Living in a Collapsed Economy

Martine van Bijlert • AAN Team

Afghanistan Analysts Network

In the summer of 2021 AAN started a new research project for ‘Living under the Taleban’ that looked into how life had changed in districts that were newly coming under Taleban control, one after the other, with dizzying speed. Then the Republic collapsed, mere days after we conducted our first interviews. When we picked up the thread again, the message from the conversations was loud and clear: the new regime had brought many changes and much uncertainty, there was great disorientation, some occasional nervous hope, but most of all, people were deeply worried about the economic collapse and the coming winter. In this first instalment in a new series, we look at what that looks like at the household level, through the lens of a large urban middle class family, a landless labourer in a remote and poor area, a small trader with a garden, a factory owner and a former Gulf worker. 

Men wait with wheelbarrows to carry food distributed by the World Food Programme on the outskirts of Kabul on 6 November 2021. Two out of the five AAN interviewees had received some form of food aid so far. Photo by Hector RETAMAL/AFP.

This report is the first instalment in a new series “Living in a Collapsed Economy” that will provide analysis and background on what it means to live in Afghanistan’s current economic crisis. The series is based on detailed, in-depth interviews across Afghanistan, five of which are highlighted in this report. [1]
Afghanistan, no stranger to tragedy and suffering, is currently facing its greatest economic crisis yet. As AAN wrote last month in this report on the country’s economic collapse:

Even as the Taleban celebrated their unprecedented victory on 15 August 2021, Afghanistan was transformed. It was poorer, more isolated and extremely fragile, economically. Most aid stopped, sanctions came into effect against the Taleban government and foreign reserves were frozen. Economic disaster came on top of the worst drought in years and the ill-effects of the only recently-ended conflict. Just a month after the fall of Kabul, the World Food Programme assessed that only one in twenty Afghan households had enough to eat. [2]

This sense of urgency was clearly felt in all the interviews we carried out so far. For many of the families we spoke to, their economic situation had already been precarious before the recent economic collapse. Some at least had the relative stability of a salary, however meagre, and could take steps to diversify their sources of income through casual labour or a small business. That has now all but collapsed.

To get a more textured view of what this looks like, we ask detailed questions about people’s different sources of income, their expenses and how this has changed. We ask whether they have received aid or have helped anyone else, whether they have been forced to sell anything or take out loans, whether they have recently paid taxes, and what their plans were and are.

We hear from a woman who worked as a cook for an NGO in Kabul and who described her extended family as previously middle-class. Overnight, they went from four incomes to only one; the remaining single earner of the family is a struggling tailor in a now largely moneyless economy.

Second, we hear from a landless labourer in Ghor, who had to be interviewed on someone else’s phone because nobody in his family owned one. Like his father and grandfathers, he has always struggled to get by, but this winter may prove his undoing.

Third, is a small factory owner in Kandahar city, whose business had already been hit hard by the latest fighting and the transport problems and border closures that came with it, and who is now struggling to keep going at all.

Fourth, is a small trader from Baghlan who lost his wife and, briefly, his house and whose business was hit by the conflict, but who, so far, still manages to invest in his children’s education.

Finally, we hear from a former ‘Gulf worker’ from Zurmat in Paktia, who came home for the holidays and got stuck because of the Covid travel restrictions. He then saw his alternative livelihood, farming, go up in smoke, first due to drought and then due to the collapse of the market.

Some of the interviewees had received food or cash support in the course of the last year, including recently, which provided them with some sorely needed relief, but by no means solved their problems. Many interviewees, including in this small sample, have found themselves in a practically moneyless personal economy. For instance, when asked which currency they had used in the last week or month – a question designed to map the use of foreign currencies – several interviewees said they had not used money at all.

With no or very little income, food and grocery shopping is done on credit whenever possible, although shopkeepers are increasingly unable or unwilling to do so. For many, the only money coming in is what they manage to borrow for unavoidable expenses (mostly food and firewood supplies for winter and urgent medical treatment). The increased prices and the lack of income means that most of them have no idea how they will repay their loans.

The interviews also show how sickness and injury often have huge financial consequences. These are made worse by the breakdown of the health system, which means that families have to rely on private clinics and pharmacies (see also AAN’s earlier reporting on access to health for rural women, here). In places where there are no medical professionals at all, people often end up buying and administering a whole range of drugs in the hope that something will help.

