KABUL — As of 2014, 39 percent of Afghans lived below the poverty line. Afghans in poverty are substantially less likely to have access to electricity, safe drinking water and sanitation. Though Afghanistan is one of the top recipients of international aid, poverty is getting worse. In 2014, 1.3 million more Afghans were poor than in 2012. Money is flowing into the country, but broken institutions and violence hinder the development process.
1. War is one of the most significant causes of poverty in Afghanistan. Decades of war have destroyed economic and political institutions. In 1979, the invasion of the Soviet Union gave birth to insurgent groups such as Mujahedeen and Al Qaeda, who intensely resisted the Soviet backed government in the late 1980s. The Soviets retreated in 1989, and rival militia groups fought for power during a series of subsequent civil wars.
2. The Taliban seized control in 1996 and installed fundamentalist Islamic law that was rife with human rights abuses. In 2001, America invaded and toppled the Taliban for sheltering al-Qaeda and their leader, Osama bin Laden. The same year, the United Nations-sponsored Bonn conference established a process for democratic institutions in Afghanistan.
Despite losing power, there are still Taliban insurgents in certain provinces of Afghanistan. In 2016, 76 percent of U.S. aid to Afghanistan went to peacekeeping, counterterrorism and security sector reform. Though the military and police force have provided training and employment for local Afghans, military presence in Afghanistan has created what some call a “war economy” in which military is relied on to provide economic support for a local population.
A report from the International Security Assistance Force asserts that economic benefit to locals directly correlates with their proximity to a military base. The poorest provinces had the fewest bases. Military bases give business to local services, including construction, food, fuel and trucking. Reliance on the war economy is one of the other significant causes of poverty in Afghanistan. There are temporary benefits for some, but this system discourages development and sustainable services for everyone in the country.
Despite the establishment of democratic institutions, political corruption is a major impediment towards alleviating poverty in Afghanistan. Over the years, there have been several incidents in which money allocated for development was misused or wasted. The most notorious example was the 2010 Kabul Bank scandal, in which one billion dollars disappeared from the largest private bank in the country in a Ponzi scheme that was carried out by a group of politicians and businessmen.
Another incident occurred in 2015 when the Ministry of Education was found falsifying data and statistics in order to steal international funding. These incidents erode confidence in the international community, but more importantly, they take resources away from people in the country who desperately need it.
3. War and political chaos have made many people disillusioned with institutionalized government. Disillusionment isn’t necessarily one of the main causes of poverty in Afghanistan, but it can be an impediment to improving conditions. Having addressed the problem of military presence and centralized corruption, organizations are trying to take another approach towards development. Because Afghanistan is a provincial and primarily rural society, development tends to be more successful on a small scale.
The United Nations Development Program in Afghanistan helps communities ease into small-scale institutions by holding local elections or instituting a civilian police force, for example. This work encourages self-sufficiency and cooperation in the long term.
Political violence in Afghanistan will eventually decline, and when that happens, institutions and communities will be the most effective in maintaining peace and providing for people.
– Hannah Seitz