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Reconstructing Afghanistan: Priorities and Challenges

Soldiers from Task Force Pacemaker provided the comfort items. (Department of Defense)

Soldiers from Task Force Pacemaker provided the comfort items. (Department of Defense)

Immediate Food Needs and Long-term Development Strategies

One of the most significant challenges facing Afghanistan in the short-term is providing sufficient food for the entire population. Recently, there has been an overemphasis by the media on grotesque, compelling images of starvation on the ground in Afghanistan. But, while there is most definitely a problem in producing sufficient food, the outcome has not been a widespread famine or a serious food deficit, but a more appropriately called a food-production deficit. Food crises are indicative of serious economic difficulties, because of the loss of livelihood that has resulted from conflict or continued economic challenges. Because of this, cash transfers are much more successful than food distributions, as they get roughly twenty times the value into the local economy. This is still a radical approach to take to resolving the situation even though it was successfully piloted several years ago in Afghanistan. However, the emphasis in food production deficit is on creating self-reliance and providing culturally appropriate assistance that does not empower or give legitimacy to resurgents.

In the emphasis on life-saving food deliveries versus self-sustaining agriculture, international donors can put forth a self-congratulatory tone for successes in prolonging life, but at times these deliveries simply postpone an extended and more significant crisis-and the deaths that come with it. This is because large-scale delivery of food in emergency situations often creates a disincentive for food productions and draw people to large cities for food distribution. This not only does not remedy the causes of the food shortage, but can actually worsen the underlying symptoms that can lead to “the second-disaster syndrome” a true famine such as that which has just been declared in Somalia.

What needs to be done to increase food production is to improve resilience to natural disasters by looking at symptoms and causes to food vulnerabilities. The topography is rugged and dry in Afghanistan, only about 12% of the land is cultivatable. There should be investment in irrigation to remedy the worst effects of droughts. It has been noted that the ground water is so deep that some well-diggers die of lack of oxygen. (USAID, UNICEF and FAO will invest in a hydrological assessment in Afghanistan.) Trees are rare throughout the nation--Afghans travel great lengths to get wood and other dead vegetation for fuel and some children are killed from landmines through these efforts. Some aid has shifted to distributing coal to alleviate this problem. Added to these difficulties, is a locust pandemic, likely to cause $70 million in damage in March 2002.

The coping mechanisms that people evince during food shortages are either reversible or irreversible. Reliance on remittances or relocation to a city for labor jobs, or eating some wild food are all reversible mechanisms. However, the sale of draft animals, eating the seeds saved for planting, selling roof timbers and land are all irreversible, as they reduce the stock of available capital. Many people have sadly made it to the irreversible point by selling land, eating some of their animals, or even consuming famine foods such as certain kinds of grass and roots, which can be quite toxic.

Yield for opium is roughly twelve times higher than wheat, and prices are, of course, much higher. For a subsistence farmer who is threatened with a severe food shortage in his family, it may be difficult to overcome this temptation. The money the farmer receives is, of course, much less than the street value of the product that is eventually created. The availability of credit offered by the trafficking machinery is a significant reason for many farmers to continue. Furthermore, it can take several years and a great deal of effort to convert a poppy field to a wheat field, though coffee and cocoa could be suitable for the topography there. However, given the economic realities, the Taliban in recent years through severe punishment, became effective at controlling drug production.

Many Afghans have said that the Taliban did have principles and some are quite skeptical of the interim government. Of course, some corruption and diversion is likely of the significant amounts of aid that will flow into the country but it is hoped that this will be limited. As there is not a single bank in the entire nation, financial transparency and accountability will be exceedingly difficult to enforce. Villages do have an incredible ability to survive in spite of the political regimes that dominate them. Ironically, political anarchy does not filter down to remote villages-they are chaos-resistant.

A significant source of assistance to Afghanistan could be the Afghan diaspora through a process that would reverse the brain drain. Many educated and competent Afghans are in Iran, the US and elsewhere. There was no ban on educating women and girls in Iran for instance, so there are many educated Afghans there. There hasn’t been a functioning school system in over ten years in Afghanistan; reconstructing schools and training teachers is a critical need. Afghans consider education to be equal to food and medicine in order of importance. In fact, it is such a priority that Afghans want teachers to be fed higher in the ranks of the community so that the teachers are not forced to turn to farming or to migrate due to a lack of food.