What is perhaps most striking from the conversations is the near complete lack of options, even for those who had been doing relatively well at some point in the past. The overall picture is a bleak blend of resilience, determination and depletion. This is also a deeply human picture that threatens to get lost in the sheer size of the crisis. People hope to protect their children from harm and to safeguard their future. They have aspirations for new ventures. They continue to look after others who are even worse off than themselves. And many of them are exhausted and stunned by the continuous onslaught of crisis and tragedy, each compounding the other. As one of the interviewees remarked, almost offhandedly:

Every family should consider that somebody might die one day. You need to have money for the coffin and the funeral and the burial ceremony.

It is heartbreaking to see up close how broke most of Afghanistan’s families became, overnight, through no fault of their own. I am in particular thinking of the labourer who sold a blanket for three dollars to try to buy a canister of gas. The fact that such small amounts of money could make a difference in people’s lives, is a stark reminder of how mismatched many of the development programmes of the last decades have been.

The five interviews, presented below, have been lightly edited for clarity.

Locations of the five interviewees. Map by Roger Helms for AAN.

I. NGO cook in Kabul: “We’re a very big family with a low income now”

There are 14 people in our household: my brothers and sisters and their children, we all live in the same house in Kabul. In normal times, four people from our family worked, now the only income we have is from my brother. He is a tailor. We also have two nephews in Iran, but they can’t send us money because of the high cost of living there and the low value of the Iranian currency.

I used to work as a cook for an NGO, one of my sisters, who is also single, used to work as a cleaner and my little sister used to work for the government. I used to get around 20,000 AFS per month (250 USD, at the time), and money for medical treatment and winter clothes, and I was allowed to bring home the leftover food from the office. In normal times, our economic situation was good. I can say we were a middle-class family, economically.

We managed to keep our income during Covid-19, but as the country’s economic situation deteriorated, my sister’s salary and my salary decreased. And then when the Taleban took over, we all lost our jobs. Only my oldest brother, who is a tailor, still works, but he doesn’t earn as much as he used to. Now he earns around 2,000 AFS (21 USD) per week. We can barely make a living.

Winter is about to come and we haven’t been able to buy any winter firewood or warm clothes. A lot of people were forced to sell their TVs and washing machines at a meagre price. Prices are very high when you buy, and very low when you sell. This has been the problem whenever there was an economic crisis. We haven’t been forced to sell anything we own yet, but we’ve changed our lifestyle to deal with the situation. We don’t eat fruit and vegetables anymore and we eat twice a day instead of three times.

What can you no longer do?

We used to invite relatives round to the house and go on picnics, but we can’t afford to do that anymore. Also, we wanted to get passports for our family members who don’t have them, but we don’t have the money. If we get sick, we can’t go to a private doctor anymore because we can’t afford the fees and we can’t afford to buy medicine from drugstores. We used to have meat three or four times a week, but now we can only afford to have it once in a month. The increase in the price of flour and cooking oil has affected us most, not just us but everyone because in Afghanistan we use flour a lot and eat bread more than any other people in the world.

We haven’t had any large expenses yet, but food is very expensive. So we eat less and don’t buy things we can’t afford. Right now, the most important thing is to stock up on firewood or coal. We must buy it or we will die of the cold. It’s a very heavy burden, but we must. Maybe we can borrow money from our relatives and repay it when we can.

I don’t know if the NGOs will call me and my sister back to work. Our colleagues are afraid of the Taleban, they don’t know if they can allow us to work. My youngest sister is also waiting to see if the government will call her back. Almost all women are jobless now. Finding new jobs is very difficult. My youngest brother, who graduated from Kabul University, is also unemployed. He couldn’t get a job even during the previous government, due to the corruption and injustice in the system. I think we have a dark future in Afghanistan.

In the past, we planned to work hard and buy a house for the entire family, and for my youngest brother to get married, but everything has changed now. We’re only thinking about how to leave the country. It’s tough to live here because girls can’t go to school and we can’t work. And now the Taleban can’t even feed its own soldiers. We hear that some Taleban go to shops to get a biscuit to eat for their entire day. They don’t pay for it because they don’t have money. How then will they pay the government employees or offer jobs to people? We want to go somewhere where our children can study and have a future, and where we can work and live peacefully.

In the last month

My brother earned 6,000 AFS (64 USD) in the last two weeks. He has a very small income now.  Under the previous government, a lot of people came to him to sew trousers, coats, shirt and suits, but now people wear traditional clothes and the money for that is not as good. And many people cannot afford [tailoring] at all.

We used all the money he earned for food and to pay the electricity bill. We bought rice and macaroni. We also bought cooking oil and flour so we can prepare bread. The best food we can afford at the moment is rice, macaroni and potatoes. It is cheaper and we don´t eat as much bread with it.

Everything can be found in the market, but people can’t afford most of it. Sometimes the quality is also an issue. For example, the gas we buy for cooking now is very expensive and poor quality. It gives off bad fumes and smokes.

