Living With Radical Uncertainty in Rural Afghanistan: The work of survival

Yet again, Afghanistan is experiencing a moment of rupture, the latest in a long series of upheavals that have marked the lives of most Afghans over the age of 55. For those living in rural areas, unpredictability is created not only by regime change or violent conflict, but also drought, flooding and other natural disasters. Trying to understand how rural households attempt to survive and prosper in this radically uncertain environment, guest author Adam Pain* draws on lessons from a research project that traced the livelihood trajectories of rural households from 2002 to 2016. Given that rural households can rely neither on the state or the market, he finds that they invest in village and household relationships and asks whether this will be enough to get people through the latest economic shock.

A child makes bricks in a mould at a brick kiln in Kandahar. For the families in our study from Sar-e Pul, working in the brick kilns in Mazar-e Sharif was a last resort, but by 2016, 70 per cent of households were migrating there seasonally, with men, women and children working. Households could easily fall into debt-bondage. Photo: Javed Tanveer/AFP, November 2021A child makes bricks in a mould at a brick kiln in Kandahar. For the families in our study from Sar-e Pul, working in the brick kilns in Mazar-e Sharif was a last resort, but by 2016, 70 per cent of households were migrating there seasonally, with men, women and children working. Households could easily fall into debt-bondage. Photo: Javed Tanveer/AFP, November 2021

Report highlights

  • Moments of ‘rupture’ ­­characterise the lives of most rural Afghans and the work of survival has been central to their lives;
  • Central to household survival, given the dysfunctions of the state and market, have been the institutions of the village and the family; these have supported a social economy of sharing, although its benefits can be limited by village context and the terms of the relationships that underpin it;
  • Drawing from evidence from three contrasting provinces and specific household histories, it is clear that for many households, options in the rural economy have been running out progressively over the last decade. For the many land-poor rural households, there were already limited long-term opportunities and the recent economic shock has exacerbated this;
  • The report concludes by asking how different the current economic collapse is from what has happened in the past and whether we know enough to assess what its effects are, for whom and where. It suggests that a rethinking of the normative development model for rural Afghanistan is long overdue.


Yet again, Afghanistan is experiencing a moment of rupture, one in a long trajectory of upheavals that have marked the life of most Afghans over the age of 55. There have been many such events. For Afghans living in the countryside, who are the subject of this paper, the first such upheaval could be the famine of the early 1970s reported by the New York Times in 1972 (here). A combination of a harsh winter and drought severely affected central and north-western Afghanistan, leading to crop failure, up to half a million deaths and the loss of half the country’s livestock. Then nearly a decade later, the communist takeover was followed by war, rural destruction, particularly in accessible areas and a refugee movement out of the country. The withdrawal of the Soviet forces led to a return by many refugees and a slow rebuilding of life, but also the experience of a violent and predatory warlord economy. This gave rise to the emergence of the Taleban who displaced the warlords and established a coercive regime of security. The last years of their rule were also marked by a hard, country-wide drought.

The fall of the Taleban in 2001 brought optimism for a new beginning and with it a brief period of relative prosperity with the growth of an economy fuelled by opium poppy cultivation and the large flows of external funds into the country. But the wheat flour price hike of over 100 per cent in 2008, driven by a spike in global food prices, as Anna D’Souza and Dean Joliffe described in their report, Coping with food price shocks in Afghanistan, delivered a severe shock to the many Afghan households who spend some 60 per cent of their household budget on food. It led for many to food consumption rationing and a reminder of the precariousness of life. It was already clear from a study for AREU on rural household trajectories on which this report draws, Running out of Options: Tracing Rural Afghan Livelihoods”, that by 2011 options were running out. And over time, hopes for a better future along with the economy withered as the ‘American’ war took its toll. Now the Americans and their allies have left and the Taleban are back in power. An already frail economy has suffered a triple hit – the effects of another severe drought, the consequences of the Covid pandemic and the withdrawal of aid funds and, as a result, a catastrophic decline in GDP (see William Byrd’s commentary for USIP).

Ruptures are primarily moments of reconfiguration of institutions and authority but can also be triggered by extreme events such as earthquakes or drought. Many rural Afghans have experienced in their lifetime the full gamut of shifts in political orders – monarchist, republican, communist, semi-mobile bandits, theocratic and an introduced version of liberal democracy that conferred a precarious sovereignty. It has been an enduring experience of a context of ‘radical uncertainty’; rural Afghans live with unpredictability, not knowing what will come next, and threatened, as we shall see from the accounts which follow by hazards ranging from arbitrary power, violence, floods and life-threatening health events. The state has either been absent, as it was in much of rural Afghanistan during the 1970s. Or it was the enemy during the 1980s. Then it went missing until the Taleban established their regime in the mid-1990s. Their Emirate was replaced after 2001 by a state that could never provide security, although it offered more access to public goods such as education and health. But the post-2001 state was corrupt and extractive and did little to address the material welfare needs of its citizens, many of whom by the end of Republican rule were in many ways poorer than they were at the start as the study of rural household trajectories, from which this report draws, found.[1]

Much of the commentary on the takeover of power by the Taleban has focused on their struggle to establish a coherent government, the effects of the new political order on the rights of citizens, the economic collapse as a result of the withdrawal of aid funds and sanctions and the deepening humanitarian crisis. The pictures of Afghans, primarily urban, struggling to leave have created the image of the political transition although in reality the new political order has long been in place for many rural Afghans, at least some of whom provide a constituency of support for the Taleban. There are recent accounts of the struggles of individual households to survive the loss of income and employment, price inflation and the fierce squeeze on the household budget, including by AAN (here and here). Household responses to these shocks vary according to household circumstances and range from asset disposal, borrowing and rationing food consumption, mirroring many of the actions that were seen in 2008.

So this effort to survive is not new to rural Afghans, even if the severity of the shock is probably unprecedented. There is certainly a whole generation of Afghans born since 2001 who do not have the longer direct experience to draw on and who had hopes for a different future. But the actions and the repertoires of the past inform present household responses. We need to understand these and the ways that ordinary rural Afghans have survived these recurrent periods of disorder and see what lessons these offer for the present and future. Have they, both Afghan women and men, against the apparent odds been able to make a life of any quality and if so, how? Have they been able to marry, bring up their children and find sufficient means to survive and perhaps marginally prosper under such circumstances? And what freedom and constraints have they experienced?

These are the questions that this paper addresses. It draws primarily on the life stories and livelihood trajectories of a set of rural Afghan households in contrasting parts of Afghanistan that were tracked over time (see here for methods). They were interviewed over three time periods between 2001 and 2016, and their economic fortunes followed – their efforts to feed the family and ensure household survival, not only in the present but also in the future through their efforts to marry their children.

