Agriculture, Food, and Poverty in Afghanistan

Is a "Population-centric" Strategy Possible?

It has taken nearly eight years for the member countries in ISAF, and International Aid donors, to realize just how critical Afghanistan’s agricultural sector is to many of its people. Food security and distribution is also a major problem and both are sources of vulnerability for the Afghanistan given its 30 year history of violence and given the scale of Taliban and insurgent operations. Moreover, both agriculture and food distribution are caught up in the problems raised by Afghan dependence on opium cultivation, extortion and corruption in aid and transport operations at every level, and manipulation by national and local power brokers.

The Scale of Food, Poverty and Agricultural Needs

While there are no reliable statistics virtually any aspect of Afghan agriculture, there does seem to be broad consensus about the scale of the problem. A past DoD report on Afghanistan provided the unintentionally humorous statistic that some 60% of Afghans have enough food some of the time. A form of “spin” that ignored the obvious corollary that 40% of Afghans do not have enough food all of the time, and there was no way to know what part of the 60% had enough food often enough to matter.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights was a great deal more frank – and useful – in its effort to address these issues in an April 2010 report based on a 14-province survey:

Poverty actually kills more Afghans than those who die as a direct result of the armed conflict either accidental, nor inevitable; it is both a cause and a consequence of a massive human rights deficit. The deficit includes widespread impunity and inadequate investment in, and attention to, human rights. Patronage, corruption, impunity and over-emphasis on short-term goals rather than targeted long-term development are exacerbating a situation of dire poverty that is the condition of an overwhelming majority of Afghans.

...According to the report published by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), some 9 million Afghans – 36 per cent of the population – are believed to live in absolute poverty and a further 37 per cent live only slightly above the poverty line, despite an estimated injection of some $35 billion during the period 2002-2009. Afghanistan has the second highest maternal mortality rate in the world and the third highest rate of child mortality. Only 23 per cent of the population have access to safe drinking water, and only 24 per cent of Afghans above the age of 15 can read and write, with much lower literacy rates among women and nomadic populations.

The Causes A Population-Centric Strategy Must Now Address

The UN OHCHR report, quite correctly, directly links these conclusions to both the steadily growing levels of conflict in Afghanistan and to virtually all of the other problems in implementing the new population-centric strategy.  It outlines the following key determinants of poverty:

  • a weak assets base
  • ineffective institutions: including the disabling economic environment; weak regional governance, service delivery and corruption; weak social protection programming; social inequalities
  • vulnerability to: conflict, natural disasters; decreasing rule of law; increasing basic costs; increasing population; food insecurity; winterization
  • diverse livelihoods

OHCHR also provides the following assessment of poverty in Afghanistan – the causes, the problems it creates, and the effectiveness of international aid in alleviating poverty:

Abuse of power is a key driver of poverty in Afghanistan. Vested interests frequently shape the public agenda, whether in relation to the law, policy, or the allocation of resources. This report argues that the Government is often unable to deliver basic services, such as security, food, or shelter. Widespread corruption further limits access to services for a large proportion of the population. In addition, many Afghans perceive international actors as primarily interested in short-term objectives rather than challenging entrenched and abusive power structures. Afghans are acutely conscious that opportunities have been squandered with immediate, as well as long-term, ramifications. This has reinforced a strong sense of disillusionment and growing skepticism about the future of the democratization process among a wide swathe of Afghan society. 

In addition, cultural norms exacerbate discriminatory practices particularly in relation to women. Few Afghans, and especially the poor, participate in, or influence, decisions that have major consequences for their security and well-being. Numerous decisions are made in fora and policy circles beyond Afghanistan and are often geared to meet short-term objectives that have little to do with the safety and best interests of impoverished Afghans. Reconstruction and stabilization efforts do not necessarily seek to respond to the development needs that have been identified by concerned communities. Political and military, and at times personal, agendas override the public interest. 
The intensification and spread of the armed conflict in recent years has increased insecurity and exacerbated poverty. Insecurity dominates policy discussions and funding decisions, neglecting the importance of social and economic security that is central to establishing stability and a just and lasting peace. The disproportionate allocation of funds to insecure areas at the expense of relatively stable areas has added to the disillusionment of a growing number of Afghans in the Government and its international partners.

Many of the respondents interviewed during the field research believed that only 15–20 per cent of the food aid reached the poorest people. For example, only 40 sacks of wheat were distributed to some 600 families through food aid programme in Badgah village in the Western Ghor Province, while in Kasi village in the same province, only 10 sacks were provided to some 300 families. These communities felt that this amount was woefully insufficient given their level of poverty. Apart from the general disillusionment, the communities believed, rightly or wrongly, that the food aid had been either embezzled or diverted elsewhere. Such beliefs were heard again and again throughout the field survey. In Tirinkot, Uruzgan Province, some policemen took a large share of the food aid by force: “when the authorities distributing the aid refused to give a share to policemen, the police fired in the air to hold control of the situation”, said a local interviewed by field researchers.   In Charsada district of Ghor Province, many Government officials were found to be involved in stealing food aid in 2009; despite repeated complaints from the population, no action was ever taken.

