Insights and Analysis

Afghan Peace Must Allow for Evidence-Based Decision-Making

March 31, 2021

By Tabasum Akseer

Last fall, the University of Pennsylvania’s Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program rated The Asia Foundation’s Afghanistan office the ninth-best think tank in Central Asia. The TTCSP studies the role of policy institutes in governments and civil societies around the world. Their recognition, arriving at a critical moment in Afghanistan’s history, points to the Foundation’s long commitment to excellence in research design and analysis, and offers a reminder of the importance of evidence-based policymaking as Afghanistan peers into an uncertain future.

Since 2018, the Survey of the Afghan Returnees has chronicled the lives and struggles of Afghanistan’s million-plus returning migrants.

Afghan peace negotiations continue, but progress has been slow. The U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan has held discussions with the Taliban, the Afghan government, and other influential political actors and regional powers to “accelerate the peace process,” but calls for “patience” hint at the challenges of consensus-building among multiple contending parties, and there are already signs of resistance to some of the proposals from the Afghan government and the Taliban.

On the table is an ambitious list of priorities, including, not least, the protection of women’s rights and progress achieved over the past 20 years. An Asia Foundation perception poll of over 4,000 Afghans in late 2020 found that the public is unwilling to accept a peace deal that compromises women’s right to attend school or work outside of the home. It also shows some appetite for a peace deal that grants amnesty to senior Taliban leaders and fighters. These findings are drawn from the Foundation’s Afghanistan Flash Surveys on Perceptions of Peace, Covid-19, and the Economy: Wave 2 Findings. The survey contains a comprehensive profile of Afghans’ perceptions related to peace and is one of several perception polls The Asia Foundation conducts to provide sound evidence for policymaking.

Success at the peace talks could unleash a great influx of returnees. Over the past year, more than a million Afghan migrants have returned home, voluntarily or otherwise, and the International Organization for Migration estimates that a further 650,000 returnees “will be in dire need of humanitarian support.” Migration and the influx of returnees, economic conditions, and available resources are examined in the Foundation’s annual Survey of the Afghan Returnees (SAR). Since 2018, the SAR has assessed the unique experiences, obstacles, and challenges faced by more than 24,000 returnees and host-community respondents.

The recognition of our policy and research department as a top-ten think tank is an honor, but it will be a hollow one if the country becomes inaccessible to researchers.

Large-scale migration and the global pandemic have placed additional burdens on Afghanistan’s already overtaxed healthcare system. Comprehensive empirical data is available to identify vulnerable populations and guide the deployment of healthcare resources. The 2019 Model Disability Survey of Afghanistan was the first national survey of disabilities in the Afghan population in 15 years, representing more than 111,000 respondents across the country. The MDSA’s findings reflect several health and development successes, as well as key challenges that predate Covid-19.

Woman asking survey questions

The Survey of the Afghan People has sampled the views of 130,000 respondents from all parts of Afghanistan.

Comprehensive, longitudinal data on peace, governance, security (including perceptions of the Taliban), women’s rights, the economy, service delivery, migration, and other issues is assembled in the Foundation’s annual Survey of the Afghan People (SAP), the largest reliable and publicly available data source for trend analysis in Afghanistan, which to date has sampled the views of 130,000 respondents from all provinces in the country.

The Foundation’s commitment to credible research for informed policymaking includes programs to build the capacity of Afghan government agencies, civil society organizations, national think tanks, and academic institutions to use data for policy development. Since 2013, the program has trained more than 660 Afghans in advanced techniques and software for data management, data analysis, and data visualization.

Data-informed decisions reassure peace-process stakeholders that their issues are represented. For example, SAP data points were identified as one of the indicators for the Afghan Peace Framework, Outcome 1: Social, economic, and political inclusion and safety of all, irrespective of age, gender, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion, or economic or other status. Other credible data sources will also measure peace-process outcomes, including the Human Development Index, UNDP’s Gender Equality Index, and UNAMA’s civilian casualties data.

As the peace talks proceed against a background of large-scale migration, economic uncertainty, and the global pandemic, the time is right for a renewed commitment to data-driven policymaking. Decision-making for Afghanistan’s unfolding future should be based on empirical investigation of the needs and perceptions of the Afghan people, research that is comprehensive and not limited to peace, migration, healthcare, or the economy. But evidence-based policymaking is only possible in a country that accommodates the research process. Decisions made in the peace talks should not only encourage the use of credible data, but facilitate its collection, analysis, and dissemination.

The recognition of our policy and research department as a top-ten think tank is an honor, but it will be a hollow one if the country becomes inaccessible to researchers.


Tabasum Akseer is the director of survey and research for The Asia Foundation in Afghanistan. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.


Related locations: Afghanistan
Related programs: Survey of the Afghan People


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