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Understanding chronic poverty in Afghanistan
Johan Pasquet

Adverse contexts and household assetlessness: some keys to identify where and who the poorest people are. Field evidence from contrasting regions in Afghanistan.

In the remote rural areas and fast-growing cities of Afghanistan, the poorest people who experience persistent deprivation are often difficult to identify. As a consequence they are often left out of the reconstruction process. The following article seeks to analyse the major drivers and features of chronic poverty, looking at both the context and the household unit. It is primarily based on a study commissioned by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, JICA and GTZ in 2007 which involved two months of fieldwork in four contrasting provinces of Afghanistan and which aimed to assess the condition of chronically poor women and widows with families to support. It also draws upon other field research carried out by the author in Afghanistan over the last three years as well as various livelihoods papers published by AREU.

 Adverse contexts pushing people into chronic poverty

In Afghanistan, the chronically poor often have to deal with an ‘adverse context’ characterized by factors such as severe political and social instability, conflicts, land tenure insecurity (and subsequent fear of eviction), high exposure to natural disasters and unreliable job opportunities. However, a comparative analysis shows that the lives of the chronically poor are shaped differently in urban and rural contexts. In particular, remoteness is a major barrier preventing rural populations from accessing markets. This often results in predominantly cashless economies. For the poorest Afghans, who often rely on wage labour, living in urban or rural areas also makes a difference in terms of access to job opportunities as the rural employment market is more seasonal than the urban one which is more competitive. Given the higher population density of urban contexts, this is likely to result in greater pressure on resources such as drinking water. In Kabul, the large ongoing influx of returnees and rural migrants further increases this pressure. In rural areas, unfavourable agro-ecological conditions are a key component of the poverty context. These can result in low productivity of farmland, which not only has an impact on farmers’ outcomes but also on the wages of the poorest households who rely on farm labour. Chronic poverty in Afghanistan also has a lot to do with historical factors and in particular the long years of war, which have taken their toll leaving many households with family members who have been killed or disabled. Moreover, long years of displacement have significantly disrupted livelihoods.