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A massive human rights deficit

The UN Human Rights office report on poverty in Afghanistan describes a situation where an overwhelming majority of people are living in poverty: a situation which has reinforced a strong sense of disillusionment and growing scepticism about the future of the democratization process.

Children play in a camp housing Afghans who’ve returned home after 25 years - © UN Photo/Eric KanalsteinAfghanistan is one of the poorest countries on earth with two out of every three of its citizens struggling to provide naan-o-chai (bread and tea) for their families. The maternal mortality rate is the second highest in the world, it ranks at three for child mortality, only a quarter of the population have access to supplies of drinking water and less than 15 percent of women are literate.

Notwithstanding those grim statistics, the report, Human Rights Dimensions of Poverty in Afghanistan, argues that “poverty is neither accidental, nor inevitable in Afghanistan”. Rather, it is caused by and is a consequence of a “massive human rights deficit”. The report calls for a human rights based approach to overcoming poverty: a perspective and analysis that would ensure causes and not just consequences, inform the design and implementation of programmes for the alleviation and elimination of poverty.

Launching the report in Kabul, Norah Niland, the High Commissioner’s Representative in Afghanistan said, “A human rights angle offers a complementary approach to existing poverty reduction strategies.”

The report identifies abuse of power as a key driver of poverty in Afghanistan. It describes corrupted power structures at all levels of Afghan society and a lack of will on the part of the country’s leaders and international partners to address the long history of abuse. There are few public institutions to protect those who want to achieve reform, freedom of expression is curtailed and so for the few who hold power, there are very few incentives to share power, to be guided by the public interest or to keep promises, the report says.

“Sustainable poverty reduction is dependent on efforts that roll back abusive power structures,” Niland said, “Vested interests… frequently shape the public agenda, whether in relation to the law, policy, or the allocation of resources.”

The on-going conflict in Afghanistan also plays a major role in ensuring that most of the population is prevented from enjoying the most basic human rights. The majority of Afghans have at some point, been directly affected by the conflict through deaths, injuries, disability, and destruction of homes, assets and livelihoods essential for survival. But the conflict has had other less obvious effects. The report says the Afghan Government and its international partners give priority to the military effort with a much smaller proportion of funds being directed to development and poverty reduction efforts.

“Security objectives,” Niland said, “must not sideline the urgent need to ramp up poverty reduction efforts. Resources allocation should not be driven by a military agenda, but by the needs and rights of Afghans especially those who are most impoverished.”

Some groups suffer disproportionately because of discriminatory practices rooted in social and cultural traditions which are not challenged by a better educated populace or the country’s leadership, the report says. Afghans who do not own land, not only find it more difficult to feed themselves and their families, they also find it harder to access credit – one of the few available safety nets. The nomad peoples, the Kuchi are also exposed to systematic discrimination which makes them one of the poorest groups in the country.

The report makes a number of recommendations: enable Afghans to be the architects of their own future through participation in the design and implementation of poverty reduction strategies; address impunity and corruption through fair and transparent processes; and give priority to development objectives rather than short-term military and political agendas.

The report warns that, “A growing number of Afghans are increasingly disillusioned and dispirited as the compact between the people, the Government, and its international partners is widely seen to have not delivered adequately on the most basic fundamentals including security, justice, food, shelter, health, jobs and the prospect of a better future.” The report says that strategies which do not consider the needs and aspirations of the nation’s poor may undermine efforts to achieve peace and stability.

12 April 2010