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Afghanistan - report

Poverty remains Afghanistan's forgotten curse

by Tony Cross

Article published on the 2009-11-18 Latest update 2009-11-18 17:46 TU

Beggars in front of Mazar-e-Sharif's Blue Mosque.Photo: Manuel Pochez

Beggars in front of Mazar-e-Sharif's Blue Mosque.
Photo: Manuel Pochez

Afghan President Mohammed Karzai is sworn in for a second term of office on Thursday. Foreign governments have challenged him to deliver in the fight against corruption and the Taliban insurgency. But what about poverty – a curse that affects the majority of Afghans?

Report: RFI's Tony Cross on poverty in Afghanistan

19/11/2009 by Tony Cross

Ali Khan would like to go to school.

He could learn to read and write and maybe find a way out of the destitution that his family faces. But he can’t spare the time.

“If I go to school, who will bring the food for the family?” he asks.

Ali sells phone top-up cards outside Mazar-e-Sharif’s blue mosque.

The beautiful building is the centre of the city and always crowded with the Islamic faithful. They believe it houses the remains of Muhammad’s son-in-law, Ali, the last Rashidun (rightly-guided) caliphs to the Sunni, the first imam and rightful successor to the prophet to the Shia.

Mobile phone card seller Ali Khan.Photo: Tony Cross/RFI

Mobile phone card seller Ali Khan.
Photo: Tony Cross/RFI

The crowds attract beggars and street vendors like Ali, a lively, raggedly dressed boy who is already supporting a family, although he can barely be in his teens. He and his friends earn about 200 Afghanis (three euros) a day. But their takings fall if the police catch them.

“They pinch our ears and also take one of our cards from us,” Ali says. He estimates that the boys lose half a day’s earnings to the police in a week.

No wonder many Afghans want to emigrate. Khutbuddin, who is passing time in the gardens around the mosque, has been unemployed since he left school. Now he has a visa for Iran, where he hopes to work as a money transfer agent.

“It’s better for us in Iran,” he says. “It’s a more developed country than here and there are more possibilities for work. There are no job opportunities in our country.”

Figures released in 2008 showed nearly half the country’s population living in extreme poverty. Life expectancy is 43 years. A third of all children are undernourished and 165 in every 1,000 children die at birth.

But this misery attracts fewer headlines and less attention from international politicians than the now vexed question of corruption, or the Taliban insurgency, even though poverty helps the rebels recruit.

While drug barons, warlords and politicians build huge mansions in Kabul and a small middle class finds work, often with foreign NGOs or related enterprises, beggars throng the streets of most cities. And many manual workers can only find occasional work.

The roundabout on Kabul’s Dehmazang Avenue is one of several spots in the city where hundreds of casual labourers gather every morning, hoping to be hired for the day - perhaps on one of those unsightly new homes for the newly rich.

Like Ali, they can expect to earn about 200 Afghanis a day.

By 2pm most have either found a job or given up. But a dozen or so stay behind. Mohammad, a building worker, is still waiting to see if something will turn up.

He has not worked all week and he has not eaten all day.

“Every day we come here,” he says. “We come here but there is no job for us.”

Day labourer Abdurrahim.Photo: Tony Cross/RFI

Day labourer Abdurrahim.
Photo: Tony Cross/RFI

Abdurrahim, a building worker and house painter, last worked the day before yesterday and fears his luck may have run out now.

“If we work for one day, we will be free for two or three days,” he says. “Even if we work for ten days, the next ten days we will be free. We want to do any kind of work.”

To feed his family, he and his wife set aside staples like flour while he is earning so as to fill bellies while he is not.

“It is so difficult for us to feed our family,” Abdurrahim says.

The poor were hit hard by last year’s food inflation, which saw the price of wheat flour more than double. Flour prices have dropped this year but are still 23 per cent higher than in August 2007, according to the World Food Programme. And oil and petrol, used not just for transport but for heating and cooking, are still expensive.

In a rare move, the government has subsidised these essentials, allowing motorists and householders to buy 15 litres at a third less than the market price.

Children collect their families’ ration of household fuel, while long tailbacks of cars form outside petrol stations.

Said Hussein earns a living driving his car through the city’s congested streets. Waiting outside a Kabul service station, he says the cheap petrol is a lifeline.

Said Hussein waits to fill up... for two hours.Photo: Tony Cross/RFI

Said Hussein waits to fill up... for two hours.
Photo: Tony Cross/RFI

“It solves big problems for us,” he says. “It is so difficult. We have to wait for two hours at this petrol station and the streets are crowed, there are traffic jams. We have many problems.”

Afghanistan has untapped mineral resources, including copper and iron, along with precious stones such as emerald, ruby, sapphire and lapis lazuli. And it is strategically placed near central Asian oil, gas and cotton.

But its infrastructure is in ruins after decades of war and so is its education system. Taliban insurgency and corruption make the problems worse, while the sufferings of the poor are not a major geostrategic consideration for the big powers. So its people are likely to be seeking permanent employment for some time yet.