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

Afghans Struggle to Earn Living

Despite some job creation schemes, government accused of laissez-faire economic policies that boost unemployment.
By Hafiz Ahmad Miakhel

Shahbaz stands at the Kotai Sangi junction with a set of builder’s tools, just as he does every day, hoping someone will take him on. 

"I have nine family members and I need to earn some money to feed my children,” he told IWPR. “But there isn’t any work. I come in the morning and leave in the evening just like that.”

Hundreds of men like Shahbaz, 60, spend their days at intersections in the Afghan capital Kabul offering their labour to anyone who will hire them

Their plight is shared with millions across Afghanistan who are unable to earn a living in a country impoverished and devastated by war.

Their government says it understands their situation and is doing all it can to provide training to help people into work and to create jobs for them, but that ultimately it cannot control the way the private sector operates.

Critics, however, say the government has itself contributed to the employment problem through laissez-faire policies that have allowed businesses to import rather than manufacture goods, crushing local industry.

The government’s central statistical agency says that as of 2009, about nine million people were living in poverty around the country.

"Nine million people living in poverty is a very high figure and is a matter of concern for us. These people have an income of about one US dollar a day," Wasel Nur Mohmand, the deputy minister of labour and social affairs, said.

Recent population numbers for Afghanistan range between 26 million, a figure compiled by the national statistics agency but not counting some unsafe parts of the country, and a United Nations estimate of 28 million for 2009.

Mohmand said there were currently 3.5 million people counted as able to work but unemployed, a figure he said consisted mainly of men.

The United States-led invasion of late 2001 and the establishment of a post-Taleban administration raised hopes of economic recovery after two decades of conflict.

Refugees began heading home from Pakistan and Iran as donor aid pledges flooded in and some investors began showing an interest in the country. Such hopes have faded over the years as the Taleban have regained strength and a western-backed government widely viewed as inefficient and corrupt has failed to deliver growth and public services.

“When we lose our job, we face poverty, the mother of all crimes,” Sayed Masud, an economist lecturing at Kabul University, said.

Zaher Ghaus, deputy minister of information and culture, points out that unemployment brings a multitude of problems as well as sheer poverty – young people may emigrate in hope of finding work abroad, they may turn to illicit drugs, or they may join the Taleban insurgents.

“We can say unemployment is a factor behind all these problems,” he added.

In a predominantly youthful population with low literacy rates, finding jobs for young people is clearly an urgent need. But Gholam Daud Shoaib, head of the Youth Association of Afghanistan, told a recent conference in Kabul that the authorities were neglecting the problem.

Mohmand said efforts were being made to create jobs in both the public and private sectors, and his ministry had found work for more than 2.5 million young people in the past four years.

Special emphasis was being placed on giving young people skills, with vocational training programmes that benefited 108,000 in 2009-10.

Mohmand said young people were frequently left outside the job market because they had nothing to offer potential employers.

“Both government and the private sector employ people who have skills,” he said. “Many of our young people don’t have these skills, which is why they are unemployed.”

“We have a vocational training programme targeting 240,000 young people in all provinces,” he said. “We’ve set up 24 vocational training centres across Afghanistan to prepare young people for work.”

It is not only the least educated who find it hard to get into work.

Ashabuddin graduated from the agriculture faculty of Nangarhar university in southeast Afghanistan last year, and is now unemployed, helping his father out on their farmland.

“Of the 83 students who graduated from our class, only a few have got jobs, and the rest are unemployed,” he said. “Those who have contacts in the authorities can get jobs, but my father is a farmer and I don’t know anyone in a government or other agency who can land me a job.”

Ashabuddin now regrets all the time he spent studying.

“This country has no need for work or knowledge,” he said. “Only war is needed here, that is all.”

Analysts like Masud accuse the government of failing to support fledgling industries in the face of competition from outside.

Although early investors created factories in various parts of Afghanistan, particularly in the relatively secure Herat province, many of them have since foundered. Analysts say these local manufacturers were unable to compete with flood of imported goods brought in tax-free by powerful traders taking advantage of the economic free-for-all, many of them former warlords turned political players.

As a result, Masud said, factories had gone bankrupt even in areas like Kabul and Herat, and Afghanistan had become a country reliant on imported goods rather than producing its own.

“The government has to turn a consumption economy into a productive one,” he said. “Factories must be set up and people employed. If the government managed agriculture well, every Afghan would have a job.”

Mohmand insisted the government and the private sector had agreed a joint strategy to reduce unemployment levels.

“The agriculture ministry alone can provide 80 per cent of young people with employment, while, the ministries of mining and of trade and industry will employ them in mines and factories.”

Deputy trade and industry minister Gholam Mohammad Yailaqi agreed that job creation and new industries were a priority, but was more guarded than Mohmand, saying that in a market economy, government cannot regulate the private sector.

“We have made some suggestions to the cabinet of ministers regarding these problems, but they cite the free market as an excuse,” he said.

Hafiz Ahmad Miakhel is an IWPR trainee reporter in Kabul.