Last month, I went to the bank with my sister because the NGO where I worked sent me one month’s salary: 20,000 AFS (now worth 212 USD). When I got my salary, I gave 1,000 AFS (11 USD) to my aunt who is a widow. She has no children and lives with her stepchildren. In the past, our family used to help her when we could, but now we can’t. That one thousand really helped her because she needed to see a doctor. We also used to help another sister of mine, who is married, sometimes with money, sometimes with food. My eldest sister used to receive her husband’s pension every year. Her husband worked for the government; he died a few years ago. She hasn’t received it yet this year and I don’t know if the Taleban government will still pay pensions.

Our family also got help. For example, last year a relative got this house as collateral (geraw) for 500,000 AFS (6,500 USD at the time). He asked us to live in it, so we don’t have to pay rent. It has been a great help because we would not be able to pay rent for a house in the current situation.

Also, a month ago, one of my friends who was my colleague and who lives in Canada now, gave me 5,000 AFS (53 USD) as a donation. She sent it to her family to give to me. It really helped for our expenses. Sometimes even 500 AFS (five USD) at a critical time can be helpful.

The only tax we pay is on our mobile phone credit, like under the previous government. I spend 100 AFS (one USD) per month on mobile phone credit; the government takes five AFS tax from each 50 AFS. We don’t pay tax because we have no house, shop or land in Kabul. But the Taleban do get ushr and zakat from our land in Ghazni. We have a dehghan (farmhand) who cultivates our land there and who used to send one-third of the produce to us, but because of the continuous drought, there has been no income from our land for three or four years now. We didn’t have enough money to dig deep wells to irrigate the land or plant fruit trees.

In the past I hoped to have money to buy a car for the family and to have a good life together. I hoped to always have enough money to buy new clothes for the family, travel, help with my nephews’ education and help my brother get married. But now we are a big family with a very low income. Still, we are in a better situation than many other people I see on the street. Some labourers wait all day on the street for work and return home with nothing. I wish all people could live in comfort and that we could get rid of all these troubles one day.

II. Labourer in Lal wa Sar Jangal: “I sold a blanket to buy a canister of gas, but it wasn’t enough”

We’re a family of eight in an old mud house (myself, my wife, three sons, a daughter, my son’s wife and my grandson). I’ve worked as a labourer and a farmhand (dehghan) since I was a teenager. That’s why I’ve lived all my life in poverty. Now my [two] sons are doing the same – they are 15 and 17 years old. The other one is 20 years old, but he has a disability. In good times they would earn 10-20,000 AFS (130-260 USD, at the time) per season and we would buy flour, rice and oil. But most of the time, they work in exchange for food. In bad times, my family sometimes had to eat wild plants (alaf).

I also still work as a daily labourer, for instance, I helped people who needed to bring firewood from the mountains, but only for food. People don’t pay money now. Our economic situation is getting worse by the day. And not just for us – most people here are living in poverty. Some are even in a worse position than me.

Two of my children were going to school, a girl and a boy; they were in 8th and 7th class. They’re not working now because there’s no work. My son, who is in school half of the day, cannot find any part-time work, not even in exchange for a meal. None of us works or has an income. It’s winter and the roads are closed with snow. There is snow here for almost seven months a year.

We still have to borrow money. My sons took out a loan with one of my friends because my wife and I had the coronavirus. They borrowed 50,000 AFG (530 USD); we used it to pay the doctor and transport to get there and for medicines and some food. We had to borrow money to save our lives. I still can’t breathe right because of corona, but I can’t afford to have it treated. I can hardly find the food I need.

I don’t have anything I can sell, like cows or sheep or land, so I told my friend not to ask for the money I owe him until the coming spring. But it’s too much. My sons and I haven’t been able to earn even one afghani. The last time I received some money was last spring. My sons worked on someone’s land, but the harvest froze and they didn’t get anything. So I have no money to spend and I’m only thinking about how to repay that big loan.

Before this, I sometimes borrowed money, but never more than 6,000 AFG (64 USD). Our shoes are very old, but we don’t have money so we have to wear shoes with holes. I tried to borrow some money, but people don’t want to give it because they know I won’t be able to repay it any time soon.

We sold a blanket recently for 300 AFG (three USD) because we wanted to buy a canister of gas, but it was too expensive – I couldn’t afford to buy it. We did receive some aid from an organisation, almost 20 days ago: two bottles of cooking oil, one litre each, and two kilos of beans. This helped us a lot. I didn’t receive anything else from any organisation or person.

The Islamic Emirates does ask people to pay ushr, but I haven’t paid because I don’t have anything.