Since 2001, much of the Western response to Afghanistan’s poverty levels has been focused on production, enterprise and economic growth through the agency of the individual. As Angus Deaton has eloquently argued,[2] economic growth is a necessary condition for the great escape out of poverty. But where conditions do not afford that escape or there is only a promise for a distant future, and where neither the state nor the market can be relied upon, in rural Afghanistan, two core institutions, the village and the household, have been central to how households survive. All the evidence points to the hard work that individuals and households put into ensuring survival through investing in and maintaining social relationships that can provide material support during the frequent times of need. These efforts are pivoted around the village and the close social networks that flow from it.

As Nancy Dupree, an American historian of Afghanistan, once remarked,[3] the family or household is “the most influential social institution in Afghan society” and one of its most enduring. It is typically a ‘joint household’, multigenerational, often with several nuclear families living under one roof, combining parents, their sons and unmarried daughters and their sons’ spouses and offspring. It can be large, with 20 or more members and is typically headed by a patriarch. This joint household functions as a cooperative unit where collaboration is needed for survival. But it has costs and benefits for the men and women who are subject to and active in shaping the norms that structure the household. Yet if the rural family has a primary role in ensuring survival, coming a close second is the other enduring institution of Afghanistan’s rural landscape – the village. This is the anchor of the social networks and economic life that spread through space and time. It is here that collective action has often, but not always, served to provide the key public good of security in a context where it has been largely absent in the outside world. The village is central to household economic life and a wider ‘distributional economy’ of sharing. A distributional economy is one where those who have few opportunities or roles in an economy of production and earning work to make claims or access the resources of others in order to survive. But as will be seen in the next section, the nature of the village leadership, the village economy and its ‘culture’ is fundamental to choices households may have.

One of the villages in Sar-e Pul that were part of the household study. Photo: Adam Pain, 2002

Village contexts

We start with a story of village differences in Badakhshan drawn from the second round of the livelihood study (see here). In the presidential election of 2009, when President Hamed Karzai gained a second term, his representatives and those of his chief opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, came to the province and in the course of the campaign visited three villages in one district. The first was Toghloq, a well irrigated, valley plain village with a small landowning elite and many landless households. The people there largely ignored the election, had little to do with both campaign teams, and these in turn did not pay much attention to the village. The more agriculturally marginal village of Shur Gul, which is located in a narrow valley, by contrast, was visited by representatives of both campaigns. Each asked to set up an election office in the village. Both requests were considered by the village council and both were rejected on the grounds that the presence of either party might contribute to conflict in the village during and after the election. A third village, Khilar, was the home of an ethnic minority and perched on a very agriculturally marginal hilltop. Here President Karzai’s representatives took the village leaders and local power holders to campaign on the president’s behalf in the neighbouring valleys.

The actions of the leadership of Shur Gul to manage the village’s external relations in the interests of the village were consistent with other actions they had taken in the past. The leadership of this village had put it on an educational track in the 1950s through the establishment of a boys’ school and in time some of the pupils went on to university and government service, building a wider network of social connections for the village. A girls’ school was established in the mid-1990s and the first girls were graduating by 2009.

After 1978, several graduates returned to the village to work in its school and were paid for by the village. At the start of the conflict in 1978, the village selected an educated and prominent man with good external connections to lead the village defence and limit its engagement in the conflict. His links with key provincial commanders ensured the village’s physical and economic survival. During the drought of the late 1990s, villagers gained access to work in the province’s lapis lazuli mines for a regular period each year. The ability of the village leadership to build external relations was critical to gaining the interest of NGOs after 2001 and getting the expansion of public good provisions, such as basic health services, safe drinking water, road access and electricity.

This ‘developmental’ trajectory of Shur Gul stands in sharp contrast to the other two villages. Toghloq only established a school in the 1970s and it was destroyed by the mujahidin in the 1980s. Schooling only started again after 2001. Khilar has never had a school. In 2010, both villages had limited public good provisions in comparison with Shur Gul.

This observation of the contrasting developmental trajectories between three villages located a relatively short distance from each other highlights two important points. First, village leadership can play an important role in maximising the provision of security and public goods in the collective interests of the village population, but clearly, this does not always happen. Second, this variation in village ‘behaviour’ needs explanation.

The observations by Keiser[4] on the successful resistance of the Pashai mountain people in Nangrahar to the communist government in 1978 in contrast to the inhabitants of the valleys provide the clue. Dara-ye Nur is located in a side valley of the Kunar river valley system about 25 miles from Jalalabad in Nangrahar province, close to the Pakistan border. Here the Pashai people proved able to establish strategic alliances and an effective joint opposition to the new People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) government. Other valleys were less successful.

The explanation Keiser offered for this lay in the contrasts between the landed elite of the mountains and the valleys and the social and economic structures underpinning each. In the lower valleys, which were land and water-rich, rice could be cultivated intensively, generating substantial surpluses. Here, villages were characterised by a small landed elite with large landholdings, economic independence and numerous tenant clients. Villages existed as independent political units that competed more than they collaborated. In contrast, in the mountains, with complex and diverse economies, agriculture was subsistence and marginal. Even those with more land were not economically independent, and cooperation both within and between villages over scarce resources had created socioeconomic interdependencies and effective forms of dispute resolution. These differences in land elite and village behaviour underpinned by ecology and practices of collective action, Keiser saw as central to the differential ability of mountain people, such as the Pashai of Dara-ye Nur, and valley people to organise and wage war in 1979-80.

These differences observed by Keiser reflect a wider pattern in Afghanistan found from a study of village variability (see here). Generalising, higher-altitude villages with less irrigated land tend to be grain-deficit villages and have relatively small inequalities in land ownership. In contrast, villages in the lowlands or plains, particularly in the major irrigated areas, have major inequalities in land ownership with significant numbers of landless households. These structural differences in land ownership are reflected in village economies and influence the opportunities for households to find farm and village-based work and the degree to which village institutions function for the common good. As we shall see differences in village behaviour persist. The case households described here have also come from villages with distinctive economies and institutional structures. This reflects agro-ecology and how the ownership of irrigated land is distributed in each.

Tales from three provinces

In the last round of the household trajectory study, the case households in three provinces were prioritised for a revisit – Kandahar, Herat and Sar-e Pul. In 2015 the World Bank related (see here and here) that these had reported poverty rates,(This is the percentage of the population whose expenditure on food and non-food items fall below the official poverty line.)) respectively of 13 per cent, 35 per cent and 59 per cent of the population, which reflected the underlying provincial economies. The following sections describe the outcomes of selected households in each province, drawn from the specific study villages. These contain a number of common themes: the importance of village context, the declining opportunities for many of the poorer households, the critical importance of informal credit and debt to daily living and meeting unexpected health expenses, the significance of social networks and the fundamental imperative to invest in marriage. However, the accounts also reveal the importance of the individual personalities of both men and women in the ways they find to negotiate the difficulties they face.


