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Afghan women beg outside a mosque in Kabul. (AP file photo)

'There hasn't been two seconds of intelligent discussion about living standards in Afghanistan'

ASK THIS | December 03, 2009

The poverty in Afghanistan is almost beyond imagining. Thirty Afghans die from TB every day; life expectancy is 43 years; per capita income is $426; only 13% have access to sanitary drinking water; fewer than one in four are literate; access to electricity is among the lowest in the world. Conditions for women are brutal. If Obama plans to address these issues, he's pretty much keeping it secret, points out world poverty expert Jeffrey Sachs. But without addressing them, can stepped-up American military involvement succeed? Or is it bound to fail?

By John Hanrahan

Columbia University economist Jeffrey D. Sachs, one of the foremost experts on extreme poverty in underdeveloped nations, says it is past time for the United States to end its war in Afghanistan, the world’s fifth poorest nation. In an interview with Nieman Watchdog in November, Sachs said the United States should reverse its priorities and fund major sustainable development programs, which would not only help reduce Afghanistan’s overwhelming poverty but would be a surer way to help achieve greater U.S. security.
As Sachs wrote last May in The Guardian newspaper of London, U.S. foreign policy “has failed in recent years mainly because the U.S. has relied on military force to address problems that demand development assistance and diplomacy. Young men become fighters in places such as Sudan, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan because they lack gainful employment. Extreme ideologies influence people when they can’t feed their families, and when lack of access to family planning leads to an unwanted population explosion.”
This applies particularly to Afghanistan and the neighboring provinces of Pakistan, which “are impoverished regions, with vast unemployment, bulging youth populations, prolonged droughts, widespread hunger and pervasive economic deprivation. It is easy for the Taliban and al-Qaida to mobilize fighters under such conditions.” With improved economic conditions, a major recruiting tool for the Taliban and al-Qaida – as well as extremists’ threats to the United States – would be substantially weakened.
Sachs was interviewed by Nieman Watchdog two weeks before President Obama’s speech Dec. 1 announcing a 30,000 troop increase in Afghanistan. Sachs noted that while the United States was already spending $60 billion a year for military operations in Afghanistan, it was spending only “$2 billion tops” for sustainable development programs there. The addition of 30,000 troops adds another $30 billion a year to the war’s costs, making the ratio of war spending to development even more imbalanced.
Those figures, Sachs said, “must be turned around” in order for the United States to have any positive impact on the people of Afghanistan in the long run. However, Sachs said he had seen little to indicate that the Obama administration had any alternative strategy for specific development programs – such as investments in health, education, jobs, water, sanitation and irrigation – in Afghanistan and nearby Pakistan, where al-Qaida is actually based.
In his speech, Obama made no direct mention of Afghanistan’s extreme poverty or the link between poverty and extremism that can produce terrorists who might threaten the United States and other western countries. He spoke of no strategy for development programs, with his only mention of development aid a brief unspecific reference to agricultural assistance: “And we will also focus our assistance in areas – such as agriculture – that can make an immediate impact in the lives of the Afghan people.”
“I have not seen two seconds of an intelligent discussion regarding living standards in Afghanistan,” Sachs told Nieman Watchdog, in commenting on news coverage and political leaders’ statements about the war. Nor, he said, had he seen much serious discussion of the war adding to the Afghan people’s poverty and misery, or of it retarding much-needed development and further devastating the country, as well as bringing more recruits to the anti-U.S./anti-west cause, just as the Iraq war has done.
Sachs, director of Columbia’s Earth Institute and special adviser to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the Millennium Development Goals to fight global poverty, said the press should be emphasizing these issues related to Afghan living standards, as well as fostering a discussion of what provides greater security for the United States: Trying to impose our will and military might on impoverished countries, or, as he put it in his Guardian column, adopting a “strategy of peace through sustainable development...in today’s hotspots, starting with Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
It is probably a safe bet that a sizable majority of Americans have not been informed by the news media about the extent of the poverty in the country that the United States under President George W. Bush selected as its first overseas battleground in what used to be called “the war on terror.” For example: 
