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

Locals Bemoan Poor Services in Afghan South

People in Zabul forced to travel to provincial capital to access healthcare and other state services.

Mohammad Rasul sat in a patch of sunshine against the wall of the public hospital in Qalat, clearly exhausted.

A week earlier, he and his sick wife travelled to the town from their home in Naw Bahar, a district of Zabul province in southern Afghanistan. Their own area has no clinic.

“She has been in hospital for the past three days,” Mohammad Rasul said. “I stay in a hotel at night. Believe me, I don’t have enough money to afford dinner. I go to sleep hungry.”

People across the southern province of Zabul complain that public services are almost entirely lacking outside Qalat, so they have to travel to the town for everything from healthcare to legal services.

“Would I suffer so many problems if there was a clinic in my own district?” Mohammad Rasul asked.

Zabul is one of Afghanistan’s least developed provinces. Officials acknowledge that public service access is poor, but say it is hard to attract properly qualified staff to work in the countryside.

“We don’t have experts in those areas – they won’t move to the districts because wages are low,” provincial governor Mohammad Ashraf Naseri told IWPR. “Another problem is the lack of office premises for civil agencies in the districts. Staff have nowhere to live and work.”

The governor said there were plans to address these issues in the near future.

“I have talked to some ministries about building new offices in the districts and sending professional employees there,” he said.

Abdurrahim, a resident of Arghandab, a district north of Qalat, said the only state institutions present in his area were the local government head and the security services.

“There is no civil administration anywhere in the district,” he said. “We have nothing in the way of education, healthcare and so on. There are no facilities. Anyone who goes to Qalat to get something done… has to spend at least 200 dollars. That’s a high cost for people in an underdeveloped province like Zabul.”

People in Arghandab, Mizani and other districts told IWPR that the lack of clinics meant that people sometimes died of even minor illnesses.

Lal Mohammad Tokhi, the head of public health in the province, said such complaints were partly justified, because state health provision had to be focused on more populous areas.

“We build a clinic wherever residents number 3,000 people. We also provide medicines and ambulances to bring emergency patients to Qalat,” Tokhi said, adding that his staff were trying to improve services in more remote areas. “At the moment, we have two or three clinics in every district.”

The economy in Zabul is based largely on agriculture and livestock-raising. Farmers say they have problems in getting essential inputs.

Hamidullah, from the Shinkay district, came to Qalat to obtain fruit saplings from the provincial agriculture department. But he said that despite travelling back and forth for the last week, officials were still refusing to give him the seedlings.

“All the people in Zabul live off agriculture, horticulture and livestock-rearing, but the department doesn’t have offices in every district to provide people with seeds, saplings, fertilisers and pesticides at the right time,” he said. “We come here and the employees hassle us, asking for money. If you don’t pay, you’ll end up spending weeks here.”

He added, “I couldn’t earn enough in three years from fruit from these saplings to cover the money that I spend on coming to Qalat and going back to my district.”

Bismillah Haripal, head of the provincial agriculture department, said it was hard to fill jobs outside the main population centres.

“We only have branches and employees in Shah Joy and Shahr-e Safa districts. We have neither staff nor offices in other districts because of a lack of experts and the low salaries,” he said. “Experts don’t like working out in the districts. We’ve had to publish advertisements and encourage people to come. We appoint them even if they are [only] high school graduates, so as to put an end to the inactivity in the districts.”

Much the same applies to legal services. Abdul Wali, who lives in Shinkay district, said people had to travel to Qalat to resolve even minor legal issues.

Once in the town, they are liable to be held up for weeks as cases drag on and officials demand bribes. Abdul Wali said that in order to resolve a dispute over ten US dollars, each side would end up spending 200 to 300 dollars.

He suggested mockingly that the government simply order people to pay money to judges and lawyers directly. “Then at least people wouldn’t have to spend nights in hotels in Qalat wasting their time,” he added.

Abdul Ghafar Afzali, the attorney general for Zabul province, accepted there was a lack of judges and lawyers in the districts, blaming the security risks they faced, the low salaries they were paid, a shortage of offices and accommodation, and even a lack of prison vans.

Afzali said his department was trying to sort out these problems.

Zabul security chief Ghulam Jilani Farahi said the dangers affecting Zabul could not be used as an excuse for local government failing to deliver services.

“We have plans to start mopping-up operations in areas where there are security problems,” he said. “We are delivering security, but ministries should also try to build their offices in the districts so as to solve people’s problems.”

Meanwhile, people in Zabul continue to make expensive trips to the Qalat, complaining of inefficiency and corruption once they get there.

Mohammad Amin, a resident of the Shamulzai district, told IWPR he was in Qalat trying to obtain an identity card, so far unsuccessfully.

“There is no one in our district except warlords,” he complained. “All public works are suspended. I’ve been here for a week to obtain an ID card. Staff come to their offices late and leave early. Their offices are like their private homes – they work if they want to, but close their doors if they don’t. Then they tell us to come back the next day.”

Niaz Mohammad Ziarmal is an IWPR trainee in Zabul province.