The 24 case households that were tracked in Kandahar from 2002 to 2016 came from two villages in Dand district with intensively irrigated agriculture and highly unequal landholdings. Nearly ninety per cent of the households in each village were landless. The villages are close to Kandahar city which, after 2003, became a boom town with strong economic growth driven by services, reconstruction funds, military spending and drug money.

In the second, 2009 round of the study, three distinct household trajectories had developed since 2002. For the landed elite with inherited or acquired social positions, the political economy of Kandahar provided enormous opportunities for them to prosper through agricultural assets, off-farm employment for sons and a share in the reconstruction economy. The rise in disposable incomes provided opportunities for a second group of households – those without land, but with energy and skills to undertake diverse, labour-intensive activities and access informal credit – to find footholds in the less rewarding parts of the economy, such as petty trading in second-hand mobile phones (see a 2015 study on petty traders in Kandahar). There was a third group of households (known locally as hamsaya), also without land, who struggled to survive and commonly lived in dependent relationships with the large landlords of the villages as sharecroppers or servants.

The levels of land inequality in both villages were striking. As one informant put it in 2010 (see here), for his village:

In the villages of Dand, you’ll not find such a village where the whole land belongs to three families… In our village [the main landowner] is the landlord and head of the shura [village council]. There’s another village…and they also have a powerful head of village. But [he] is not the only landowner [in that village] like [our landowner] is.

Both villages were run for the benefit of the landed elite. The informant went on to comment how the landlord controlled the village and the Community Development Council (CDC)[5] to which he appointed himself and others, and how, whatever external aid had come to the village had been directed to his benefit. Many lived in fear of the landlord. When a key informant was asked why they had not elected other people to the CDC, he replied:

Do not ask this question elsewhere. If he hears this, he’ll kill you. He doesn’t want others to be elected to the shura. I know that you people are just asking, but if he hears this, he’ll think something else about this question. We can’t do [anything] against powerful people. When an organisation comes, it gives help to the maliks (landowners) and elders. The government should remove his soldiers and shouldn’t allow him to do whatever he wants. This road was gravelled only for his cars. We are far from that road and don’t have access to that road.

In the second Kandahar village, one informant was openly critical of the way in which the village elite blocked access to education:

I will give you the example of girls’ school or education in our village. If there is a request from the government to build a girls’ school in our village, there will be no one to give land for the school. If the government wants to find out the view of the white beards [old men], for sure, they will block having a girls’ school in our village. Instead of encouraging me in taking a step to get a school, they will create problems for me and say bad things about me and my family.

By 2016, the good times in Kandahar were over, which had knock-on effects (see here). One informant commented on its consequences, pointing to the limits of the village economies to provide agriculture-based employment.

Now the labour market has come down and about 65 per cent of people at the village level are unemployed and not able to find work. About eight years ago, this percentage was about 10 per cent, and those 10 per cent of people were busy in agriculture at the village level. The other 90 per cent of people were busy in work outside the village.

Analysis of household livelihood changes between 2009 and 2016 revealed varying degrees of asset loss and gain, as well as declining security. Shocks or stresses that tipped households into decline might be someone in the family becoming seriously ill or a costly social event, such as the marriage of a son or brother. However, for many, the more general economic downturn in the economy of Kandahar is what affected them most. Labour, social connections and land (for those who had it) buffered households from shocks and a failing economy. For those without these assets, survival depended on obtaining and maintaining a dependent relationship with a more powerful individual. This allowed them to survive, but offered little hope for the future. The exclusionary behaviour of the village elite had perpetuated a lack of investment in public goods, notably education for girls and boys. This decline is shown in the fortunes of specific households.

One landless household was already in economic trouble in 2009. The father had died, leaving the household with major debts and a reduced social network from which they could access credit. Although there were six sons, they had been unable to find much work and were struggling to make ends meet. They serviced debts through casual labour in agriculture, working in the brick fields and, for one, becoming an apprentice baker. By 2015, the mother had also died and the household had increased in size by eight to 20 individuals, as three of the brothers were now married with small children. Four of the brothers were working as casual labourers – in farming, as a watchman, on a poultry farm and as a shop assistant. Their father’s sickness and death had left them with debts of over 2,000 USD, which continued to affect the household, although they had managed to arrange the marriage of one brother and one sister. The brother had been married six years earlier with marriage costs of 750,000 Pakistani rupees (USD 7,000) and his sister three years earlier for a bride price of 800,000 Pakistani rupees (USD 8,000) which was spent on wedding costs and gifts for the daughter. The household also rented four jeribs (0.8 ha) of land, which provides wheat for the household.

The total annual household cash income in 2015 was probably no more than USD 400 from the four working brothers, and they still had debts of about Pakistani Rupees 100,000 (USD 1,000). The informant felt their life had been better before their father died and now it was difficult, in part because of the growing food and medical costs for their large household (one of his sisters-in-law had required medical treatment at a cost of USD 4,000). He commented that problems of low income and “medical costs made their life very prone to risk.”

A second household was a young joint household in 2009 made up of three brothers with 14 people in total. It was headed by the eldest married brother, who in 2009 was around 35 years old. By 2015, he had separated out with his family due to conflicts, partly between the sisters-in-law but also over money and the pressures he felt supporting the joint household. At the time of the separation, the eldest brother was selling cosmetics and doing well. He was earning more than the younger brothers and his departure had had a significant adverse effect on the household economy. Since then, the situation had reversed, with the two remaining brothers prospering by moving out of petty trading and becoming sharecroppers for a landlord, while the elder brother struggled. The younger brothers were now in a position where they could support the eldest, “as he is my brother and if he needs money or other things we will provide for him… This help will not harm us but our support can help his life.” The enduring significance of family ties was clear.

Our final two case households from Kandahar were headed by women, both widows who worked as servants for one of the big landlords. In the first, the widow baked the bread, not for a salary but in return for food and a house. Her daughter-in-law also worked as a servant of the landlord. She was clear about the need to maintain her dependent position in order to survive (see here):

If I don’t cook their bread and my son doesn’t graze their cow, they will take that house from us. After that someone else will come and live here. Because there are a lot of people that want to have such an opportunity.

The second widow had managed to achieve a degree of independence. In 2009 her household had seven members and was headed by her husband, who was sick. He had worked as a sharecropper for the landlord, but was unable to work due to an injury and the landlord had evicted him from his tied house and lands. The family found shelter in a dilapidated house while the wife continued to work as a servant. Their son was also sick, and the loss of land and its products led to a deterioration in their economic conditions. Her husband died in 2011, but remarkably through her role as an informal village health worker, which gave her a certain status and respect, she had invested in getting her daughters educated. Her decision to support and invest in the education of her children goes back to when her husband was alive, and their regrets at marrying off one of their older daughters who was not educated:

We wished she had not got married, and could study. It was a pity that at that time there was no school for the girls. After the death of my husband, some of the people came to my house and proposed marriage for my second daughter [to their son]. You know I refused them all, and I told people I don’t want to marry off my daughter. Whenever they have completed their education, they will know better to whom and when they should marry.

