Insights and Analysis

A Path Forward in Afghanistan: Data for Humanitarian Assistance

April 13, 2022

By Tabasum Akseer

Almost nine months after Western forces and aid agencies left Afghanistan, this poverty-stricken country is facing an acute humanitarian crisis. The economy, long dependent on foreign aid, is collapsing, and livelihoods are vanishing. Basic healthcare, education, and other vital services are “severely strained,” according to the UN, which warns that 97 percent of Afghans will be living below the poverty line next year. Ninety-five percent have too little food, and over nine million, many of them children, are on the brink of starvation.



The current humanitarian crisis is a painful reminder to me of the political violence unleashed by the Soviet invasion in 1979, and the painful losses my own family faced as we were forced to flee the country.

My father was a physician and director of epidemiology at the University of Nangarhar. Like other influential Afghans, he was targeted for elimination. Seventeen members of our family, including uncles and cousins, were killed in rapid succession. My father joined the exodus to Pakistan, where he trained nurses and provided emergency medical care to Afghan refugees with the International Rescue Committee. When he felt it was safe, he called on us to join him, and our family was grateful to eventually find refuge in Canada as landed immigrants.

But despite this bitter exile, we always understood that we were not turning away from our homeland. My father later returned to establish a medical clinic, where for a month every year for three decades he provided free medical care to anyone in need. It was his way of staying connected and giving back to Afghanistan. Later, I too had the opportunity to give back, when I accepted a position there with The Asia Foundation.

Today, as poverty and starvation stalk Afghanistan, the international community is struggling with its distaste for engagement with a new government whose policies it cannot condone. Will we now turn away?



At the much-anticipated UN donor aid conference in March, the UN’s appeal for $4.4 billion for Afghanistan drew just $2.44 billion in pledges. Roughly $512 million of this sum is from the United States, including $70 million from USAID earmarked for trauma care and essential health services; household cash assistance; shelter, water, sanitation, and hygiene; and programs to reunite children with families. Also included, perhaps more controversially for the new government, is support for vulnerable women and girls and survivors of gender-based violence.

The $374 million pledged by the UK will provide life-saving food and emergency healthcare. Aid pledged by Australia will provide food, shelter, healthcare, and, again, programs on gender-based violence. Other donors include Germany, at just under $220 million, and Qatar, at $25 million.

I am a data scientist, who has for several years directed The Asia Foundation’s Survey of the Afghan People, the longest-running barometer of public opinion in Afghanistan. As the international community pursues this fitful mobilization of funds, up-to-date and reliable data is essential for the effective design, implementation, and evaluation of humanitarian projects.

Accurate data allows policymakers, aid organizations, and humanitarian workers to deploy resources where they are needed most, and to develop risk reduction strategies in sensitive situations where errors can be costly. Without the insights that reliable data can provide, inequitable and misdirected humanitarian aid responses can cause further harm to the already crisis-affected population.

Opinion polls in fragile countries are an important tool for measuring trends and conditions on the ground. The Survey of the Afghan People has gathered first-hand opinions since 2004 from a broad and nationally representative sample of Afghan citizens on a variety of governance and development issues, to provide policymakers, the international community, and the broader Afghan public with reliable data as they make decisions and craft policy. The Survey has been the largest publicly available data source for trend analysis on topics of public concern, and contains interviews with more than 148,000 Afghans, including residents from all districts in Afghanistan. Researchers and think tanks have relied on the data as a measure of long-term social changes, while others have used it for in-depth policy analysis and program planning.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Survey pivoted in 2020 from in-person interviews to telephone interviews in three waves of flash surveys on peace, Covid-19, and the economy. From July to August 2021, however, in-person fieldwork was astonishingly again possible for what would be the final round of the Survey before the country’s full takeover by the Taliban.

In 2022, as we consider the dire need for data and the accessibility challenges of Afghanistan’s unsettled political landscape, telephone surveys again recommend themselves as an effective way to collect data for development. Carefully focused questions on healthcare, nutrition, service delivery, and migration can give decision-makers and humanitarian workers key information on the state of public well-being while sidestepping the ideological barriers that divide the new rulers in Afghanistan and the international community. In a low-income country such as Afghanistan, random-digit dialing is the most appropriate approach to developing an ideal survey-sampling frame. Post-stratification weights can be applied to adjust for disparities in, for example, male and female phone ownership. The sample size for telephone interviews should be robust enough to capture regional or provincial differences. To conform to cultural practices, gender-matching is essential—men interviewing men, and women interviewing women.

These surveys that I am proposing should be frequent—preferably six-weekly—to capture fast-moving developments as they happen. The questionnaire should be short and streamlined to allow for expeditious analysis and dissemination of results. Successive rounds should be customized with questions of the most urgent interest, then those questions recycled periodically to allow for longitudinal analysis.

The need is pressing for evidence-based research to guide policymaking and humanitarian aid during the current catastrophe. Afghans are not a monolithic group. Data from past surveys has revealed the subtle and not-so-subtle differences in needs and experiences among the country’s distinctive communities. Patterns of nutrition, healthcare, service delivery, and migration differ significantly from province to province. The needs of women differ from those of men; the old differ from the young; urban from rural; and effective humanitarian aid will also differ from one demographic group to another. We need data to guide us.

As the international community and the current leaders of Afghanistan grapple with their uncertain relationship, there is still room to address the humanitarian crisis threatening 34 million Afghans who are in dire need of support. Like my father, we must not turn away.

Tabasum Akseer is The Asia Foundation’s director of policy and research 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


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