The Afghan Context1

Map of Afghanistan

Overall rural poverty in Afghanistan is estimated at nearly 53 percent. Around 4.3 million of the rural population is estimated to be critically poor or livelihood insecure. Cold temperatures and restricted accessibility in much of Afghanistan during winter months bring additional risk to an estimated 1.3 million critically poor.2

Female adult literacy rate is estimated to be between 4 to 10 percent. Furthermore, it is estimated that a young Afghani mother dies in childbirth every thirty minutes. A significant number of women have been widowed as a result of years of armed conflict. Poor access to health, education, potable drinking water and opportunities for income generation is endemic in rural and urban Afghanistan. To secure a cash income and in the absence of licit non-farm income opportunities, many farmers have been forced into narco-agricultural production.

Households asset have been eroded by years war, destruction, drought and displacement. Over 2 million refugees and IDPs returned to their areas of origin in 2002-3. There are an estimated 634,000 internally displaced people requiring continued humanitarian assistance. There is an estimated 800,000 to 1 million disabled people in Afghanistan. Afghans remain at risk to rapid onset of natural and political disasters including earthquakes, floods, epidemics and human displacement, socially generated risks due to unsustainable development practices.


Afghan society is a mosaic of different ethnic and linguistic groups. The last 23 years of war and the absence of socio-economic development have produced a vast array of survival and economic strategies among communities. As a result communities have adopted necessary short term organization strategies at all levels (community, village, district) that reflect the political and economic realities.3

The Afghan government is committed to ensure effective, sustainable delivery of services required including public infrastructure to the local communities and also to make sub-national level administration4 accountable and democratically controlled. However, there is a lack of clarity regarding the institutional roles and responsibilities at each level and the relationship between them. At the sub-national level, particularly in the districts, there is limited capacity to effectively fulfill even current prescribed service delivery functions. The top-down approach to planning and management dissuade effective participation. This effectively creates a “local governance gap” between the needs and demand for services at the community level and the ability to respond by the service provider agencies.

Increasing the number of legitimate and competent community governance systems presents a key building block in rebuilding rural Afghanistan. In addition, Community Development Councils (CDCs) present a culturally compatible avenue for giving Afghan women a voice in rural development planning and implementation. CDCs facilitate women meeting and consulting about development, and the launching of women-inspired development programs. Self-reliance and the sustainability of socio-economic development efforts in rural Afghanistan is inconceivable without the establishment of local governance structures representing the development needs of both men and women populations.

Furthermore, the National Development Framework (NDF) states that the role of the Afghan state should be as "regulator and promoter of the entrepreneurial energies of our people. The state will enter into direct managerial role only when social justice demands its presence." This vision is one of the state, not as the primary implementer of services to the population, but rather as facilitator, or "steward."


The traditional role of women in Afghanistan is a constraint to their participation to economic activities. In particular, female wage labor is still viewed as a solution of last resort for households in desperate straits, and their wage rates are normally only half the level of men’s. Women have fewer marketable skills and generally poor education, with an estimated female literacy rate of 21%. Women often lack ownership, control, and access to productive assets such as land, equipment, and materials, and their legal right to inheritance is usually bypassed. The lack of working capital and absence of credit reduce opportunities to start activities that require an initial investment.

These constraints are even more acute for female-headed households. Per-capita expenditures for female-headed households tend to be 14% lower than for households headed by a male. (IRC estimated that 13% of surveyed women were widows).5 It is striking, that the proportion of female-headed households in the two poorest quintiles (9.3%) is more than double the level in the highest quintile (3.9%). This phenomenon highlights the gender dimension of Afghanistan’s development challenge and most probably reflects that female-headed households in many cases have lost or do not have a very important human asset (working-age male) and the severe restrictions against women working outside the household in many rural areas, as well as women’s lower human capital (particularly education).