The price of everything has increased. The high cost of cooking oil and flour especially has affected my life. The price of a sack of flour is now almost 3,000 AFG (32 USD) and it is not easy to find. I’m really worried about winter. I wish I could earn 50AFG (0.50 USD) per day, but there is no work. I’m not even able to buy oil, rice and flour. I worry we may die of hunger.

Recently, I bought half a sack of flour, but I’ve not been able to pay for it yet. I have not eaten fruit, vegetables or meat in a very long time. Our best food at the moment is potato soup, but most of the time we eat only some dry bread. In the last week I mostly ate potatoes or bread with boiled water.

I have no plans for the future because I have no work or income. I hope that an organisation, or the government, or some private people, will give us money, but no one has talked to us or listed us for future aid.

I’ve never been able to help anyone because I‘ve been poor for a very long time and my father and grandfathers were living in the same situation. Sometimes people ask me to take care of their sheep in return for a meal, they become happy when I do it. In general, I’m grateful that I’m alive and almost healthy. There are people in a worse situation than I am. Out of 60 families here, only four families are better economically than us. There are orphans and old people and widows who are worse off. There are people who are sick and don’t have money for treatment, so they die.

I used to have plans to save money and spend it on my sons to learn skills, but unfortunately I couldn’t do it. I wish I had enough money to eat enough food and buy a house. I wish I could spend money on my children’s education and send them all to school.

An Afghan street vendor sips tea while waiting for customers in Kandahar province on 5 December 2021. Photo by Javed TANVEER/AFP.

III. Factory owner in Kandahar: “I have to sell my house and my shop, but nobody will buy them”

Our household consists of two families, my own family – my wife, myself and my five children – and my eldest son and his wife; nine people in total. There were no recent changes or moves, except before the takeover, we briefly moved to another house for our safety during the fighting. This was a new house I was building.

Two of my sons go to a private university, my youngest son goes to a private school and my other son and daughter go to a government school. My oldest son works with me in the factory.

Our economic situation in normal times was very good; my income from my factory was more than 400,000 AFS each month (5,200 USD at the time). But my business went down. First, it was inactive for months because of the severe fighting in the area. The grain had to come from Herat, but the route was insecure. Sometimes the vehicles were stuck on the road for 15 to 20 days, which raised the costs, so I stopped running the factory. Then after the takeover, there was no electricity. The former government provided the industrial park with ten hours of electricity per day through big generators and we paid for what we used. The IEA has not yet provided the same.

The factory was my primary source of income, so I had no income for a long time. Recently, I finally managed to buy some raw materials (grain) on credit from Herat. I sold the processed grain in Kandahar and then paid the businessmen in Herat.

I own the factory and the land on which it is built. I also have two houses and a shop that I never managed to use or rent because business is down and it’s not in a very good business area. I also have some land on which I’m grazing sheep. I bought around 90 sheep that I’m feeding the leftovers from the factory’s raw materials. I have a labourer who looks after them. Last year, when I sold the sheep after they became fat, I had good income from them, but this year they cost me more than they yielded.

I took out a loan from an NGO in the past, but I couldn’t pay them back this year. As I mentioned, I also bought grain on credit recently, and paid for it after I made some money.

I’m the only one in my family who has a bank account. It’s very important for a businessman to be able to transfer money safely. You can’t carry cash with you, in your pocket or a bag, everywhere, because of the security. Before the takeover, I occasionally deposited and withdrew money, but I haven’t done so since. Frankly speaking, I don’t have any money in the bank now. I did go to the hawaladar last week, to transfer money that I owed the trader in Herat; he told me not to send the money via the bank. I don’t think the banks transfer money now.

The prices and circumstances in my area changed a lot. It was affected by the closure of the borders with Pakistan, the increased cost of transport and the rise in fuel prices, and the limit on bank withdrawals. All of this means that traders cannot import very much at any one time, which makes prices go up again. Also, to buy something abroad, they need to pay and don’t have money in hand.

For instance, I should sell my house and shop, but nobody will buy them. My shop is normally worth 12,000 USD, but nobody wants to buy it even for 7,000 USD. One of my houses is worth 90,000 USD, but I cannot sell it for 50,000 USD now. I did sell the house for 65,000 USD before the takeover. The buyer told me he would give me the money a month later, but the country fell to the Taleban. One month later, he told me he didn’t have the money. I’ve known him for years, he’s a good man. So I didn’t have any other choice, but to take my house back.

We used to pay taxes to the government in the past, once every quarter, but in the last two quarters under the previous government, we didn’t pay because there was zero activity in our factory. We just filled the balance sheet (ezharnama), saying we hadn’t been active. The previous government respected traders a lot. Many traders were just filling the balance sheet from the top of their head, writing whatever they wanted and paying bribes to be charged less tax.