  • Afghanistan is the fifth least developed country in the world – 174th out of 178 –according to a November 2007 United Nations “National Human Development Report (NHDR). The U.N. global human development index, which ranks countries on individual income, life expectancy and literacy rate, placed Afghanistan ahead of only the African nations of Burkina Faso, Mali, Sierra  Leone and Niger. (The next such report will be published in March 2010.)
  • Afghanistan has a gross domestic product (GDP) per capita of $426 as of 2008, according to the World Bank, the lowest in Asia and the fifth lowest in the world after Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Liberia. (The CIA World Factbook puts the Afghanistan figure higher at $800 for 2008, which would be the 11th worst in the world.) An estimated 60-80 percent of the country’s population live on less than $1 a day.
  • Afghanistan is the seventh most unequal country in the world, according to the ‘Gini coefficient,’ a measure of the gap separating a country’s richest and poorest citizens. The higher the country’s number on a scale of one to one-hundred, the more unequal the society. In the most recent ratings, the most unequal societies were Namibia 70.2, Equatorial Guinea 65, Lesotho 63.2, Sierra Leone 62.9, Angola 62, Central African Republic 61.3, and Afghanistan and Gabon 60.
  • Life expectancy for Afghan citizens is 43 years, compared to 59 years for low-income countries worldwide, according to the World Bank. The 2007 U.N. NHD Report noted that life expectancy in the country has declined from 44.5 years in 2003.
  • In a population estimated at 28.4 million, one-fourth of all Afghans “do not meet their minimum food requirements, with 24 percent of households characterized by poor food consumption,” according to the U.N. NHD Report. Almost half of Afghan children under five are underweight.
  • More than 30 Afghans die from tuberculosis each day, according to the U.N. global human development index.
  • Afghans’ access to electricity is among the lowest in the world, according to the World Bank, and only 13 percent of Afghans have access to safe drinking water and 12 percent to adequate sanitation.
  • Afghanistan “has one of the lowest adult literacy rates among developing countries,” according to the U.N. NHD Report. Between 2003 and 2005 (the last cited figures), the report said, literacy rates for adults over 15 actually fell from 28.7 percent to 23.5 percent.
  • Some 80 percent of Afghan women are illiterate, 54 percent of girls under the age of 18 are married, and 68 percent of girls ages 7-13 are not enrolled in school, according to the advocacy organization Womankind Worldwide. Only half of the schools have buildings. Enrollment rates for women in the primary, secondary and tertiary levels are almost half that of men. Violence and sexual abuse against women is widespread.
  • Some 15,000 Afghan women die each year from pregnancy-related causes, and the maternal mortality rate is the second highest in the world. As bad as these figures are, the U.N. NHD Report cited Afghanistan’s “steady progress in improving its health services and reducing child and maternal mortality rates.” Mortality rates for children under five years old were down from 257 per 1,000 births in 2001 to a still-alarming 160 per 1,000 births in 2006, according to the World Bank. (The CIA World Factbook put the figure at 152 in 2008.)
  • Afghanistan’s agricultural production (not including the opium trade) fell by more than 30 percent in 2008, the World Bank reported. Agriculture makes up more than 30 percent of the country’s GDP, which grew overall by 2 to 3 percent in 2008-2009.
  • Afghanistan is the fifth most corrupt country in the world, according to Transparency International, a global anti-corruption watchdog organization. 
It is against this backdrop of economic and social hardships that the United States is expanding the war. How much progress in fighting poverty and providing sustainable development can be made in a country that has been ravaged by wars for most of the last 30 years? One does not need to have lived in a war-torn country to conclude that the answer is, not much.
As Sachs told Nieman Watchdog, the United States bears a major responsibility for the misery that has afflicted Afghanistan since the Soviet Union invaded the country in 1979. In response to the Soviet invasion, the U.S. government through the Central Intelligence Agency secretly provided significant weapon and monetary support for the mujahedeen fighters who opposed – and defeated – the Soviets, who pulled their troops out of the country in 1989. That war killed more than one million Afghans, while another 5 million became refugees in other countries. As one account put it, that war left Afghanistan “with severe political, economic, and ecological problems...Economic production was drastically curtailed, and much of the land laid waste.”
Ultimately, after more vicious internal fighting, the Taliban came to power in 1995, and al-Qaida – made up considerably of mujahedeen fighters and led by Osama bin Laden –established its base in Afghanistan. The United States-led invasion in 2001 ousted the Taliban from power and ultimately drove all but 100 or fewer al-Qaida fighters to the border regions of western Pakistan.
