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Q&A with the Authors: Afghanistan in 2010 A Survey of the Afghan People

November 10, 2010

On November 9, The Asia Foundation released its 6th Survey of the Afghan People, the broadest annual public opinion poll in Afghanistan, covering all 34 provinces in the country. In Asia spoke with this year’s survey co-authors Mohammad Osman Tariq, Najla Ayoubi, and Fazel Rabi Haqbeen from the Foundation’s Afghanistan office, on what makes this poll different, challenging security concerns, and their surprise over sympathy toward armed anti-government elements.

2010 Afghan Survey launch in Kabul

Fazel Rabi Haqbeen, who co-authored this year's survey, presents poll findings at the launch in Kabul on November 9. Photo: Musadeq Sadeq/AP

Q: How is this survey conducted, and how is it different than other surveys conducted in Afghanistan?

The survey consists of a random sample of 6,467 in-person interviews with Afghan citizens 18 years of age and older, both women and men, all residing in Afghanistan. The sampling universe was divided into eight geographical regions consisting of all 34 provinces. However, its random sampling is not the only element that makes this survey different from other surveys conducted in Afghanistan. For example, this survey – in its 6th year – has the longest history in the country, covers the largest sample, and includes all ethnic group and all provinces. Also, we don’t limit questions to specific topics, but rather, include all important topics from national mood, security, economy, services, government, justice, women’s political participation, and access to information. And, unlike other surveys, this is the only one that is officially recognized by the Central Statistics Organization of Afghanistan. This is not connected to the specific demand of a donor or special events which is true for most surveys conducted in Afghanistan.  

Q: For last year’s survey, you reduced the number of interviews down to 6,406 due to security concerns. How did security affect interviewing on the ground this year?

This year, we interviewed 6,467 people, which makes this survey even larger than last year’s. Over the last two years, we have had to select alternate sampling points during field work to adjust for security concerns and safety. Last year, 12 percent of sampling points had to be changed for security reasons; this year, we had to change 16 percent of the sampling points. Unfortunately, we lose the perception of those Afghans living in these insecure areas, and without them, some of the findings, especially those connected to the security dimensions and mood of the nation, may be affected by such loss. However, it’s important to remember that the field work is done under extremely challenging situations, and even under such challenges, it provides useful, unique data that can illuminate the situation on the ground and provide context for Afghanistan and the international community. And the survey continues to have 95 percent accuracy with a 4.4 percent margin of error.

Q: In 2010, 47 percent of respondents say that the country is moving in the right direction. And, that this figure has been increasing since 2008 (38%) and 2009 (42%). What factors seem to contribute to this increased optimism?

Yes, this is true, but there are different reasons and factors that contribute to this. First of all, we aren’t able to include perceptions of some people living in less secure areas and in some cases those interviewees were replaced with people living in more secure areas. There is also a growing understanding among Afghan people about descriptions of their circumstances and their perceptions have changed about different aspects of life. For instance, fewer people than last year said that they are more prosperous than during the Taliban period, but at the same time, more said that their financial well-being is better this year than in previous years. This conveys that many different factors now influence Afghans’ perceptions of prosperity, and not only their financial well-being. One can also argue that the overall situation cannot accurately be seen through the media, which often presents a more negative image of the country than the reality on the ground for Afghanistan’s citizens.

Q: Over half of respondents say they fear for their personal safety in their local area. How much does this figure range depending on the region? What kind of incidents are these people experiencing?

There are significant differences between regions and ethnic groups in regard to personal safety. The percentage of those who never fear is the highest in the Central/Hazarajat and North West regions where the majority of residents are Hazaras and Uzbeks. On the other hand, those with the highest fear levels are from the South East, South West, and East – majority Pashtun regions. Over a third of crime victims in rural areas report having been victims of physical attack or beating compared to around one in five respondents in urban areas. Theft of livestock and pick-pocketing are also more often reported in rural areas. On the other hand, burglary/looting and racketeering/extortion are more prevalent in urban areas. Interestingly, only 17 percent of all respondents reported that they had actually experienced crime and violence, such as physical attacks, extortion, burglary, and threats from militant and foreign forces, compared to 54 percent who said they fear for their personal safety.

Q: Can a survey funded by USAID capture true responses from Afghan citizens, and what would you say to those who question the results?

We – the authors – are Afghan citizens and we take great pride in this very seriously-executed surveying process and the usefulness of this tool for the Afghan people. USAID does not determine the questions, nor does it do the fieldwork, which was conducted by the Kabul-based Afghan Center for Socio-economic and Opinion Research (ACSOR). This year, 634 Afghan men and women were trained to conduct in-person interviews throughout Afghanistan – in all 34 provinces. Many of the interviewers were part of the Afghan field teams from previous surveys. The 2010 and previous surveys use a standard questionnaire for comparability over time, which combines questions on Afghanistan that are relevant to policy makers, social researchers, and donor organizations with questions that are tried and tested and have been used in other countries across the world in well-known surveys like the East and South Asia Barometers and the Latin Pop Surveys, as well as other Asia Foundation surveys in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Nepal. As in previous years, this poll was designed, directed, and edited by The Asia Foundation, using a process of consultation to arrive at the best possible questionnaire, given the need for valid and reliable data that could be compared over time, a tenet essential to useful survey techniques. The Asia Foundation has established a reputation for developing sophisticated empirical surveys for use across Asia in order to pinpoint citizen concerns and needs, to gauge public support and development progress, and to inform important policy debate.

The survey also continues to build upon and strengthen local Afghan research capacity, In addition to fieldwork conducted by Kabul-based ASCOR, the survey program supports an internship to build capacity for students and serve the broader Afghan research community in partnership with the National Centre for Policy Research (NCPR) at Kabul University. We also offered specialized training on statistical tools for personnel from the Afghan Government’s Central Statistic Organization (CSO). Further internships and trainings are planned for later this year.

Q: How is the survey data used?

As with our past survey reports, The Asia Foundation’s goal and role is not one of interpretation. The survey data is available to anyone, and is regularly used by academics, national and international policy makers, researchers, media, and politicians. In 2011, The Asia Foundation will produce a companion volume comprised of pieces from Afghans and international researchers writing analysis on the findings.

Q. What was the response that surprised you the most?  As readers of the poll, for example, we were intrigued by the economic data that showed more Afghans in 2010 say they are better off now than a year ago.

We were most surprised with the questions related to the government’s efforts at negotiation and reconciliation with armed anti-government elements. A large majority of respondents (83%) say they approve of these efforts, with 42 percent strongly in favor and 41 percent somewhat in favor.

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