I have not been asked to pay tax by the Islamic Emirate yet.

The price increase that has affected my life most is fuel prices. I usually spent 500 to 800 AFS (5-8.5 USD) on fuel, but I parked my car and started using a motorbike when the prices increased. Now, since the weather got colder, I started using the car again. There are many things I can no longer do because of the economic situation. I wanted to decorate the ceilings and buy good curtains and beautiful cupboards for my new house, but now I cannot. I also need to do repairs in the factory. If I don’t do them it might harm the machinery particularly if it rains, but it will cost 15,000 USD and I don’t have the money. Some expenses I forced myself to pay, like the university fees of my children.

We are trying to manage our expenses. I told my son and my other children not to buy anything for the home that’s not very important. We used to eat meat a lot, but now we have largely taken it off the menu. We used to cook two kinds of food [for each meal], but now we eat just one. I told my wife to use less cooking oil. We don’t eat dried fruits and nuts anymore, which we used to eat in the past, even though they’re much cheaper now than they used to be. It’s cheaper because as a country we don’t export things anymore, or only very little, including dried fruits. The best food I like and that I can afford is meat, but I buy it a lot less often.

My plans for the future are to keep running my factory and to educate my children well. If I don’t revive my factory, it will be impossible to improve my economic situation. I spent some of the money I earned last week on the fees of my children’s university: 50,000 AFS (530 USD) for one semester. I also paid my son’s private school fees. My wife is sick; I need to take her for a medical check up to a hospital twice a weak. I spent money on vegetables and fruit and I have labourers in my factory that I need to pay. I also bought some pipes for my factory. They used to cost 1,500 AFS (16 USD) a piece in the past; now they cost 4,500 AFS (47 USD) each.

Nobody has helped me so far, apart from the people from Herat who lent me the grain, which I consider business, not help. I myself helped some poor people with small amounts of money so that they could buy flour for their families.

For smaller amounts of money, like food and university fees, I use afghanis, but for big amounts like paying for the grain, I use Pakistani rupees. Grain is sold all over the country in Pakistani rupees, like all big transactions. Not just now, but also in the past.

The things I always hope to have money for are education, health and what is needed to run my factory. My situation is better than all other people in our street, thanks be to God. But I lost a lot. I invested more than 350,000 USD in my business. Now I cannot even sell it for 100,000 USD. If I hadn’t invested in the factory or my business, I would now be able to go to any other country. There really is no business left in this country.

IV. Small trader from a rural district in Baghlan: “Our big expenses were my wife’s funeral and our house that was burnt down.”

We are ten people in our household; five of my seven daughters live with me. One of them is a widow – her husband was killed in the Dara-ye Suf coalmine, almost seven months ago – and she has a small child. My two other daughters live in Kabul and in Daikundi, where they are working and studying as midwives.

The economic situation of my household has never been very good, we have always struggled. But I’m always trying to find money to spend on food and my children’s education. I buy and sell for a living: firewood and produce, like onions and melons. The profit I make is my income, but it has never been much. My two daughters, even though they work alongside their studies, can barely cover their own needs. One of my daughters was teaching at the university, she earned her university fee in that way, but she couldn’t help me economically.

Before Nowruz my economic situation was better, but after that, we had to move because our house burned down in the fighting between the Taleban and the national army, some months before the takeover. Then my [first] wife became sick. I took her to doctors in Mazar and Kabul, but the treatments were not effective and finally she died. The expenses of the treatment and the fateha weighed on my economic situation.

My income has dwindled because of the insecurity and people’s poverty. The borders were also closed. It was not a good year. The previous years were already difficult, but this year was worse. If I sell something for a good price, I can make up to 5,000 AFG (52 USD), but usually my profit is around 800 AFG to 2,000 AFG. Last week, I earned 5,500 AFG (57 USD) by selling wood. My total earnings in the last month, including my most recent earnings, was 8,500 AFG (88 USD). I spent most of that money on rice, a bag of flour and coal for winter. The bag of flour cost 1,900 AFG (20 USD). I also bought some [writing] paper and toys, but my children need books and school uniforms too. The schools don’t provide all the books, so we have to buy them in the market.

My daughter in Daikundi has not received her salary for five months. Usually, her salary is 15,000 AFG (156 USD) per month. Earlier this year, she was paid two months’ salary, but she spent it on a ticket to come home to see her mother. My other daughter in Kabul has received her salary, but it is only 7,000 AFS (73 USD).