The informant went on to say that they realised that if they did not work hard to take care of their children, and they remained illiterate, their lives would not change and their children would stay in the same position that they were in. She acknowledged that if she took a bride price for her second daughter, it would solve some of her problems, but repeated her position on these matters several times during the interview:

I am an exceptional woman in society because most women among our tribe and most Pashtun people cannot make decisions about the marriage of their children. Also, my husband was an exceptional man as well because, when he was alive, I was doing the same activities in the village as now.

One of the villages in Herat that were part of the household study. Photo: Adam Pain, 2004


Like Kandahar, Herat has a rich agricultural hinterland based on river-irrigated agriculture. It also borders Iran and has historically benefitted from a relatively open relationship with its neighbour in terms of trade and accepting labour migrants from Afghanistan. But by 2015, Herat was already experiencing an economic downturn. The three study villages were located upstream from the city in Pashtun Zargun district, but the reliability of irrigation lessens with distance from the river and the three villages had significantly different access to water (see here). We were unable to return to these study villages in 2009 because of insecurity stemming from a local warlord. He was killed in 2012. However, the introduction of village-level militias called the Afghanistan Local Police (ALP), often under the leadership or control of the village head, had again reintroduced arbitrary power to the area. According to many of the households in these three villages, there had been physical threats or episodes of physical violence, abductions, deaths, and even arson over the previous 12 years.

The first Herat village was the best irrigated of the three, with productive vineyards and one major landowner. Seventy per cent of the 135 households were landless. The large and medium landowners in the village were income and food secure from farm production. Medium-sized landowners made sufficient income from the sale of grapes to purchase grain throughout the year and also traded and drew additional income from household members in Iran. Small landowners generated up to six months of grain supply from farm production and relied on wage labour and remittance income for the balance. Landless households could find wage labour in the vineyards, but their major source of income was from family members sending remittances back from Iran.

The second village was much smaller with only 43 households but these had all been sharecroppers to the one landowner in the village. In 2012, he converted his land to saffron cultivation, mechanised his wheat production and ended the sharecropping contracts. As a result, these households could only secure seasonal and casual wage labour in the village and most had a male household member working in Iran.

The third village was the poorest of the three, with unreliable irrigation. Harvests were therefore low and even large landowners in the village do not harvest enough wheat for their household’s annual consumption. As a result, labour migration was vital and every household had a male working in Iran. As one informant commented:

If I were to rank the income for people in the village, I would say working in Iran comes first, then working in construction and lastly agricultural income. We don’t have [so much] land in the village that people [can] totally depend on it.

Despite not having a school or a health facility, this village had the longest history of education of the three, including for girls who walked to a nearby school. In contrast to the other two villages where the village heads derived their power at least partially from their joint positions as head of the Afghan Local Police (ALP) with a group of armed men at their command, the head of this third village maintained his authority because he was known to be a man of good character:

The arbab [the person who represents the village to the state authorities] is the head of this village, but he is not a powerful person. He is the same as us – he is not a rich man and he does not have a gun. Our arbab has never asked people to give him money or wheat… He is a very honest man and all villagers respect and accept that position for him.

Of the 25 households interviewed across the three villages, only four had prospered since 2002 and three of these came from the first village. All of these had vineyards. Additional income had come from labour migration and, for one of the four, a salaried position as a schoolteacher. Twelve of the households, spread across the three villages had suffered a decline in their fortunes and six of these had suffered a significant loss of land assets, largely sold to meet obligations often caused by spending on healthcare. While this may not have caused them immediate economic hardship, it nevertheless had long-term implications for the future viability of the household as a farming household. The other six households who came mainly from the third village had few land assets to start with; various shocks had led to a decline in their economic fortunes.

One of the declining households in the first village had inherited three jeribs (0.6 ha) of arable land and one jerib of vineyards more than 12 years ago, but had been forced to sell some land in order to pay for health shocks as well as other expenditures. The three eldest sons and daughters had all been married ‘on exchange’ with relatives in the village, resulting in a large joint household with 20 members. They lived rent-free in a neighbour’s house. Their primary income source was the vineyard, although because it was small it only gave them an annual income of 20,000 Afghanis (USD 300). Three years earlier, their eldest son, Hanif, had died, leaving the head of the family to take in his widow and five children. Around this time, the third son’s wife also fell ill and became paralysed. Before his death, Hanif had been treated first at the village clinic, then in Herat City Hospital and eventually in Pakistan, costing a total of Afghanis 42,900 (USD 655), for which the head sold a jerib (0.2 ha) of land for 190,000 Afghanis (USD 2,900). His daughter-in-law was taken to Pakistan for treatment before she became paralysed, which cost Afghanis 20,000 (USD 300). In order to pay for the growing family and medical expenditure, the household rented out another one jerib of land for Afghanis 100,000 (USD 1,500) leaving one jerib (0.2 ha) of arable land and one jerib (0.2 ha) of vineyards under their control.

The three married sons and their families live with the household head. Only one, the third son, actively worked. Before his wife became paralysed, he worked in Iran, but had been obliged to return and stay in the village to take care of his two children. He cultivated the land with his father and undertook daily wage labour when it was available. He was the sole provider for the family as his elder and younger brothers, who have four and three children each, had become addicted to opium when they worked in Iran. The head’s wife described their efforts to borrow 16,000 Afghanis (USD 240) from one of her sons’ father-in-laws to send their sons to a drug rehabilitation centre:

Because of our two addict sons, our relatives and neighbours do not trust us. First [my son’s] father-in-law rejected us, but my husband promised that he’ll pay back his money. He’s a close friend of my husband, so finally he gave loan for my son’s treatment.

In 2002, another household had been among the better-off in the village, with four jeribs (0.8 ha) of vineyard and salaried employment with an NGO. However, chronic illnesses, an abduction and subsequent relocation to Herat city had reversed this household’s fortunes. The head had inherited six jeribs (1.2 ha) of land. In 1999, two jeribs (0.4 ha) of the vineyard were sold for 150,000 Afghanis (USD 2,300) to pay for medical treatment for their one-and-a-half-year-old son who had blood cancer and who nevertheless died after six months. His wife then became ill and the household sold their cow for 30,000 Afghanis (USD 450) for her medical treatment. More recently the household head was abducted by insurgents in the village. The incident cost the family a significant amount of land, profoundly impacted the head’s mental health, and led to an eventual move to Herat city:

My husband was kidnapped. They were demanding 300,000 Afghanis (USD 4,500) in order to release him… My husband talked to me on the phone. He told me to rent out the vineyard and send them the money. Otherwise, they were going to kill him. When he was released, he was… fearful and wasn’t able to go around easily. It was like this for about one and half years. Finally, we sold one of our vineyards for about 700,000 Afghanis (USD 10,700). Out of that, 300,000 Afghanis (USD 4,500) we paid for the cancellation of the lease [for the garden], and with the remaining 400,000 Afghanis (USD6,100), bought this house [in Herat city]. We bought it for about 600,000 Afghanis (USD 9,100)… This year, we rented out another piece of vineyard for about 200,000 Afghanis (USD3,000) to pay the remaining cost of the house.