“I believe we [the United States] have had nothing but a devastating effect on Afghanistan since we used it for a proxy war against the Soviet Union,” Sachs told Nieman Watchdog. By supporting the mujahedeen against the Soviets, he said, we helped “create al-Qaida” and destabilized the country further, causing Afghanistan to “end up in rubble” in that earlier destructive war.
In the current war, Sachs said he was alarmed not only by Afghanistan commander General Stanley A. McChrystal’s (since-successful) request to Obama for a sizable increase in troops. He said he was also concerned about McChrystal’s plans for stepped-up counterinsurgency efforts by U.S. forces, which Sachs said would further harm Afghan civilians and run the risk of U.S. forces carrying out operations in Pakistan, thereby widening the war to that very unstable country.
Sachs wrote in his Guardian piece that Obama and his top advisers “have spoken regularly about the need to address the underlying source of conflict, including poverty and unemployment.” But the administration thus far has devoted little to economic aid and has not addressed “an overarching framework to support economic development.”
“I’ve been an international development specialist for many years and have a pretty good idea of what countries need in order to reduce poverty,” Sachs told Nieman Watchdog. Yet, as of the time of our interview with him, Sachs said he had not been approached by the Obama administration for any ideas he might have for sustainable development in Afghanistan. Furthermore, he said he has not heard of any specific development policies the Obama administration might be considering.
If there are specific development plans for Afghanistan, “they’re keeping them very well hidden,” Sachs said. “At a minimum, President Obama should not only talk about development” but should also be discussing the subject openly with development specialists. By not addressing sustainable development, Sachs said, U.S. efforts in Afghanistan “are doomed to fail.”
Sachs, an opponent of the Bush-instigated wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said increased development assistance in Afghanistan and other impoverished countries could be paid for with part of the $150 billion-$200 billion he would like to see saved through complete troop withdrawals from both countries.
In a warning to President Obama in his Guardian article last May that is even more pertinent today after Obama’s 30,000-troop escalation of the Afghan war, Sachs wrote that a strategy for sustainable development “cannot simply emerge as a byproduct of U.S. military campaigns,” but needed to be “developed proactively, with a sense of urgency and in close partnership with the affected countries and the communities within them.” Shifting to economic development “will save a vast number of lives and convert the unthinkably large economic costs of war into economic benefits through development. Obama must act before today’s crisis explodes into an even larger disaster.”
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For his work in support of the world’s poor and opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Sachs has won many plaudits. However, he is still viewed critically in progressive circles for his work in the late 1980s and early 1990s when he advised several governments and became known as “Dr. Shock” – first in Bolivia – for applying “shock therapy” to reduce Bolivia’s hyperinflation. Critics said that while his policies brought down inflation from 11,750 percent in 1985 to 15 percent in 1987, they “did nothing to change Bolivia’s status as one of the poorest” Western Hemisphere countries, as Doug Henwood, editor of the Left Business Observer, wrote in 2005. Henwood also pointed to Sachs’s experience in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union where Sachs “generally advocated a rapid transition to a market economy, featuring overnight privatizations and the freeing of long-regulated prices.” Although Sachs blamed the government of Boris Yeltsin for not taking his advice, Henwood noted that Russia subsequently “endured one of the worst economic and social collapses in history.”
Henwood, though, praised Sachs’s “tireless lobbying for debt relief for the world’s poorest countries (most of them in Africa)” as “highly admirable; no one of comparable stature in his profession comes close...” He also lauded Sachs as “a tough critic of the invasion of Iraq [and Afghanistan] and of the neocolonial brutalities of IMF [International Monetary Fund] austerity programs...(H)e is right about the misery of the billion people who live on a dollar a day or less. We could end extreme poverty in the world for what would amount to pocket change for the rich countries; we could pretty much eliminate the malaria that’s endemic in Africa for even less. But we don’t, because no one cares enough.”
“It would all go down a lot better," Henwood said, "if Sachs would admit how wrong he was about Russia.” At the same time, he said, Sachs is one of the few who was doing his best "to make us care."




Posted by sharonsj
12/07/2009, 01:42 PM

I am completely against sending soldiers to Afghanistan. But I'm all for sending teachers, doctors, and engineers. Why isn't our government doing this? I think it would make a lot more sense, but apparently Congress is more interested in appearing patriotic and making sure their corporate masters get rich off war.

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