The Need for Evidence-Based Narratives Around Afghanistan’s Youth
November 19, 2014
Earlier this year, the U.S. Congress reduced its development assistance to Afghanistan by half, which still means a budgeted billion U.S. dollar commitment to the country. Since 2001, the country’s economy has relied heavily on foreign aid, including its nascent institutions which now face a number of challenges: to do more with less money, battle the resilient insurgency, and create employment opportunities for the growing population of young people in the country.
As the 2014 deadline for NATO troop withdrawal draws closer, various transitions – security, political, and economic – mean the lion’s share of responsibilities for sustaining Afghanistan will now rest firmly on the shoulders of Afghans. These changes sharpen the focus on the importance of perceptions and narratives in Afghanistan in order to get a real picture of the aspirations and challenges of Afghans.
The Asia Foundation’s annual public opinion survey, which is now in its 10th year, provides a crucial glimpse into public perceptions in Afghanistan during this critical transition. The 2014 survey cites unemployment as a major reason for pessimism among Afghans, and in feeling that their country is moving in the wrong direction. This is the highest point recorded by the survey since 2006. At 33.1 percent, unemployment is noted as the biggest problem at the local level in Afghanistan. The correlation between economic well-being and self-reported levels of happiness is evidently strong in the survey findings, with a high margin of disparity between the income of urban and rural households. While average monthly reported income is $190, urban households reported a higher income of $261 per month compared to their rural counterparts who average $170 a month. This income disparity is compounded by the gloomy fact that an estimated 36 percent of Afghans live below the poverty line with an income of just $30 per month.
Given the “youth bulge” in Afghanistan – 68 percent of the population is under the age of 25 according to the UN – economic hardship or prosperity affects young people more than any other group in the country. Afghanistan’s population is projected to hit the 50 million threshold in 2030. This population growth, coupled with shrinking agricultural and water resources, could lead to new forms of conflict over resources.
The prevalent media narrative about Afghan youth seems to be focused on issues such as radicalization, rise in insurgency, and how the number of youth can sustain the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in the face of attrition and desertion rates. But such perceptions result in a limited view of the youth, where their real aspirations, hopes, and fears are lost in the prism of oversimplified narratives. While the emergence of new media institutions in Afghanistan has played a positive role in recent years in more accurately portraying the younger demographic, coverage by TV and radio is not a substitute for solid data. For instance, despite the euphoria, particularly in the international media, promoting the impression that young people (there were an estimated 3.8 million first-time voters in the 2014 elections according to the UNDP) could sway the outcome of the 2014 presidential election, evidence suggested that youth politics was still “deeply tied” to the traditional power structures under the control of old-guard political networks. Hence, the vote by young people did not end up representing a break from the interests of existing power brokers – neither did it typify a new youth vote bank.
The international media coverage during the election was largely urban-focused, and mostly overlooked the widening gap between urban and rural Afghan youth. The fact is that youth mobilization for political engagement is complex and multilayered in any society, but in Afghanistan it is even more so due to the history of political instability and huge gap in access to information. The issue here is not merely the number of young people who participated in the election, which is important, but whether the youth could determine – or influence – the outcome of the election in the way that the international media portrayed the issue. A survey in March 2014 noted that the intention to vote along regional and ethnic divisions was stronger among potential voters than any other factor; in fact the data released by the Independent Election Commission (IEC) after the runoff does not challenge these findings.
However, when international news stories referred to the booming, increasingly tech-savvy and “connected” youth population in Afghanistan, this was largely a story of a small proportion of urban youth. The truth is that, outside of Kabul, life is very different. Of an estimated population of over 31 million, only 8 percent of Afghans have access to the internet – less than half the population of Kabul. Even fewer Afghans have access to electricity.
The power of narratives is immense, but it can also lead to misplaced policy priorities and misunderstanding of real issues. In our age of globalization, increased human communication, and new challenges facing states and societies, there is an urgent need for good solid data to help tell the real story, and then to place that data at the heart of awareness for policy formulation so we can create authentic narratives.
Afghanistan is at a unique crossroads in its recent history, faced with both the prospects for progress and regression. The pressure from the international donor community for a more responsible and systematic absorption of declining development assistance is a challenge, but the inauguration of a new government and a regional consensus that peace in Afghanistan is a prerequisite for regional stability create real opportunities. This is particularly relevant not least in relation to Afghanistan’s invigorated efforts to define its place within the regional and global contexts.
Policymakers, international and Afghan, need to put data analysis at the heart of their endeavors, and in a country lacking a basic census, information like the annual survey conducted by The Asia Foundation helps do just that. Meanwhile, there is an urgent need to de-securitize and de-militarize the narrative on Afghanistan. Afghans deserve their right to a human narrative, which only they can define. In this regard, too, the opinion survey of Afghans by The Asia Foundation is a notable resource; it has created a representative knowledge-bank of where Afghans felt they were and where their journey has taken them so far in efforts to realize lasting peace and prosperity.
Guest writer Hameed Hakimi is a research associate at Chatham House and an independent International Advisor to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Afghanistan, based between London and Kabul. He tweets @hameedhakimi. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.
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