Three people have bank accounts in my family, me and my two daughters. I opened a bank account so I could receive money for the goods I send to Kabul, but so far, I have used it only once, almost a year ago. I have no money in my account at the moment. My daughters use their bank accounts to receive their salary, but the one in Daikundi has not received her salary for a long time, so I sometimes send money to her account.

I have not received any money from abroad. I have relatives in Iran, but they can hardly manage their own expenses.

We own a house and a motorcycle; nothing else. I don’t have any land. My family has land in Yakawlang that belonged to my father. A part of it has been grabbed, only a small piece of it is still available – it’s being used by my uncle. The remaining inheritance from my father hasn’t been divided among my siblings yet. But even if we split it, I would receive only a tiny piece. We haven’t tried to retake our land yet because we are all in different places. I have 32 siblings.

We had a cow but we had to sell it, it was before spring. We sold it for 27,000 AFG (350 USD at the time). I also sold a piece of land here in Baghlan for 280,000 AFG (3,600 USD at the time). I had to sell it to pay off old loans. But after that, we had the expenses of my wife’s treatment and funeral. And also the things I had to buy for my home, like blankets, dishes, carpets and pillows, because everything was destroyed in the fire. I didn’t buy everything at once, just whenever I had some money left over after buying food.

I have now borrowed a total of 130,000 AFG (1,350 USD) from my uncle, friends and my daughter’s husband. I spent it on my wife’s treatment and on household expenses. I’m trying to pay it back.

I wanted to buy a cow or a sheep again, but I couldn’t. I also want to buy land to make a farm, or a car so I can earn money by arranging transport in the villages, but I don’t have the money for any of this. I can hardly manage to buy food. I am praying that Afghanistan’s situation gets better and that my sons and daughters can continue their higher education and graduate and find work and have a better income. All my hope is for them.

Everything has become more expensive. In every household everyone, including the children, is worried about the rising prices. It changed our life. For example, before, we were cooking two or three times in a day. Now we cook only once. We try to use less oil, tea, soap and fuel. We eat less bread and other food and we no longer eat meat. Especially the high price of cooking oil and flour has affected everyone’s life because these are the basic needs of each household.

We can still eat vegetables because we grow them in our garden, but we rarely eat meat, it’s too expensive. I have fruit trees and sometimes I buy fruit from the market as well, for my children. The best food we ate last week was rice, beans, carrots, cauliflower, potatoes and turnips.

We received some aid from WFP – a bag of flour – one month ago. Before that, I received 6,700 AFG (68 USD at the time) from WFP, seven or eight months ago. I have not received any other donation or aid since.

I recently helped two men myself. While we were busy cutting trees in a garden, to sell the wood in the market, two men came and asked for the twigs. I saw that they were really poor, so I gave them some. One of them was around 60 years old and the other was a young man. In the past I was sometimes helping people too. For example I was giving away melons, watermelons and vegetables from my garden to people who needed them.

I have not paid any taxes, but the Taleban do collect ushr from the farmers. They’ve been in our area for seven years already. In the last two years, we had to take turns in our area to feed them. This went on until one month ago. We were spending around 5,000 AFG (53 USD) per month to prepare the food.

Every human hopes to have money to eat the best food, wear the best clothes and travel to different places. After food and shelter, my hope is to have money to spend on my children’s education. And to work on other businesses so that I can have a better income. When I look at the people in my area, I think my situation is better than 70 per cent of the other people who are living here.

There is nothing else to tell you, except we didn’t talk about the security situation. If there is security, we can do many things to earn more money. People are also affected by the coronavirus, they are using traditional medicine (dawa yunani) for their treatment. We didn’t have access to vaccines in our area yet, so we have to bear the pain of corona.

This year’s drought and lack of customers in the markets really affected the farmers a lot. They spent a lot on their land to improve the harvest, but in the end, they earned less than they spent. Also, imported rice is much more expensive than the rice from Afghanistan.

V. Former Gulf worker, now a farmer in Zurmat: “I didn’t know that one day everything would be damaged and over.”

There are 12 people in our household: myself my wife, my oldest son with his wife and two children, three other sons who are in school, three daughters and my sister who is a widow. There haven’t been many changes in our household. Only last year, one of my brothers who lived with us left because his children were getting older and there was not enough space in the house. Another reason was the economic problems. He went to Paktika and started a small business there. Now his economic situation is good.

Before the coronavirus and its restrictions, our economic situation was also good. I used to work in Saudi Arabia as a taxi driver and I sent money home. My son was a teacher and also earned a salary. I didn’t know that one day everything would be damaged and over.

