still unknown when - or even if - this man, along with so many former government employees, will be paid.

Mohammed Taqee Bakhtyari is a Kabul-based IWPR contributor

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