Running out of Options: Tracing Rural Afghan Livelihoods
In 2002-03, AREU documented the livelihoods of dozens of households across rural Afghanistan. When research teams revisited a selection of these families in 2008-09, they found the majority worse off than before, with many struggling to meet even the most basic of day to day needs.
This paper documents the converging set of pressures that have set so many families on the path towards poverty in recent years. Faced with drought, rising food prices and a ban on lucrative opium poppy farming, many households diversified into nonfarm labour as a means to cope. In some cases, this was successful; households able to tap into urban employment opportunities or political connections improved and occasionally flourished. However, for the majority diversification was not enough. The disappearance of opium farming as an engine of growth coupled with multi-year drought left many local economies unable to absorb the flood of new workers. As wages fell and jobs grew scarce, many families grew increasingly dependent on charity, credit and food aid to make ends meet.
In this precarious position, shocks such as spending on ill-health or major social events were enough to put many livelihoods in jeopardy. As costs mounted, households were forced to resort to increasingly damaging strategies to stay afloat, selling off land and marrying their daughters early to secure bride prices.
In the light of these problems, the paper highlights a need for policymakers and programmers in the agriculture and rural development (ARD) sector to balance their current focus on markets with greater efforts to stabilise vulnerable livelihoods. Interventions must find ways to protect the basic livelihood security of the most poor, prevent damaging loss in the face of downturns and promote rural Afghans’ capacities to take advantage of new opportunities, all while recognising that social factors such as gender norms or local power structures pose substantial obstacles to improvement. In many cases, helping people guard against damaging losses may need to be coupled with ARD efforts that look beyond local bounds, expanding labour opportunities in urban centres both at home and abroad.