Two years ago I came home for the holidays. First, there were travel restrictions because of Covid-19. Then there was fighting in the districts all over the country and then finally the previous government fell and my visa expired. While I was home, little by little, I rented some farmland. I had a little piece of land, where I grew wheat, onions and tomatoes. I used the wheat at home and sold the onions and tomatoes.

Three of my sons were busy with their education, but at the moment, only the two younger ones go to school because the university is still closed. There is no girls’ school in our area that I could send my daughters to. My two grandchildren are still too young to go to school. They go to the village mosque where the village mullah teaches them.

My three young sons used to work on the farm in the afternoon after they came home from school and university. It was a business in itself. The tomatoes sold very well. Others wanted me to work with them and become partners. Even last year when there was Covid-19, the transit routes were still open and many traders came to buy from the farmers at a good price. All the produce of these areas went to Pakistan. Life went well.

Then with the arrival of the Taleban, the borders and transit routes were closed. Now there are no merchants now who will buy anything and most of the farmers’ produce is spoiled. For example, last year we used to sell seven kilos of onions for 200 Pakistani rupees (1.25 USD at the time), but in the past few months, particularly after the fall of the district to the Taleban, the traders wouldn’t even buy seven kilos for 50 rupees (0.29 USD).

This year, I couldn´t find any land to rent because of the drought. No one wants to share their land now because there is simply not enough income. We still have our own land, but it is lalmi (rain-fed) and we can’t afford to dig deep wells or to install solar panels to power the pump. And if we buy water, the income from the land will not be enough to cover the expenses. In the past, there were water canals that we used to irrigate the land, but they have been dry for several years.

The loss of my Saudi visa was the biggest blow to us. Since I returned to Afghanistan, I tried a lot to find work, but I couldn’t succeed. There is just no work here. Only my son who is a teacher still works, but he hasn’t received his salary for four months. In the past, we could somehow manage with his salary, but now life has gotten hard.

I haven’t worked for several months. I don’t know what to do. We have nothing, not even bread in our home. We can find tea only with a lot of trouble. I have to borrow money, but no one will lend to us because of the drought. We have all these problems, but I have to find someone to borrow money from because of my family and my children. I have to buy what we need at home. Winter is coming, but prices are very high. If we buy one thing, we can’t buy something else. Sometimes I can borrow from the shopkeepers.

Last week, I had to borrow 120,000 rupees (680 USD). Over the past six months, I have taken a total of 380,000 Pakistani rupee (2150 USD) in loans from my friends. I haven’t paid anything back yet. I had to borrow money because one of us was sick. First, I took them to the government clinic several times, but there was no medicine, so I had to take them to a private clinic. The doctor’s fee and the medicine cost 20,000 Pakistani rupees (113 USD), which was a huge amount for me. They still need to be taken to a doctor, but I have no money. I don’t know what to do.

In total, I spent 100,000 PKR (567 USD) on medical treatment and the rest on firewood and foodstuff such as flour, rice and cereals. We are a big family. I feel uncomfortable because I’ve spent all the money I saved and I don’t know how to pay off my loans. How long should I borrow from others, while a lot of people have no money to lend. We’re all in a terrible situation. We can’t even earn 100 AFS (one USD) in a day.

I thought that by selling my onions, I would be able to pay back the loan, but unfortunately the opposite happened. I sold very little and the rest was spoiled because no one bought it. In the end, I couldn’t even recover the money I spent on irrigation.

In the past there was fighting and misfortune and when the Taleban came, we said: At least the war is over and things will get better, but poverty, hunger and unemployment will kill us.

My brothers are doing business, but they are living separately. Everyone wants to work for themselves and their own families. My sons and I are trying to find any kind of work, but it is difficult. In the past, businessmen paid 300 to 500 Pakistani rupees for a day’s labour (1.90-3.15 USD, at the time), now it’s only 150 rupees a day (0.85 USD). During the past years, you could hardly find labourers during the harvest because everyone had something to do. This year all the people are without work.

Recently, when I urgently needed money and no one was ready to lend me any, I had to sell my motorcycle very cheaply, even though I needed it – because in a rural area when someone gets sick, you need transport to take them to a clinic. I had bought the motorcycle for 60,000 Pakistani rupees (340 USD), but sold it for 25,000 (140 USD).

I did help one of my neighbours recently. I gave him cash, around 3,000 rupees (17 USD). He needed the money to take his child to a doctor. In the past, I used to help him sometimes too. I gave him cash and food from my farmland, such as onions and potatoes. It’s good to help someone if you can and the person really needs it. According to our religion, there are rewards to help others.

The Taleban have demanded taxes from the people who own solar panels and livestock. Whoever uses a solar panel for agriculture, has to pay 1,000 AFS per year (10.40 USD). They have also collected ushr from farmers and all other people. I also paid them when I planted the onions, although I refused it at first, but they sent someone several times and in the end I had to pay.

