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

A Nation Plagued by Poverty

Poor economic conditions are second only to security among the concerns of the Afghan people.
By Munir Meharaban

Her husband is crippled and blind; six of her children died, and another son beat her, then abandoned her. Now the 50-year-old Kandahar woman gets her bread from beggars.

In Heli Kalacha village, Dand district, the woman said that she buys third-hand bread from madrassa students. The students go house-to-house begging for it. She pays a small pittance for the bread, which is "sometimes cold and rotten", she said.

Bread is the only sustenance for many Afghans, who are so poor that they can't afford anything else to eat.

In a nationwide survey, men and women in many cities, villages and remote mountainous areas, told journalists that economic problems, especially unemployment and low wages, are second only to security and equal to water shortage on the list of their biggest problems.

The views were obtained in a survey of 3,000 people in 21 provinces - conducted in mid-August by 100 journalists, as part of a workshop organised by IWPR on journalism and the presidential election.

In the Kabul region, economic problems were counted as even more important than security. Lack of decent, affordable housing was also ranked high among economic problems.

When talking about their poverty, some Afghans grew angry.

A 45-year-old mother living in Rahman Mina of Kabul spoke harshly to the journalist interviewing her, thinking he was a government worker and directed her comments to the president, “Do something to end the hunger of the people! Everybody is hungry and homeless. You allied with mujahedin [leaders] and you are eating all the money that is coming from foreigners. Shame on you!”

Solving these problems will take action by more than one ministry. Economic problems are related to other top problems mentioned by citizens in the survey: security, lack of water, health care, education, and lack of electricity, roads and transportation.

An economist and associate professor at Kabul University, Sayad Massoud, said that until basic projects of roads, water and electricity are done, there is little chance of economic development.

In part, he said, that is because independent small businesses are the engine of the economy and the fact that the government has done nothing for them is an "economic sin".

In addition, the government needs to diversify the economy into other sectors.

Roads, water and electricity in rural areas are also important to stop the flow of villagers to the cities, which undermines agriculture, Massoud insisted, pointing out that the government should assist development of agriculture and handicrafts to help develop village economies.

Poverty has increased over the last 25 years because of war, forced migration and drought. Water and electrical systems, factories, roads and buildings were destroyed and neglected during the years of conflict. Millions were disabled in fighting and from land mines. Fleeing the country, people lost all their belongings and property, and their education was disrupted. And the drought destroyed agriculture, a major occupation for Afghans.

Agricultural areas have suffered not only from the drought and the lack of irrigation systems, but also the lack of roads. Without decent roads and transport, farmers can't get their produce to the major markets in cities.

A 70-year-old man in Qarghanatu, 33 km from the centre of Bamyan province, said there are no cars to make the hour and a half trip, “Our vegetables get rotten before they reach the centre of Bamyan.”

Lack of roads and transport not only hurts farmers, but also makes it difficult to enforce security, get to hospital and find work.

Even though construction is happening in many places as the country is being rebuilt, people must look far and wide for jobs.

In Kabul and eastern and southern parts of the country, Afghans have to compete for jobs with Pakistanis, who have more skills and also will accept lower wages – even though many of them are here illegally.

“Panjabis are coming from Pakistan and working here," said a 20-year-old unemployed man in Loya Viala, Kandahar, "but the people of Kandahar are going to Pakistan in search of work.”

Salaries have remained very low, even as the price of housing, food and fuel has skyrocketed, people said.

The words of a 39-year-old woman living in Nangarhar were typical, “My husband is a clerk and he has a salary of 2,000 afghanis (about 45 US dollars), which is not enough for us to live on. When my children get sick, I don't know what to do with them.”

Getting married is out of the question for many men because of the high bride price. Around the country, it varies from around 40,000 to 300,000 afghanis (900 to 6,000 dollars). This doesn't include the costs of the wedding and gifts to the bride's family, which can add many thousands more.

“I will give my vote to the one who gives me money," said a 23-year-old in Kandahar, "because I am engaged and I don’t have 200,000 (Pakistani) rupees (3,500 dollars) to give in dowry.”

Of course, the new president won't be able to simply hand out cash. The question of how to make the economy healthy is a complex one.

Bashir Mashal, assistant to the minister of mines and light industry, said, “The basic financial problem of the Afghan people is unemployment. Because finances or economy depends on agriculture, and the continuous drought for many years demolished the watering and agriculture system of the country, so it devastated financial conditions too.”

He believes the only strategy to provide jobs for Afghan people is building factories to make use of the country's raw materials, work force, and good environment for investment.

“We had 100,000 workers in 32 factories, 20 years ago," Mashal said. "But now we have only 8,000 workers due to the lack of energy, and old-fashioned machinery.”

Three factories, in Kunduz, Balkh and Baghlan, are being reconstructed and updated by a French and a German company, with money from the German government, he said.

In the current budget year, the Afghan government budgeted 20 million dollars to invest in new factories. Over three years, the plan is to build plants in at least seven provinces, which will provide 1 million jobs, Mashal said.

Munir Meharaban is an IWPR trainer in Kabul.