Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Afghanistan: State Sector Job Loss Fears

Politicians and workers alike are worried by the interim authority's plan to get rid off surplus ministerial staff they can no longer afford to pay.
By Abdul Qadeer

The word is spreading through the corridors of Afghanistan's ministries - 30 per cent of their jobs are going to be cut.


The threat of imminent unemployment has hit morale and some senior state officials believe political discontent could soon follow.


"I am worried just like any other government worker," said education ministry executive director of administration Mohammad Saleem. "They don't understand why the interim authority should create more unemployment. If this goes ahead it will be a cruel blow to the public."


Initially proposed by the ministry of finance and agreed by the cabinet on May 11, the 30 per cent cut will not be universally applied across the civil service, according to Ahmed Waheed Shekaib, the interim authority's director of administrative policy development.


Yet according to his own figures, the cuts will be greater than the proposed figure. For example, the ministries of communication and higher education will see staff reductions of around 40 per cent to 2,869 and 5,090 respectively.


A shortage of funds from the donor nations and a near absence of state taxation have left only limited resources with which to pay state sector salaries. Some employees have not been paid in months, even in essential areas such as health care and education.


The interim government has set itself an annual budget of 480 million US dollars to cover these kinds of costs, but it realistically expects to raise only 80 million dollars in taxes.


The balance is supposed to come from a World Bank trust fund likely to come into effect in July, though the donor nations have been slow to pledge funds. The bank has deposited 40 million dollars and the European Union promised 50 million euros in May, but that is all that has been received to date.


Ashraf Ghani, the former top World Bank official who now heads the Afghanistan Assistance Coordination Authority, denied that donor nations have demanded the cuts as a precondition for financing, as has happened in other developing and post-conflict states.


But some Afghan authorities see the current situation as a chance to shake out the scores of unqualified or under-performing staff members who originally got their jobs as favours or through political connections. The talk is making employees and their department bosses skittish.


"The interim authority should solve the people's problems, not increase them," says Najibullah Amani, a civil servant in charge of the education ministry's transportation requirements.


"The government and the administration belong to the people. They have legal rights to work and no one must take these rights from them - the bitter experiences of the past must not be repeated."


Thousands of workers lost their jobs in the huge communist-era state bureaucracies after the fall of the Najibullah regime. The chaos of civil war and the esoteric employment practices of the Taleban were followed in turn by the arrival of the Northern Alliance - dominated by ethnic Afghan Tajiks - which has been widely accused of discriminating against other ethnic groups and promoting its allies to key positions.


"It's only in the adverts and the newspapers that they say that jobs go to the 'suitably qualified'," said one jobless youth, regarding the no vacancies sign outside one ministry. "Go inside and ask in any department where they come from. Whole offices are staffed by people from the same village or valley."


Former Kabul university political science professor Gul Rahman Qazi argues that the interim authority has to put an end to the employment of the unqualified and the filling of non-essential posts.


Yet he recognised the domestic discontent such policies would cause when alternative employment across the country is so scarce. "These surplus jobs should go and their holders should be made redundant - but this does not mean that people should be left with no work," he said.


He warned that if the authorities went ahead with their plans, there was a danger that people might revolt.


But the interim authority's general director of administrative affairs, Mohammad Yousef Etibar, insisted that there had to be a link between the scale of the state workforce and "the realistic ability of the state to pay for its gross national product".


The various ministries have been canvassed for their views on possible job cuts and their responses have yet to be analysed. But Etibar repeatedly said that staff would not be dismissed against their will or sacked without alternative employment.


"We do not want to just sack state workers, so we will offer retirement packages to staff old enough to qualify and offer new jobs to others in other state agencies," he said.


Abdul Qadeer Munsif is a freelance journalist in Kabul.


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