A third household came from the poorest village. The head of the household had inherited three jeribs (0.6 ha) of land which he cultivated with his sons. Two years earlier, he had rented out half a jerib (0.1 ha) of land for Afghanis 20,000 (USD 300) in order to meet a deficit in daily expenses. The household had long been dependent on Iranian remittances. Their eldest son had worked in Iran from the time he was 12 to support the family. However, five years before the interview, a conflict between his wife and his mother caused him to move his family to Herat city. After an exceptionally large flood eight years earlier that destroyed the household’s harvest, the third son went to Iran for work and he was still there. Three years later, he was joined by one elder and one younger brother, all of whom worked in the construction industry. The family was almost completely dependent on these remittances:

The money sent…from Iran is the only source of income for the household. Our wheat harvest … isn’t sufficient for the household itself. From our lands, we get half of our annual consumption, so we’re buying the other half every year.

The second son was engaged to a girl child from another village household seven years previously. Because she was young, they were engaged for years, during which time the family reportedly spent Afghanis 400,000 (USD 6,100) that the son had earned in Iran on expenditures associated with marriage such as peshkash (bride price) and gifts for the girl and her family. In 2015, the girl’s family broke off the engagement and the gifts were lost:

I tried hard to get her back for my son because it was a matter of prestige, dignity and respect for my family. But in the end, I couldn’t succeed because one of the girl’s maternal uncles is a prosecutor, and the arbab is her paternal uncle. Therefore people are afraid of them. Everyone supported the girl’s family.

The third son had become engaged about one year earlier and was working in Iran to save the peshkash of Afghanis 550,000 (USD 8,400). The household had also engaged their eldest daughter 18 months earlier, requesting a bride price of Afghanis 550,000. They had hoped to be able to pay their son’s outgoing peshkash using their daughter’s incoming one. Their fourth son went to university in Herat City – support for this again comes from their other sons’ Iranian remittances.

Grazing sheep in Sar-e Pul in 2003. Since then, drought and floods have hit livestock, and the rural economy severely. Photo: Adam Pain.

Sar-e Pul

Sar-e Pul has long been one of the most impoverished provinces in Afghanistan and among the poorest performers for development indicators including health, water access, sanitation and education (see World Bank data see here and here). Located on the northern slopes of the Hindu Kush, it is an agriculturally marginal district with limited irrigated land and relies more on livestock. It had, partly because there has been little conflict there, been neglected by donors, and is under-resourced in terms of the delivery of public goods. Agriculture is risky. The study district lay to the south of Sar-e Pul town.

The second round of the study found the Sar-e Pul study households in Sayyad district in a position of economic decline, suffering reduced food security and widespread asset loss particularly of livestock as the result of a major drought in the province that lasted from 2006 to 2008. At that time, households relied on domestic and international labour migration, women’s income generation and informal access to credit to survive. As one informant commented in 2015:

[It] was a really bad drought and caused most of the people to leave the village and go to Iran, Mazar and Pakistan for work. There was nothing for people or animals that year, so most people sold their livestock because they had no fodder. In that year, all the villagers lost their harvest and even the people who were daily labourers left the village because there was no work for them… My father came back in March after the drought year and he started cultivating our lands again, but [the rest of the family] remained in Mazar as there was no hope to have enough food in the village. Like my father, some of the people started coming to village to cultivate their lands, and slowly people came back to the village and farmed the land and some started buying of animals out of the money they were receiving from Iran or Pakistan or from working in Mazar or other provinces. During the harvest, we also moved from Mazar and returned to the village.

The region faced another drought from 2010 to 2011 and a spring flood in 2014. Although these shocks led to the permanent out-migration of a number of households, a response not found in the other provinces, many stayed on. Although households had recovered to some degree by 2016, life remained deeply uncertain with many moving in and out of poverty within seasons and between years. Labour migration remained essential to every household interviewed in 2016.

The three study villages lie next to a seasonal river that provides a certain amount of flood irrigation, but most land is rainfed. Although there are high levels of landlessness in the three villages – 70 per cent or more of households – even those with land are food insecure. All three villages suffered from water scarcity, food insecurity and a lack of economic opportunities. As an informant from the second study village made clear:

First there is no work available in this village especially in winter time. If [a person] finds work at the village level it is not a regular job. They’re able to find work for only up to five days a month in winter time. However, in summer time, jobs increase at the village level, but still it’s only for two months and the wage isn’t sufficient.

The consequence is that in all villages, labour migration was an imperative with consequences for access to education:

Most of the people in our village know about the value of education but due to poverty some of the people can’t let their sons study, as most of the people go to Mazar for two three months to work there in brick-making.

For the seven of the 24 households interviewed in 2015 that had managed to recover after 2008, the primary reasons had been related to non-farm sources of income from salaried employment, or the successful migration of several family members to Iran. One of these households was headed by a woman whose husband had been killed nearly 20 years earlier. However, the household had prospered through the work of five adult sons, all of whom began working in the brick kilns in Mazar in 2008. In 2015, two sons left the kilns and began working in a bakery in Mazar. The head was, at the time of the interview, sharecropping wheat, sesame, and melons on rainfed land with the higher value sesame and melons sold in the market by her sons. She bought a house in the village in 2009 and paid one son’s bride price without taking loans or selling any major assets; instead, simply paying in instalments from the income earned by her sons. They gave charity to villagers and were patrons of the village mullah, who lived in their former house rent-free.

A second household was also effectively female-headed as the male head had been bedridden due to ill health since 2006. It had no land and was living in a house rent-free on charitable terms. With no sons and young dependent daughters, the household was heavily reliant on their daughters’ bride prices as a source of income. The household received 2-3,000 Afghanis (USD30-45) per month for their most recently engaged daughter, which they used for daily expenditures and received 200,000 Afghanis (USD 3,000) in 2011 and 250,000 Afghanis (USD3,800) in 2015 for their two eldest daughters. This was used to pay their father’s medical bills and regular daily spending. The household had struggled to buy grain in the early part of the year, as daily wage labour in the village had dried up during the winter and their daughter’s fiancé could not keep up with his monthly bride price instalments. The mother and two of her daughters also constantly spin wool for sale to a shopkeeper, as the mother commented:

We are busy all the time spinning wool. Only when we are eating or sleeping do we not spin wool.

The wool was made into quilts, which took approximately 20 days to weave and had to be completed before they received their payment of 250- 300 Afghanis (USD3.70-4.50) from the shopkeeper. Although small, this income was regular and enabled the household to purchase food. The household also regularly received food from their neighbours as charity. The household later migrated to Mazar so that the female members could make bricks.

