The problem in Afghanistan today, and let us be cognizant of this reality, is at least as much economic as it is political. However, the economic deprivations that may have led to large swathes of the Afghan land becoming vulnerable to a Taliban takeover – that is to say lack of sustainable employment and income generation opportunities – have largely been ignored by both the government in Kabul and the Western alliance that has fought to keep Afghanistan together since 2003. Pakistan continues to reiterate that a stable Afghanistan means a stable region, which implies a stable Pakistan. But stability continues to be defined in a military sense which has led to multiple talks with the Taliban and discussions over the involvement of the Pakistani security establishment, military aid by India and the timing of the American exit from the region. Rarely – if ever – has the discussion about stability in Afghanistan been about how the Western alliance and regional powers, including India and Pakistan, would commit to bringing about sustainable economic development in Afghanistan. The literature on the Afghan economy, as I argued in my piece on this page last week, is largely absent. There is data produced by World Bank which while being comprehensive suffers enormously from conjectures. Other evidence is hard to find.
Rarely – if ever – has the discussion about stability in Afghanistan been about how the Western alliance and regional powers, including India and Pakistan, would commit to bringing about sustainable economic development in Afghanistan
I have used that data to construct a social profile of Afghanistan. If in one sentence, one were to define the social and development status of Afghanistan, it would be that the deprivations of the Afghans are perfectly consistent with most health and education variables unchanging even after billions in official development assistance (ODA) and years of American intervention.
One reason why ODA and foreign direct investmen (FDI) may not have contributed to improved growth and development is poor institutional quality – which might have suffered from chronic political instability. However, those suffering at the hands of such deprivations have little reason to believe in the American claims of fostering change, given that there is little improvement in the lives they continue to lead. If insecurity were the cost of prosperity, they have paid that cost for the last two decades – but with prosperity not really in sight. Infact, the further away you are from Kabul, the more deprived you are of any ODA, aid and foreign investment that the West and India so vehemently claim to have committed to the development of Afghanistan.
Nearly half of Afghanistan’s population (47.3%) lives the below the national poverty line. Even though poverty is pervasive and chronic in Pakistan too, right before the onset of the Coronavirus, only 24% of Pakistan’s population lived below the national poverty line; an estimate that ballooned up to 33% in the first few months of COVID owing to the estimated 3 million job losses. While 47.3% live below the poverty line, 34.3% of the employed population of Afghanistan also lives below the international poverty line of USD 1.90/day. That makes Afghanistan the poorest country in South Asia despite reports that India is home to the largest gross number of poor people in South Asia. 47.3% of the Afghan population of 39 million is roughly 18 million people, which is slightly above the population of Karachi. An entire Karachi in Afghanistan thus lives below the national poverty line. That is huge and worrisome, to say the least.
In 2002, when the Americans entered the region, an average Afghan spent 85% of their health expenditure out of their pocket. In 2018, that number had reduced to 78% - still making Afghanistan the country with the highest private expenditure on health
Two factors seem to contribute ever so greatly to the rising poverty in Afghanistan. One clearly is the lack of profitable employment opportunities specifically for the country’s youth. And the second is the cultural taboo that is associated with female labour participation.
According to 2018 data, only 29% of females are literate and only 21% participate in the labour force. Among men, these numbers are 55% and 76%, respectively. 13.8% of the females who are part of the labor force, don’t seem to attract work and remain unemployed while a total of 11.7% of the entire labour force of Afghanistan is unemployed. This has to be one of the highest pre-Covid unemployment rates in South Asia. Pakistan has persisted with an unemployment rate slightly below 5%, which comprises of a rate slightly above 5% for females and slightly below 5% for males. One finds similar pre-Covid statistics in India and Bangladesh.
The Afghan Government spends around 4% of its GDP on education, which is nearly four times what it spends on the military. That is higher than many countries in South Asia. However, the spending on health is low despite life expectancy at birth staying above 60 years for both males and females. Males expect to live 63.3 years at birth while females expect 66.3 years. Infant mortality is 46.5 per 1,000 live births, which is slightly higher for males than that for females: that should, in a way, explain the slight difference in the life expectancy of males and females. While health expenditures have continued to improve since 9/11, the pace at which they have increased is much slower than that of Pakistan and other South Asian countries like India and Bangladesh. In 2002, when the Americans entered the region, an average Afghan spent 85% of their health expenditure out of their pocket. In 2018, that number had reduced to 78% - still making Afghanistan the country with the highest private expenditure on health.
Barring life expectancy levels which are at par with the regional average for South Asia, the social indicators of Afghanistan, albeit showing some improvements, are a glaring and somewhat sad reflection on the American claims of transforming the wartorn country. At some level, it seems, the country is left poorer than it was in 2002. Those who pull the strings and call the shots in the region have to revisit the policy of focusing too much on the politics of conflict in Afghanistan – if they are to allow space to make reflections on its economy.