...The patronage system goes down to district administrator or even lower level appointments in certain districts. When decision-makers face resistance or opposition, including from the constituencies they are supposed to serve, the patronage system ensures that favored power-holders are simply re-shuffled to another location or official position. The current political system removes, or at best obscures, the few currently existing accountability mechanisms...This leaves Afghans subject to the fickle and shifting allegiances of patronage politics.

... The most discussed aspect of the abuse of power in Afghanistan is corruption and the diversion of resources, including those allocated by the international community. In 2005 Afghanistan ranked 117 out of 159 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Index. Four years later, Afghanistan was assessed as the second most corrupt country in the world, just ahead of strife-torn Somalia...In 2010, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported that Afghans paid USD 2.5  billion in bribes over the past year...One Afghan out of two had to pay at least one bribe to a public official. This amounted to an average of USD 158 paid per capita, in a country that has an annual GDP per capita of USD 425, thus “a crippling tax on people who are already among the world’s poorest.

... Armed conflict has impacted the lives of almost all Afghans, namely 96 per cent of the population...This is a staggering statistic that includes deaths, injuries, disability, and destruction of homes, assets, and livelihoods that are essential for survival. The ICRC study also shows that 76 per cent of Afghans were driven from their homes and 6 per cent became separated from their own families during the long years of war.

... Decades of warfare have also had repercussions on traditional, community-level, dispute resolution mechanisms that have significant financial and other implications for the rural poor. Frequently, personal enmities and local disputes, particularly in the context of access to, or use of, natural resources such as land, water, forests or pastures, lead to outcomes that are disadvantageous to the least powerful. A recent example from Khost Province, that is not unusual elsewhere in the country, resulted in dozens of deaths...In this instance, the Jirga decided to ban the rival parties altogether from accessing the contested resources. To maintain a ceasefire, the Jirga also closed schools, clinics and certain transportation routes, thus not only denying the local population’s access to services, but also adding an additional economic burden as trade was impeded. 

Afghans have repeatedly, identified “poverty and unemployment as the driving forces behind insecurity”, and called for these issues to be addressed as a priority...According to a recent Oxfam study, “seventy per cent of Afghans surveyed see poverty and unemployment as the major cause of the conflict in their country.”...Some people participate in insurgent activities to acquire an income. Joining anti-government elements or undertaking other illegal activities, such as drug production and trafficking, is often more lucrative, and with immediate returns, than struggling with farming or working in the informal sector for low wages. For example, some Kuchi youth in the south- eastern province of Khost, reported to field researchers that planting road mines or IEDs, brings in between Pak Rs.1000 and 5000 (about USD16 to 80)...while a fortunate daily labourer earns a maximum of USD4 a day. Revenge and rivalry are amongst other factors explaining the interest of some who participate directly in the armed conflict. 

...The Government’s inability to protect communities from lawlessness puts Afghans at the mercy of power-holders. A pertinent example includes a commander in Faryab Province who forced economic migrants working in Iran to pay a share of their earnings as a tax for his own benefit —called Iranpoli literally translated as “Iran money.” His control would even reach personal matters: no wedding ceremony could take place unless each party paid him around USD100 and he would even have a say in the choice of the spouses. The Government was unable to intervene as the area was insecure and under the control of the local commander’s armed men...Only a joint commission composed of local influential leaders (comprising former commanders, religious and other community leaders), that supported provincial authorities, was eventually able to disarm his group. Similar examples can be found throughout Afghanistan and highlight the numerous difficulties faced by the poor.

The Need to End the Stovepipes in Addressing These Issues

The practical dilemma in implementing the new strategy is that food and agriculture problems cannot be separated from problems caused by conflict, corruption, and narcotics trafficking. Moreover, winning the war requires efforts that can have a sustained effect on a scale large enough to win the support of both farmers and the general population—much of which now is either “urbanized” (settled in populated areas without direct ties to agriculture), or settled in areas where they may provide some seasonal farm labor but are not landowners or employed as farmers long enough to live without serious malnutrition. The UN report notes that, “the rural population, which accounts for 74 per cent of Afghans, faces particular challenges. It is estimated that the proportion of poor households among those that own land is 26 per cent, while amongst those that rent, sharecrop or have a mortgage on their land, the proportion is 42 per cent.”

The Uncertain Value of Current Agricultural Aid Efforts

Classic agricultural aid may or may not solve any of these problems at the scale required for a successful population-centric strategy. Many Afghan “farmers” do not have enough land on a per capita basis to feed their families – much less earn a living.  Aid that benefits individual farmers may or may not have enough scale of effect to really improve this situation. It may have little or no impact on poverty relief and food security in Afghanistan, as GIRoA corruption and insurgent extortion can affect every aspect of both agriculture and food distribution.

