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Afghanistan faces near universal poverty within a year

In the deluge of negative headlines, of violence, and political uncertainty it is hard to see where the future will take Afghanistan. With its governance systems broken, fear and uncertainty are the common currency.

Depending on how the situation evolves, the country could add economic losses of up to 13 percent to its unfolding tragedy, by the middle of 2022. That percentage may seem modest given the scale of the country’s crisis, but not when it translates into the reality of people’s daily lives. 

According to recent analysis by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) a 10-13 percent hit in GDP could bring Afghanistan to the brink of near universal poverty – up to a 97% poverty rate – despite the difficult but real progress achieved over the last 20 years. 

Afghanistan made considerable progress in the last 20 years.  Per capita income more than doubled since the early 2000s. Life expectancy at birth has extended by nine years. Years of schooling increased from six to 10. As the number of students rose from 800,000 to over 8 million, more than 3 million of girls entered the education system.

Now, with skyrocketing food prices and an interrupted economy, food insecurity is rising precipitously, and health and wellbeing are expected to plummet, compounding the problems wrought by Covid-19. The social impact of the latest developments may come down to one major factor: the space and status accorded to women and girls.

Afghanistan also achieved a comparable transformation in women’s employment. While women were often restricted to working in poppy cultivation and opium harvesting, women today make up more than one-fifth of the civil service and one-fourth of members of Parliament.

We must harness the best of what has been seeded, keep it protected and growing. Now is the time for immense courage, wise choices, and dogged determination on what to pursue and how, to protect livelihoods, basic services, human security and human rights. 

We are particularly concerned with the continued space for women-run businesses, which form the backbone of an informal sector, that constitutes almost 80 percent of Afghanistan’s local economic activity.  Whether selling vegetables from their gardens, woven baskets, or breads, women have been able to hold their households and communities away from poverty’s razor edge. Their children can go to school, their parents can get basic health care, as they have a basic income to rely on. The collapse of these micro and small businesses will spike the poverty rate. Taking away the rights of women to work, to learn, and to live with dignity will push Afghanistan’s economy into a dark abyss.

This situation can and must be prevented. We need to support the local economic, social and environmental assets that have been strengthen in the last twenty years. 

To help keep the most vulnerable households afloat and essential services alive, we can harness local networks, the local ‘muscle memory’ needed to keep the country moving.   We know from experience what this means – it means  supporting community efforts through cash-for-work and social protection through basic incomes; providing assistance to farmers with seeds, fertilizer and flood and drought protection measures; and ensuring health and education services continue with salary support to teachers and health professionals..

Many Afghan families would prefer to stay in their country and communities, if they can provide for their family in a safe and dignified way, rather than uproot themselves and set out on a dangerous trek to another city, camp or country.

Financial stability, by itself, is not enough. Local communities  need  help to improve their community infrastructure: fix the bridge leading to the village market, repair irrigation at the local orchard or build more schools for girls. We can support this by providing temporary jobs in public works for young Afghans, enabling them  to contribute  positively, and deepen their stake in their own communities.

At the same time, technology and innovation can also make a difference. There are immediate ways, whether to ease the dependency on imported electricity through solar panels and grids, facilitate mobile cash transfers, provide telehealth that can be accessed by more women, or incorporate new drought and flood resistant infrastructure to farm new lands.

While a national economic implosion must be averted at all costs, through national monetary and fiscal policy and responsibility, we can and must prevent the slide of the most vulnerable households into near universal poverty. Short term humanitarian relief at this moment is critical, but so is urgently responding to protect a generation’s worth of gains in peoples’ capabilities, livelihoods and local development assets. This will avoid a further escalation of humanitarian needs over the coming months and years. Afghanistan is in a development emergency, not tomorrow, but today.