Prices were very high last year during Covid-19, but then they returned to normal. Then, when the import routes closed and the previous government collapsed, prices got even higher and they haven’t returned to normal yet. Instead, they’re only increasing. A bag of flour used to cost 1,200 AFS. Last year, due to Covid-19, it went up to 1,700 AFS, now it costs 2,300 AFS (24 USD).

The price of 16 litres of cooking oil was 1400 AFS, now it is 2,500 AFS (26 USD). A bag of rice was 1,600 AFS, now it is 2,400 AFS (25 USD). The price one litre of fuel was 35 AFS, now it is 80 AFS (0.83 USD), gas has reached 100 AFS per kilo (one USD). Where are poor people supposed to get the money from?

In the past, we used to buy containers with 16 litres of cooking oil, but now we buy one litre at a time because we can’t afford to buy a lot at once. We also eat less than before. We used to have a meal three times a day and snacks in the late afternoon, but now we only eat twice a day. Sometimes in the evening, we can’t have dinner because we have no cooking oil and we only have bread. The price of flour, oil, gas, sugar and petrol is very high and these are the things every family needs most.

We don’t have to buy vegetables because we grow them on our land or we can get them from others in the village. I used to buy fruit when it was cheap, but now it’s expensive and we can’t affort it. We haven’t had any fruit for the last two weeks. During the past few years, we ate landi (dried meat) in winter and we used to have meat once a week, but now we can’t even eat meat once in two months. Last week, we mostly had rice and kala chosh (churned sour milk made hot, with pieces of bread thrown in). The best food we can have now is rice and mung beans.

We used to buy clothes for winter and during the two Eids, but now it’s about a year that we haven’t bought any clothes. We need to repair a room of our house, but we don’t have the money. Also painkillers, which we used to use a lot, are now very expensive. We can’t afford them anymore.

The money we had we spent on healthcare and we still have a sick person in our family. We will need to take them to the doctor in the future too. So at the moment, my sons are not going to school. We’re not ready. The situation’s not good. And we don’t have the money.

In Zurmat, all transactions are done in Pakistani rupees. It’s because many people from this area live in Pakistan or have relatives who live in Pakistan. When they come back, they bring Pakistan rupees with them. People who work in Saudi also change their money to rupees when they come home. All the merchants buy produce from the farmers in rupees. If a shopkeeper doesn’t accept Pakistani rupees, he can’t do business. People don’t use Afghan currency that much, here. Only in the centre of Paktia are Afghani used. Under the previous government, other currencies were banned in the provincial centre and people were fined if they used them, but with the arrival of the Taleban, the use of kaldars [Pakistani rupees] has increased.

My plans for the future are that I want to open a shop. Some friends in Saudi Arabia promised to lend me some money. And I want to get a cart for my son so that he can work in the bazar. I have a lot of plans, but I don’t have the money to put them into practice. Now I’m thinking of maybe working as a street seller in Gardez, selling things like gloves and socks and masks. There is no work in the village. The weather is cold and life is getting hard. I never thought one day I would work on the street, but I have to find food for my family. And I don’t have the energy to work as a farmer any more.

I think our situation is better than that of other people. Some people have nothing to eat and have no money for when someone gets sick. They only eat bread. Some people don’t even have flour or bread in their house, or they haven’t cooked for weeks because they have nothing to cook. Some people live in cold houses or even houses without a roof. Yesterday, a neighbour’s six month-old baby died because it is so cold where they sleep. It is already winter. There is more disease. People have no firewood to keep themselves warm.

It is important to have money, for everything in life, but the most important thing is to be able to take a sick person to the doctor. If you don’t have money, you can get food on credit, but the doctor will not work without money or give you medicine. Secondly, every family should consider that somebody from their family might die one day. You need to have money for the coffin and the funeral and burial ceremony.

References
1 The semi-structured interviews are conducted mostly by phone, sometimes in person, based on a fairly extensive questionnaire. The interviewee selection takes into account the need to ensure a varied and, as much as possible, representative range in terms of ethnicity, geographic location, age and gender. Most of all, it seeks to reflect of a wide variety of occupations, family situations, experiences and socio-economic backgrounds. The level of detail in the questionnaire, the potentially private nature of the conversation and the length of the interview all mean that most of interviewees are found and approached through personal introductions or previous acquaintances.
2 For more background, find an overview of AAN’s past reporting on the impact of COVID-19, here; and AAN’s latest report on the impact and outlook of the country’s drought, here.

 

Living in a Collapsed Economy