Where agricultural aid programs do reach part of the population, they may not have the desired result. Aid may benefit some farmers at the expense of most of the local population, much of the money may be lost to power brokers or insurgent extortion, and pressure from narcotics traffickers and insurgents may limit or cripple the impact of such programs.

No aid organization – including UNAMA and USAID – has provided any meaningful data on any aspect of the effectiveness of its efforts. There are sometimes project or activity counts, but they are never related to the requirement nationally or in a given area, or to any meaningful measurement of actual output. More than eight years into a war and aid effort, official reporting consists of spin or overly-broad data that are worthless in addressing either Afghan needs or the impact of aid efforts on the conflict.

Equal Problems in the Food Aid Effort

The data from the World Food Program are only marginally better. Taken at face value, the WFP reports that it distributes food to some 9 million Afghans. This means the program directly affects roughly a third of all Afghans, and indirectly affects all Afghans since it reduces the pressure of poverty on the entire economy. Taken at face value, this means that the WFP runs the most important single aid effort – or aid and GIRoA effort—reaching the Afghan population.

This also means that the adequacy of this program is even more critical in the near term than improving agriculture, and should be a key aspect of planning the hold and build aspects of the new strategy. The problem is that WFP reporting  -- like most aid reporting -- does not address corruption, extortion, distribution problems, or any other measure of the effect of its efforts other than a gross number of the Afghans who are supposed to benefit from its programs.

Current unclassified US and ISAF reporting largely ignores the full implications of the WFP effort, and the interactions between agriculture and food supply. They spend far more time looking at the impact of opium and narcotics trafficking. Hold and build are described in the same “input” terms as aid reporting – with the same tendency to spin the story by ignoring any measure of effectiveness and  impact each program has on addressing the needs of the population. The WFP effort – which the US contributes to – is virtually ignored.

Limits in the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Report

Indeed, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights report referred to earlier also presents serious problems in the quality of its reporting and analysis. It flags key issues, but then largely ignores the realities of the war, the scale of insurgent influence and control, and the practical problems in implementing aid and addressing poverty in a war zone.
It does not address either the impact of the WFP program or any aspect of the agricultural program. It does not address the major structural problems in improving Afghan agriculture raised by water, weather, terrain, distribution, etc. flagged by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). It also uses population data based on an unclear source, and does not address either the growing urbanization of the Afghan population or the impact of Afghan demographics.

There are limits to how many of these problems must be solved in order to win the war. Afghan expectations are low. Roads, water, education, electricity, basic security, checks on small-scale corruption and elementary forms of prompt justice consistently emerge as the most immediate concerns in both polls and studies of local perceptions. It is also true that none of the numbers quoted by aid organizations are reliable – nor are any other data on the Afghan population and economy. Nevertheless, unclassified reporting implies that there is a massive gap in the focus of the new strategy when it comes to agriculture and food security –  one that is not coherently addressed, or really addressed at all, in any current policy statement or report by ISAF, the US government, or the UN.

The Critical Impact of Afghan Demographics

Afghan demographics are not a peripheral problem – despite the fact than no unclassified US report, or UN report, makes any meaningful effort to address them. War, crisis and civil conflict are only part of the problem that a population centric strategy must now address.

While population estimates differ, the UN Census Bureau estimates that Afghanistan’s population has doubled since the Soviet invasion in 1979 – an estimate that tracks UN, Afghan, and CIA data. The Afghan population has almost quadrupled since 1950, and will increase by at least another 20% during the course of this decade. Moreover, the Afghan population is extremely young, with some 45% of people under 15 years of age, and at least 85% born since the Soviet invasion. Coupled with population displacement and refugee issues, these are realities that make references to a traditional Afghan society suspect at best.
Demographic forces are a key factor behind Afghan “urbanization,” poverty, and food needs. Failure to address them in aid reporting makes it difficult to understand the different dynamics that affect the agriculture sector and poverty on a larger scale in Afghanistan.   Aid plans that ignore population trends, and demographic shifts, are dangerous, particularly when aid organizations equate the effects population distribution on agriculture with the effects of changes in geography, climate, and hydrology.  These factors cannot be lumped together – they must be examined separately in order to get an accurate picture of the situation on the ground.

The Need to Address These Issues in a Shape, Clear, Hold, and Build Strategy

The data behind these realities are reflected in a new briefing by the Burke Chair on the problems related to Afghan poverty, food security, and agriculture, entitled Afghanistan: Food and Conflict in 2010. This briefing is available on the CSIS web site at For all the reasons outlined earlier, any close examination of this issue raises major concerns about the quality of planning for both current aid programs and a population strategy that urgently need to be addressed.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy

Adam Mausner