The household evidence emphasises the importance of labour migration for household survival. While one of the villages has a history of migration to Iran, for the other two villages it was mainly to Mazar city. It was common in 2009 for single male members to travel to Mazar, but by 2016, entire households, including women and children, and an estimated 70 per cent of households from all the villages were moving seasonally to work in the brick kilns of the city. Migration to Mazar was facilitated by labour brokers (jammadars) for the brick kilns of Mazar. They played a key role in providing credit to households and securing work in the kilns. Typically, in the winter when households have no access to work and need food, the broker would give a cash advance to the household provided by the owner of the brick field. People would also take loans from the broker for specific events such as marriage or funeral costs. Labour in the kilns was paid as a wage per family, with households paid 400 Afghanis (USD 6) for every 1,000 bricks they made. Depending on how many people worked and how productive they were, households could make between 1,000 and 3,000 bricks per day for a daily income of between 400 and 1,200 Afghanis (USD 6-18). Generally, elderly family members accompanied the household only to cook and clean, but all other physically able men, women and children labour for the season. As one respondent commented:

I know that even pregnant women, and some women 20 days after the birth of a baby are back working on making bricks.

Working conditions in the kilns were notoriously grim, and wage levels typically meant that labourers were pushed to work as much as possible in order to pay off their cash advance and save a little, although this was difficult. Households could easily find themselves in debt bondage to the brokers, trapped in a cycle of debt in the winter and repayment in the summer. With limited options for employment elsewhere and low wages in the kilns, it could be extremely difficult to move out of debt. Households reported selling livestock and other assets to pay loans, but more common was a commitment to work in the kilns the next season:

People have to continue with the jammadar for the next year as well… therefore continually people are working in the brick kilns for the jammadar to cover their loans.

Two other key changes between 2009 and 2015 were noted. The first was a move back into opium poppy production by many households. This was seen as essential to survival:

It has lots of economic benefits for families. It’s a good opportunity for a farmer to support the family easily with income from opium compared to other crops … If you work for a month you will have … enough to buy wheat for a year

Opium poppy cultivation had increased demand for farm labour and pushed up rural wages for both men and women. The head of one household had earned 6,000 Afghanis (USD90) harvesting opium for 12 days, which was greater than his income from one month working in Iran (5,000 Afghanis/USD 75).

The second chance was women’s involvement, by necessity, in income generation as seen by many working in the brick kilns. In the second round of the study, women’s work in the villages had been traditional, comprising home-based income generation activities, such as spinning wool for quilts, embroidery and weaving gilims (carpets). Their incomes provided an unacknowledged yet important part of household finances, used to repay small debts in shops, meet health costs and ensure continued access to credit. The out-migration of male labour as a response to drought had started to affect the division of labour in the villages. Women became more involved in farm work such as weeding and thinning crops, harvesting and gleaning. By 2016, women had fully entered what were once strictly male spheres of the economy – grazing sheep, sharecropping land and labour migration to Mazar to work in the brick kilns.

The work of surviving

Surveying Afghanistan’s impoverished economic landscape, it is clear that, despite the efforts of the reconstruction agenda after 2001 to make rural Afghans productive by growing crops for the market, survival has had little to do with embracing a market economy. Rather, many rural household efforts have in large measure been focused on gaining and maintaining access to a sharing or distributional economy, based on a common experience of poverty, and through investing in and maintaining networks of social relationships. In the absence for many of enough land to feed the household or of sufficient employment or decent work, the ability to be able to make claims on the resources of other households becomes essential to survival. These claims are built through relationships that require investments and a primary investment to secure the future of the household is through marriage.

The imperative to get married and the costs of doing so

As we have seen, the marriage of sons is an area of investment that is common to all households in their efforts to secure the future of the joint household. It may be the major investment that a household makes and requires considerable funds. These resources are often accumulated by the prospective groom working for years abroad to accumulate sufficient money. Only in the boom years of opium poppy cultivation from 2001 to 2006 in Badakhshan, for example (see a study on Opium poppy and informal credit) ), did the local agrarian economy generate sufficient income to support the costs of marriage without the need for this. These years are locally known as the ‘festival years’ and they were marked by an extraordinarily large number of weddings that could suddenly be afforded.

Indeed, the largest investment that most study households reported was the marriage of their sons. In the Herat villages, the cost ranged from USD 6,000 to 10,000, in Kandahar from USD 2,500 to 6,000 and in Sar-e Pul from USD 2,300 to 5,400. The reasons for these locational differences are unclear, but may relate to a calculus balancing the wider economic opportunities with the need to maintain the household, taking into account local economies: Sar-e Pul is generally much poorer than Kandahar, which is poorer than Herat. These figures, which exceed by several fold the potential annual income (USD 750) of an agricultural labourer working full-time, are by any criterion, a significant investment. For some commentators, the investment levels in marriage are seen as irrational and incomprehensible. But they can equally be seen as an indicator of how rural Afghan households assess their best means of securing future survival.

How are these costs met? It is clear that the ability to get sons or brothers married is a major preoccupation of households. It requires strategic thinking and mobilisation of resources. In the case of the Herat households, young men migrated to Iran to work for several years to accumulate sufficient funds. Marriage may also require the sale of land assets and many households carry debts associated with marriage costs. For the Kandahar (see here) and Sar-e Pul households (see here), money was often borrowed from relatives. Even poor households sell what land they have left in order to secure the marriage of a son.

A key resource that many households have to deploy is their daughters. A common practice among poorer households is ‘exchange marriage’ through which they can avoid significant marriage costs, though it is seen as a socially inferior practice. Where a household has more daughters than sons, then the daughters can become an asset to be realised and some households reported that the bride price was then used either for investment or for meeting household consumption needs. Indeed, household needs for survival may put them under pressure to marry their daughters and to do so at a young age.

Households are well aware of the dilemmas in such decisions and the trade-offs between survival in the short term and the long-term wellbeing of their daughters. Take, for example, one household in Kandahar who were forced to exchange their 14-year-old daughter in order to secure a marriage arrangement for their son. The wife of the head of the household lamented the situation and feared for her now pregnant daughter’s health, but said, “What could I do when there was no money in my hand to marry my son?” A household in Herat commented that if they received a proposal, it would be extremely difficult to turn down given their current financial situation: “Because we are poor people, the bride price solves a lot of problems for us.”

A household in Herat engaged their daughter when she was 11 years old and she became severely depressed:

My daughter was going to school and madrassa. She was very intelligent and able to teach younger children …but her fiancé’s family told her to stop going both to school and to the madrassa because they didn’t like that their [future] bride was studying. Her fiancé was also a lot older than her. As she grew up, she started to hate him and tried to take her own life twice.

The family broke off their daughter’s engagement and, fearing that her former fiancé’s family would try to harm her, relocated to Herat city.

