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    South Asia
     Jan 29, 2010
Afghans wealthier, remain among poorest
By Killid correspondents

KABUL - The billions of dollars in aid pumped into Afghanistan over the past few years and billions more in investment have helped to drive up average incomes more than sixfold since 2004. Yet the country remains one of the world's poorest.

The average income of Afghan workers has jumped to $426 a year from $70 since 2004, says Aziz Shams, spokesperson of the Ministry of Finance. In the past two years, poverty has declined from 42% to 36%, according to Fardin Sediqi, chief of the Methodology and Supervision Department of the Ministry of Economy.

Afghanistan's annual revenue has also surged, to $803 million


from $207 million in 2003, and is expected to reach $1 billion this year, Shams says.

On top of this is the $62 billion pledged to Afghanistan by the international community since 2002, of which $35.4 billion has been recieved. Of this amount, $8 billion went to the Afghan government and the rest has been spent directly by the donor countries for Afghanistan or by non-government organizations.

Noorullah Delawari, president of the Afghanistan Investment Support Agency, a World Bank-funded private initiative, says that Afghanistan attracted investments worth $3.8 billion between 2002 and 2006, of which 27% came from foreign investors and the rest from local entrepreneurs and business groups.

Delawari notes, however, that investments into Afghanistan have been on the decline in the past three years. He did not give details.

The seemingly improving economic outlook has yet to translate into dragging Afghanistan from the foot of most measures of poverty.

The nation still ranks the second poorest, after Niger in West Africa, among the 182 countries considered in the 2009 Human Development Report prepared by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Within the UNDP's human poverty index for 135 countries that fall below certain threshold levels based on the different dimensions of the human development index such as healthy life, Afghanistan ranks at the bottom.

The index shows that 40.7% of the estimated 25 million Afghans are not expected to live more than 40 years, 72% are illiterate, 78% do not have access to clean water and 39% of children under five years old are underweight, while the economic possibilities of an additional 20% of the population are deemed "fragile".

Oxfam, the British-based non-governmental organization, says that one in five children die before his or her fifth birthday.

Conceding that "widespread poverty" afflicts Afghanistan, deputy minister of agriculture Saleem Khan Kunduzi says the reasons for this are "the ongoing insecurity, growing poppy cultivation, lack of job opportunities and continued drought".

To what extent these are feeding into poverty is also not clear. For instance, there appears to be no significant impact of drought on famine - one of the major ills afflicting Afghanistan - based on data from the Ministry of Water and Energy.

Of the country's yearly 80 billion cubic meters (cu m) of water, only 30 billion cu m serve the country's needs and 50 billion cu m go to neighboring countries, officials of the ministry said. Yet mismanagement of Afghanistan's water resources appears to be at the heart of the incidence of diseases known to be triggered by polluted waters.

On top of improving the provision of basic services to the Afghan people to mitigate the impact of poverty, Khan Jan Alokozai, deputy president of the International Chamber of Commerce, sees the need to address an export-import imbalance.

"For the last couple of decades, Afghanistan has been a heavy consumer of products imported from neighboring countries," he says. Between 2000 and 2008, Afghanistan's export gross income grew from $300 million to $700 million, in stark contrast to the import value of $6 billion every year during the same period, says Alokozai.

Key to development is agriculture, which, if neglected, could result in a deep recession that would in turn lead to inflation, says the World Bank.

Agriculture has not been a development priority for the Afghan government over the past eight years, says Speen Jan Lalahand, lecturer and member of the Faculty of Agriculture at the University of Kabul. This, he says, explains why no agricultural project has been successfully implemented in the country. Improving exports could be a prime source of revenue for agricultural producers, he stresses.

Deputy minister Kunduzi believes that lack of adequate manpower is fueling underdevelopment in agriculture. According to Mohammad Ramin Atiqzad, secretary general of the Central Statistics Office of Afghanistan, 80% of Afghans depend on farming activities as their main sources of livelihood.

Kunduzi adds that much of the cultivatable land in Afghanistan is now unused. Of this fallow land, 2.1 million hectares are irrigable and 1.5 million are rain-fed.

Still, he is optimistic about the prospects for increased agricultural produce such as rice, corn, vegetable and fruits in the coming years. To implement a five-year-plan in this direction, the agriculture ministry needs $8 billion, says Kunduzi, half of which should be spent on rebuilding and rehabilitating irrigation systems and dams, while the rest should go to animal husbandry projects.

Against this backdrop, the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development (MRRD) is now looking forward to the next five years and a $1.5 billion development plan for small-scale undertakings.

Since 2001, the MRRD has channeled $1 billion to local initiatives. According to Wais Barmak, the MRRD deputy minister, more than $800 million have been spent on 50,000 small-scale projects throughout Afghanistan, with funding delivered to 22,000 local administrative councils in 34 provinces.

"In addition, we have supported micro-finance projects that helped many rural women to start their own businesses, the reconstruction of small roads and potable water distribution," he said.

(Killid is an independent Afghan media group. Inter Press Service and Killid have been partners since 2004.)

(Inter Press Service)

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