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In Afghanistan: The Afghan People’s Opinions in 2007

October 24, 2007

On Tuesday, The Asia Foundation released “Afghanistan in 2007: A Survey of the Afghan People,” which covers the largest population sample ever surveyed at one time in all 34 of Afghanistan’s provinces. This survey follows polls conducted by the Foundation in 2004 and 2006. Collectively the three surveys establish an accurate and long-term barometer of public opinion across Afghanistan to help assess the direction in which the country is moving in the post-Taliban era. Below is a summary of the key findings from the 2007 poll; you can access the poll in its entirety here, in addition to the 2004 and 2006 polls.

In 2007, the national mood in Afghanistan continues to be optimistic, with 42 percent of the respondents saying things are moving in the right direction. Some 24 percent think that the country is moving in the wrong direction, and 25 percent have mixed feelings. In 2006, some 44 percent of the respondents said things were moving in the right direction, 21 percent said they were moving in the wrong direction, and 29 percent had mixed feelings.

According to the survey, 39% of the Afghan people have a favorable impression of reconstruction and rebuilding activities taking place, while insecurity is the main reason for the people to believe that the country is headed in the wrong direction (48%). In the eyes of men and women of Afghanistan, the security situation in the country has deteriorated. Likewise, security-related issues have also been identified as the biggest problem facing the country at the national level.

The problems at the local level are quite different from those at the national level. At the local level, the biggest problems identified were electricity, unemployment, water, and education in that order. In 2006, the biggest local-level problems identified were unemployment (34%), electricity (25%), water (18%), and poverty (18%), followed by poor economy (17%) and corruption (8%).

More people this year than last said that they fear for their personal or family’s safety and security. However, only 16 percent said they have been victims of violence or of some criminal act during the past year. The most cited types of violence or criminal act was physical attack or beating followed by burglary, looting, and stealing livestock. What becomes apparent from the public’s responses is that their experience with violence or crime, more often than not, is related to petty crimes rather than serious security lapses. In fact, these pertain more to areas of safety than they do to security. Thus, while security is perceived as a problem at the national level, the problem at the local level is more safety-related.

With regard to the common Afghan’s knowledge about the implementation of development programs in their area, people responded knowing most about education, followed by reconstruction/building of roads and bridges, and then healthcare. The trend for 2007 is similar to 2006 in that education and reconstruction topped the list. However, de-militarization and de-mining have significantly dropped down this year.

Eighty percent responded that they felt the government was doing a good job, but most of the credit in this regard went to the education and health sectors, while the central government was seen to be performing below par in employment generation, economic revival, and fighting corruption.

An overwhelming majority of Afghans say they have never contacted their Member of Parliament (MP) nor their representative on the Provincial Council (PC) for help in solving their personal or local problems. This underscores the weak linkages that people continue to have with local government bodies.

Perceptions towards institutions varied widely. There was a great deal or fair amount of confidence expressed in the Afghan National Police and Afghan National Army by more than 80 percent of the people. Other institutions in which people expressed confidence included electronic media, Shuras and Jirgas, provincial councils, international NGOs and Community Development Councils (CDCs). The people of Afghanistan do not appear to place the state court system in high regard. An average Afghan has a relatively higher level of trust and confidence towards local Shuras/Jirgas than towards the state judicial system. Likewise, the proportion of the people who are satisfied with the outcome of the proceedings is significantly higher among those who have taken their cases to local Shuras/Jirgas than among those who have taken them to a state court. This illustrates the Afghan people’s continued confidence in traditional judicial systems rather than in modern ones.

People say they are satisfied with the way democracy works in Afghanistan. They also say they believe democracy can flourish in the country along with Islamic values. For half of the people of Afghanistan, democracy means freedom. Another thirty-three percent say the most important thing that democracy has brought is peace.

The idea of tolerance has yet to take firm roots in Afghan society. Most of the people continue to believe that political parties, which they do not like, should not be allowed to hold meetings in their area.

Seventy-nine percent of the people felt that the government did not care what people thought. A large proportion of people think that most people do not feel free to express their political opinions in the area where they live, and compared to 2006 even fewer people now say they are free to express their political opinions.

People’s involvement in the public sphere continues to remain low. An overwhelming majority of Afghans are not members of any formal association or organization. Associational activities, like participating in a peaceful demonstration or running a public office, seem to generate apprehension among the respondents.

Regarding women’s issues, twenty-nine percent identify lack of education as the biggest problem facing women of Afghanistan today. Another 13 percent say the lack of women’s rights is the biggest problem, followed by the lack of job opportunities (9%). Compared to 2006, changes in the public’s priorities emerged . Lack of education was still seen as the number one problem, but unemployment ascended to third place this year, replacing “forced marriages.”

A majority of people in Afghanistan continue to hold the opinion that women should usually wear a burka outside the home. More women in Afghanistan think that there should be equal representation between men and women in every field and at every level than do their male counterparts. Opposition to women in leadership positions in various political bodies ranges between 39 percent to 44 percent. The opposition is highest for the national parliament (44%) and lowest for the district development assembly (39%).

For a little more than half of the people of Afghanistan (54%), radio is the main source of information about what is happening in the country followed by TV (26%). For some 14 percent it is friends, family, and neighbors. The importance of TV, the second most important source of information about national life, is increasing.

In Afghan society, meetings or sermons at mosques are perceived to be an important source for getting news and information about current events. A majority said they use meetings or sermons at mosques – at whatever interval – to get news and information about current events.

From the opinions expressed by the people of Afghanistan, the picture that emerges is of a country that is still strongly rooted in tradition and conservatism. This is underscored, for instance, by the fact that meetings in the community and sermons at mosques are the strongest source of information about local events, and that people believe that local religious leaders should be regularly consulted on the problems facing the locality, and that people demonstrate a greater deal of confidence towards traditional Shuras and Jirgas than the formal state courts. This may also be inferred from the attitude towards wearing the burka and woman’s place in society. The challenge in Afghanistan for policy makers is to find an appropriate pace and manner of introducing change and modernization so that it does not come into direct conflict with traditional society.

George Varughese is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Afghanistan.

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