The head of household in Kandahar, by contrast, married his seven daughters without collecting bride prices as he was opposed to the practice on moral grounds, saying that it conflicted with Islamic principles and exposed brides to being traded as goods.

However, all the household accounts point to a set of strong and accepted social norms that shape the behaviour of men and women in the formation of marriage. The imperative to get married is clear, shown by even poor households who sell land. Getting children settled in marriage is, as we shall see, drawing from data from Badakhshan in the second round of the study, a social commitment, and one in which neither sons nor daughters play a role in the decision-making.

Marriage in Badakhshan

The head of a well off joint household in Toghloq village with 11 family members, carefully planned and prioritised the marriage of his sons (see here). He saw marriage as giving them responsibility and moral position: “My sons are married; they now have some organisation in their lives; they feel responsible and work; they don’t do any immoral thing.”

The third son made clear he had no role in the decision over marriage:

I did not interfere in making decisions about marriage. My parents selected my spouse. In our village, it is common that parents decide about their children’s marriage. Sons cannot say anything. There may be one in a thousand who disobey the decision of his parents in marriage. Girls obey their parents too.

A second household of 12 in Shur Gul village had an older husband and a wife, younger by 25 years, and 10 children. Six of the children were from the husband’s first wife who had died; four of the children, all girls, were from the second wife who is the only non-literate adult in the household. She was the niece of the husband’s first wife and was married to him at 15. She commented on her lack of choice in her marriage – “I was very young and forced to marry him,” an experience shared by a daughter-in-law in a third household:

I did not agree to marrying my cousin because I was very young, just under 13 years old. I was forced to marry my cousin – my mother had died and I was living with my stepmother. My parents wanted me to marry my cousin but I did not want to because I did not like him, but it happened anyway. I refused, but they did not accept.

The wife from the Shur Gul household disapproved of what she saw as the relative independence of her husband’s children from his first marriage. What she had wanted for herself was different from her general acceptance of norms of behaviour. The eldest son, at university, was under pressure from her husband to get married but was refusing on the grounds that his education was not complete, although the wife expected that his father would still select someone for him. She commented on the marriage of her eldest step-daughter who had married her cousin. The couple themselves had made this arrangement, which the wife saw as highly unusual. But as she said, “The children of this time act according to their wishes,” something she was not entirely at ease with, particularly with respect to girls’ education: “The girls who are studying at school have become impudent; they never do any housework.”

Divorce, the ultimate threat and break-point in marriage does happen. The remarriage market was reported in discussions with informants to be much more favourable to divorced women than men, with women getting remarried sooner than men. There was one household in the Badakhshan study villages where the man had failed to marry. A household of three, it consists of the man who was the head of the household and his dead brother’s widow and her son. The widow’s daughter and husband, who had lived with them for eight years, had moved out. The man came from a poor background and the two brothers had inherited a small piece of land, which they held jointly. His brother married and had children and when he died, part of the land was sold to pay for funeral expenses. More of the land was sold as a result of it being mortgaged during the drought of the late 1990s to buy food. The land could not be recovered and was lost. But as this household shows, it may also be possible for widows to establish independence and resist social pressures to remarry, indicating some negotiability around norms. The mother’s daughter explained what happened:

My mother did not want to get married again after my father’s death. Many people advised her to get married …It is a custom in our village to marry your brother’s wife but she did not accept saying “I will bring up my two children, I will not get married again.”

This decision not to marry was viewed by the interviewers as uncommon for a woman, but possible; the arrangement, whereby the uncle lived with the household (but slept outside), was seen as something the widow established to secure her independence, while keeping up appearances.

Gender specialisation and cooperation

Within marriage there is an extreme gendered specialisation of tasks that can be described as the two sexes working in separate spheres. It indicates the cooperative and transactional enterprise of the household. The activities required for family provisioning – farm management, livestock management and so forth – are largely undertaken by men and even these tasks are divided systematically between the male labour in the family. The head of a second household in Toghloq characterised practices for most of the study households, described the division of labour between his sons” “For example, in my own family, one of my sons is doing farming, another is responsible for livestock and two are busy in house-related activities (eg fuel and fodder collection).”

If the men command the management of food supplies and income, women control the domestic sphere and where sufficient female labour allows, tasks are divided as well. Thus, in the first household from Toghloq, the wife managed the division of responsibilities between her three daughters-in-law – one was responsible for cooking, a second cleaning and a third baked the bread, a major requirement in a large household. This degree of specialisation requires little coordination – “Everyone knows their responsibilities,” as the household head put it. There is little within the sphere of household good provision – food supplies, childcare, household maintenance – for spouses to bargain over. None of the interviews revealed any comment or friction over intra-family distribution issues of household goods and many made a point of stressing the importance of equity – the head of the second Toghloq household commented how important it was to treat everyone equally for the peace and survival of the family.

One of the important issues which has helped me to keep them all together is I always try to treat them the same. For example, when I go to the bazaar and buy five bars of soap for one of my daughters-in-law, I buy the same quantity for others too. I have the same attitude to all my sons. If I don’t care about this kind of justice, then it will cause the family to split.

Even where there was unhappiness in the marriage, as in the Shur Gul household, a wife could speak of her husband with respect – “Haji is a very nice man and treats us equally.” She also noted that she saw no difference between her step-children and her own children, that the former were her cousins and closer to her in age than her own children.

Having large joint families was persistently commented on as the ideal state, even if it was not always achieved. The value put on living in a large joint family is evidenced by the frequency of their existence and that they were more common among richer households. The reasons are clear: as one household said, “A big family can also protect themselves against problems and conflicts emerging in the village. No one can fight with a big family because a big family can properly defend itself.” Significantly, this comment came from Toghloq, which had not only the highest proportion of joint families in the sample but also the greatest evidence of the absence of internal security within the village. Combined with the need for physical security is the requirement for diverse labour sources to achieve economic security. This is needed to handle the seasonally labour intensive and spatially diverse tasks of the farm and to respond to the riskiness of a mountain economy that requires periodic out-migration of individual members for work.

When joint families break up, as in one household in the study sample in Badakhshan, where an educated son with employment had moved out, the consequences for his parents’ economy were severe and it fell into economic decline after he left.

One of the study villages, with irrigated farmland, in Herat. Photo: Adam Pain, 2004

Summing up

What does this account of livelihood trajectories over the last twenty years from diverse parts of Afghanistan tell us? Firstly, it points to the extraordinary degree of variability in both its geography and in village economies. Even for villages that are located relatively close together within an irrigation system, as in the Herat villages, variability in access to productive resources of water and land and their distribution between households can differ markedly. It is also evident from the study villages that many households are either landless or have insufficient land to meet basic subsistence needs and depend on off-farm work, often gained through migration, to survive.