The demand for education after the fall of Taliban has continuously exceeded estimates and the supply of services. More than 3 million students were enrolled in Grades 1-12 in 2002 when the government and development partners had expected 1.7 million.6

Illiteracy is extremely high, with stark provincial and gender disparities. Fifty seven percent of men and 86% of women above 15 years of age are illiterate. Illiteracy is particularly high in rural areas. Although illiteracy is high throughout the sample for the 2003 National Risk and Vulnerability Assessment (on average 70% of household heads are illiterate), the proportion is considerably higher for the poorest quintile (79%) than for the highest quintile (62%). When the household head is literate, per-capita expenditure is 7% higher than when he/she is illiterate, other things equal. The education level of the household head is one of the most critical factors in determining poverty status, although two-way causation may be at work (i.e. richer households may be better able to educate their children).7

Opportunities for accelerated learning especially for girls who missed education in the past have been generated in some provinces. The Government has proposed a strategy for adult literacy to integrate it with livelihood activities at the community level as the experiences from other countries show that stand-alone adult literacy is likely to lapse into illiteracy. It is critical that literacy is embedded with other life skills and livelihood training so that learners have the genuine need to use their literacy skills once they gain.8


Afghan communities have shown remarkable resilience in the face of foreign invasion, internal strife, drought and natural disasters. The combined impact of the political, social, natural, and economic crisis has, however, weakened the communities and may have led to the exhaustion of their coping strategies. Furthermore, the dominant position of the commanders in some areas has deprived communities of legitimate voice in determining their priorities.9

Creating employment and supporting livelihoods is critical to assisting local communities to emerge from twenty-three years of conflict and social disruption. Economic growth is expected to increase opportunities for poor people to achieve which,

  • helps the poor to build their financial assets, through investing (and repaying debts) from their own incomes, and accumulating physical capital
  • provide opportunities for poor people to build their human capital (education/literacy, health, training, etc.), developing community asset-building programs (notably NSP), financing assets through micro-credit
  • support to micro, small and medium enterprises through the backing of micro-finance schemes and the provision of training in small business management is essential.
  • investment in labor-intensive public works schemes to place cash in people’s pockets must be given priority help the poor preserve and over time build physical assets, enhancing their opportunities for progress.

The economic role of women should be enhanced in the interest of both broad-based growth and poverty reduction. To empower poor people, these elements need to be complemented with the development of participatory institutions (as started with the elected Community Development Councils, part of the NSP). A final important element is consultation. A good poverty reduction strategy is not only technically and economically sound—it needs to be fully “owned” by the poor as well as by other stakeholders in the society.10


Afghanistan has a cash economy but the vulnerable population has little access to cash. Currently, traditional sources (moneylenders, traders, family, friends, etc.) are the main source of agricultural credit, together with various NGO-led microfinance initiatives. The 2002 CGAP study that led to the establishment of the Micro-Finance Institutional Support Facility for Afghanistan, made three important arguments relating to complementary interventions to support the establishment of a viable micro-finance sector in Afghanistan:

  • As rural households suffer from a high level of indebtedness, households and enterprises may require grants before they can benefit from and repay micro-loans;
  • Business development support services will be required to strengthen local capacity to develop and manage successful enterprises;
  • Mechanisms such as UN-HABITAT’s work with community groups to mobilize and invest savings in the development of community infrastructure and income generating activities can help prepare rural households for accessing and benefiting from micro-finance services.11

  1. This text is an excerpt from a larger document produced by UN Habitat for LCEP in 2005.
  2. GoA (2004) Livelihood and Social Protection Public Investment Program, Submission for the SY 1383-85 National Development Budget.
  3. Aziz, Sultan, Shorton, Roger (2002) Local Governance and Community Driven Infrastructure and Service Delivery in Afghanistan: A Discussion Paper, UNCDF/UNDP.
  4. There are four types of sub-national administration:
    • 32 provinces (Wolayat)
    • Approximately 326 districts (Uluswali) – with each province containing between five and 20 districts
    • Provincial municipalities (Sharwali Wolayat) – with each province in principle containing one such municipality
    • Rural municipalities (Sharwali Uluswali) – with each district containing at most one rural municipality, but some with none.
  5. World Bank (2004)  Afghanistan State Building, Sustaining Growth, and Reducing Poverty, A Country Economic Report, Washington DC, September 9, 2004
  6. GoA (2004). Securing Afghanistan’s Future: Accomplishments and the Strategic Path Forward, Education Technical Annex
  7. World Bank (2004)  Afghanistan State Building, Sustaining Growth, and Reducing Poverty, A Country Economic Report, Washington DC, September 9, 2004
  8. GoA (2004). Securing Afghanistan’s Future: Accomplishments and the Strategic Path Forward, Education Technical Annex
  9. GoA (2002) National Development Framework, Revised Draft
  10. World Bank (2004)  Afghanistan State Building, Sustaining Growth, and Reducing Poverty, A Country Economic Report, Washington DC, September 9, 2004
  11. Afghanistan CGAP Microfinance Review, May 2002, p. 21.