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Decline and Stagnation: Why Rural Afghans are Staying Poor

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Decline and Stagnation: Why Rural Afghans are Staying Poor

Despite the influx of millions of foreign aid, rural communities across large parts of Afghanistan are getting poorer. A recent study by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit has investigated the factors that have crippled the situation in rural areas of Afghanistan. These factors include failed harvests, ill health and cost of marriages.

The study’s findings call for the government and other institutions to take into consideration rural poverty reduction. Policies that focus primarily on growth and markets, which do not consider who will benefit and how, most likely result in meeting the needs of the rural areas. Findings from AREU’s rural livelihoods research show that efforts to tackle rural poverty must focus on reducing the shocks of failed harvests and ill health, along with the crippling cost of marriages.

Failed Harvests

A lack of irrigation infrastructure made the prolonged drought afflicting Northern Afghanistan difficult to cope with for many households in Badakhshan and Sar-i-Pul. Declining land production threatened the food security of land owners, sharecroppers and agricultural labourers alike. As a result, many were forced to sell livestock or borrow cash to buy food, depleting herds and building substantial debts.

Such dry spells are far from unusual in Afghanistan, leaving rural households faced with the ongoing threat of crop loss or failure. This reality must be urgently addressed in a way that takes bout subsistence farmers and market producers into account. Limited land availability and a fear of relying on the market for basic food supplies mean many farm households priorities subsistence production. Data from the 2007/08 National Risk and Vulnerability Assessment (NRVA) supports this – 44 percent of rural Afghans rely on agriculture as a primary source of income and of these 54 percent farm for household consumption. This raises questions about the current focus of agriculture policy on improving production for markets. Farmers may resist rapid moves to market production if they feel it could jeopardise food production, especially in more remote mountainous areas where margins of livelihood security are thin to begin with. Policies should work first and foremost to reduce the impact of harvest losses on food security and income levels. One way to do this through crop insurance mechanisms.   The country’s financial services sector is predominantly focused on delivering credit and currently offers no insurance products. The governments and insurance schemes to guard against such losses.  However, legal barriers and capacity constraints limit priority to improve the sector’s ability ro respond to peoples needs and make agriculture a more viable livelihood choice.

Ill Health

While health expenditures placed considerable financial strain on households across different wealth groups, they hit the poor particularly hard. Major health crises often led to high debts and asset sales, and in a few cases families were refused treatment because they could not afford it. The ill health of a Healthcare costs were sometimes higher than necessary because concerns about the quality of government demonstrates a nationwide preference for private care-54 percent of respondents uses some form of private care as a first resort, compared to the 40 percent that relied on government facilities. The same survey also highlights the burden that healthcare place on household budgets, estimating that a family of seven spends an average of $252 a year on health costs. Overall, these findings show that the current cost of treatment leaves people highly vulnerable to poverty

The Ministry of Public Health sector strategy acknowledges this problem. However, while it has policed a community based health financing programme (with mixed success), it offers no direct targets for reducing healthcare costs. One way to manage healthcare spending is to prevent people from getting ill in the first place, something which will require improvements in the accessibility and quality of government health facilities. In addition, more work is needed to develop community-run insurance schemes that can help prevent major medical crises from driving households into proverty.

Cost of marriage

Social events like marriage are an important way for households to strengthen social relationships and demonstrate their membership within village communities. However, the cost of such events can be extremely high-and can jeopardize future livelihood security. In many instances, financing a wedding led households to mount considerable debts and sell off productive assets. Some poorer households were unable to marry their sons at all due to prohibitively high bride prices. The burden these expenses generate means it is vital to find an appropriate way to manage spending levels. Simply imposing spending limits from outside will not work. To properly counter the pressures of competition, conformity and pride that push bride prices higher, a local consensus on the benefits of spending limits must be built. Finding ways to share the experiences of villages where limits have already been successfully implemented is one way forward, as are public outreach campaigns which promote the acceptability of change.

Political expedience is driving the policy agenda in Afghanistan. In too many cases, this has led to programs and strategies that are largely divorced from the interests and experiences of ordinary Afghans. The study’s results show that meaningful, targeted action to reduce rural poverty is needed. Only when the poor can reap the benefits of gains in growth and security will Afghanistan move any closer to a sustainable peace and lasting economic security.

The Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) is an independent research organization based in Kabul. AREU’s mission is to inform and influence policy and practice through conducting high-quality, policy-relevant research and actively disseminating the results, and to promote a culture of research and learning. AREU was established in 2002 by the assistance community working in Afghanistan and has a board of directors with representation from donors, the United Nations and other multilateral agencies, and non-governmental organizations.

Source: www.areu.org.af



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