Second, it clearly shows where households seek their economic security from. In Western countries in varying proportions, the state and markets provide this formally through the provision of public goods such as access to health facilities, education, insurance, pensions and social payments, for example. In Afghanistan, rural households have not been able to obtain reliable economic security from either the state or the market and as a result, the community and family play a central role in meeting that deficit of provision. The search for security is pursued by building and maintaining personal relationships. Households invest in informal credit and marriage relations seeking to construct personalised reciprocal commitments with others in order to achieve this.

The quality of the social relationships that a household can establish is central to its security. The household stories in this report show that reciprocity in relationships among equals is widespread, drawing on a moral economy and a principle of obligation to help others. But the level of its support is dependent on the robustness of household economies and where these are in decline, as we have seen for many of the case households, this sets clear limits to the level of support that can be provided to others. Sharing depends on households being able to reciprocate and when they cannot, they may end up losing access to support networks, falling into more exploitative forms of relationship in order to survive or becoming dependent on charity.

It is also clear that many credit relationships are not reciprocal. In villages where there are inequalities in land ownership, poorer households often get tied into hierarchical or dependent relationships with more powerful patrons in order to just survive in the present. The case of the sharecropper households in Kandahar shows this. And when a village is uniformly poor and runs out of reserves as in the Sar-e Pul households working in the Mazar brick fields, many become enmeshed in debt relations and trapped as bonded or indentured labour, a form of slavery. In short, achieving survival in the present can often come at the cost of being trapped long term in an unequal relationship and with little or no prospect for better lives in the future.

Third, the evidence on household trajectories shows that for many, there has been a long-term deterioration in their prospects. For the few with land and who have been well-connected with powerful actors, there has been prosperity. But consistent with the national poverty data (see World Bank report here), for many, the rural economy since at least 2010 has been in long-term decline. They remain in rural Afghanistan because of the means it offers through relationships to obtain a degree of informal security. But that has required household members regularly migrating for uncertain work in order to maintain that rural residence and the access it gives to support networks. The effects of the most recent rupture, the sudden change of government in August 2021, have to be seen therefore as compounding, not creating, the challenges already facing rural households.

There is evidence from past ruptures that point to the extraordinary ability of the rural economy in the past to bounce back after disasters. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in 1993 (quoted here was moved to make the following comment:

For 14 years, from 1978 to 1992, rural production systems in Afghanistan continued to support the remaining population under conditions of extreme difficulty. Although malnutrition and hunger were reported, this did not degenerate into the same catastrophic situations which developed in countries where the production systems are basically less robust and far more marginal.

In 2001, following two years of drought, there was a misreading of the evidence. Donors constructed a narrative of economic collapse and imminent famine in the country after the Taliban had been toppled from power to underpin the Western intervention. Yet, wheat markets continued to function, grain prices did not rise with calamitous effects and between 2001 and 2004, food aid ended up providing only about eight per cent of the available wheat in the market (see World Bank study Enhancing Food Security in Afghanistan: Private Markets and Public Policy Options. So is the current economic collapse very different from what has happened in the past and do we know enough to assess what its effects are, for whom and where?

The indicators are certainly grim and the most recent World Bank assessment (Afghanistan Overview: Development news, research, data | World Bank) point clearly to an economy in dire straits, price inflation due to the depreciation of the Afghani and more households falling below the poverty line and becoming increasingly food insecure. The direction of travel for poverty rates was already clear before the drop in aid and other support and the sanctions triggered by the Taleban’s seizure of power. The 2019/20 Income, Expenditure and Labour Force Survey (see World Bank report here) reported national poverty rates of 47.1 per cent, up from levels of 38.2 per cent in 2011 but down from a peak of 54.5 per cent in 2016. This picture is consistent with the story provided from the household trajectories presented in this report. This data does not take into account the more recent effects of Covid 19. Recent AAN reports (here and here) point to a reduction in the ability of many households to maintain the level of reciprocity in credit relationships that they would wish, but they still attempt to ensure some measure of contribution. However, this says little of the consequences for those households trapped in credit relationships that are not reciprocal who may be suffering even greater forms of exploitation, which the poverty data does not capture.

While the formal indicators help construct part of the picture and are serving to mobilise a large emergency food distribution programme, there are still gaps in understanding in relation to the functioning of the informal distributional economy and how households are responding to the squeeze. More monitoring is needed to get information on changing access to informal credit, effective interest rates charged by traders and shopkeepers, and informal remittance flows from abroad that may continue to lubricate the system and reach where formal aid responses cannot. It is also likely that there will be a shift back into opium poppy cultivation, despite international proscriptions. In the years after the 2000-2001 drought, it proved for many rural households to be the most effective way to recover from the previous drought and conflict (see findings from Badakhshan).

The provision of food aid often disrupts markets and impoverishes farmers, is costly to implement and cannot cheaply or effectively target the most food insecure within Afghanistan’s heterogeneous physical and social landscapes. There is an informal distributional economy already in place which, whatever the formal targeting aims at, in many, if not all places, ensures the appropriate distribution of food to meet local perceptions of entitlement. But food distribution will only address the current symptoms of distress and not its deeper causes. There may be resistance by donors to funding cash transfer programmes for political reasons, but this is what is needed to support and lubricate the existing informal economy. The wider evidence from a review of livelihoods and markets in protracted crisis (here) is very clear that cash transfers are effectively spent by recipients and have wider distributional benefits. There is a clear need now to work with the grain of existing practice rather than set up parallel aid structures.

But a deeper challenge remains of addressing the underlying causes of the predicament in which many rural Afghan households now find themselves. Policy models over the last twenty years have promoted a market-driven agricultural development model but it has not delivered (see the author’s AAN paper Growing Out Of Poverty? Questioning agricultural policy in Afghanistan). For many rural households, there is no long-term future opportunity in rural Afghanistan. Nor is there an urban economy in Afghanistan or regionally that can offer them decent work. A rethinking of the normative development model is long overdue.

Edited by Kate Clark

* Adam Pain has been working with Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) since 2001 and is currently part of their study with the London School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) research project on drugs economies in the borderlands.


1 See Adam Pain and Danielle Huot, 2017 Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium | Life in the times of ‘late development’: Livelihood trajectories in Afghanistan, 2002-2016.
2 Angus Deaton 2013. The Great Escape: health, wealth and the origins of inequality. Princeton and Oxford. Princeton University Press.
3 Nancy Dupree (2004) The Family During Crisis in Afghanistan. Journal of Comparative Family Studies. Calgary. Spring, 35 (2), pp. 311 – 329. The Family During Crisis in Afghanistan | Journal of Comparative Family Studies (
4 Keiser, RL (1984) The Rebelling in Darr-I-Nur’ in MN Shahrani and RL Canfield (eds) ‘Revolutions & Rebellions in Afghanistan’, Berkeley, CA: Institute of International Studies, University of California
5 In 2003, the government of Afghanistan with support from the World Bank, initiated the formation of Community Development Councils (CDCs) in villages to promote community-level governance and support community inputs into development.

Living With Radical Uncertainty in Rural Afghanistan: The work of survival