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Taliban’s fall does little for Zarghona

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The Sydney Morning Herald
Paul McGeough
Chief Herald Correspondent in Kabul
November 22, 2008

THE sadness of the widow Zarghona’s Afghan story is its utter ordinariness. At the age of 30, she spends her days in a tiny, smoke-blackened shed, sitting cross-legged by a deep hole in which she bakes bread.

The smoke makes her eyes stream but Zarghona does not move. Swivelling from the hips, she leans to her left to grasp a ball of dough. Flattening and stretching it, she damps it with a splash of water before she drops forward to slap it to the side of the clay oven.

She wears a scarf, tied tight on her head. Two other women sit beneath their burkas – one black, the other blue – enjoying the warmth of the fire as they chat with the baker.

Zarghona knows exactly when the bread is cooked, hooking it from the oven with a length of wire. With the same expertise she keeps the fire just right, feeding it from a pile of kindling. When customers poke their heads into her smoke-filled space, she swivels to the right, swapping a loaf for the princely sum of four Afghanis – about 14 cents.

As a widow she has to work to survive – but it is lean pickings.

After paying rent for the shed and buying wood and ingredients, her little bakery clears about 1000 Afghanis, $34, a month. On a good day she sells 30 to 40 loaves.

Zarghona raises a smile but, given her circumstances, it seems almost rude to ask if her life in the new Afghanistan has improved. “Nothing has changed for me since the fall of the Taliban,” she says. “Except that my husband died of an illness two years ago.

“My children are still hungry and now that the nights are cold, I have to borrow quilts from neighbours for my girls.”

But at least in the new Afghanistan her girls can go to school to prepare them for a better life?

“No. They are aged eight and three. The eight-year-old must stay home to look after the three-year-old while I bake bread.”

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November 24, 2008 at 3:35 am

Posted in Poverty, Women's Rights

Afghanistan bans street begging

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By Martin Vennard
BBC News
Friday, 7 November 2008

The government in Afghanistan has banned begging on the country’s streets and called on the authorities to send beggars to care homes and orphanages.

Officials say beggars are vulnerable to crime and exploitation.

Correspondents say Afghans are sceptical about whether the government can really carry out the ban as there are so many beggars and much poverty.

Beggars are a common sight on the streets of the capital, Kabul, and other Afghan towns and cities.

Most of the beggars are women, children, the disabled or elderly and their numbers increase in the winter as food becomes scarcer and employment opportunities dry up.

Child beggars are considered particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation by drug smugglers.

The government says some beggars engage in violent and anti-social behaviour, which disgraces Afghans.

And it says not all those who beg have no other means of survival, while some make a good living from begging.

It has asked the Interior Ministry to arrest beggars and send them to orphanages or care homes run by the Red Crescent Society.

The United Nations says the true number of beggars is not known, but that Afghanistan is ranked as the fifth least developed country in the world.

Aid agencies say almost half the population live on less than the equivalent of $2 a day, while the World Food Programme is trying to feed about eight million Afghans.

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November 9, 2008 at 1:49 pm

Posted in Poverty

AFGHANISTAN: Beggars will be arrested

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KABUL, 5 November 2008 (IRIN) – A resolution by the ministers’ council – chaired by Afghan President Hamid Karzai – has outlawed street begging and instructed the Interior Ministry to arrest beggars and send them to orphanages and care homes run by the Afghan Red Crescent Society (ARCS).

“No person – man or woman – should be begging, and children and other persons must not be used for this purpose,” reads a statement issued by the president’s office on 3 November.

“To respect human dignity, ensure social order and in light of Islamic and domestic laws, some measures have been adopted to eradicate begging… which disgraces the Afghan people,” the statement said.

The top-level initiative tasks the interior and social affairs ministries with drawing up and implementing a comprehensive plan to end street begging.

The exact number of street beggars is unclear but the phenomenon is common in urban areas.

Most of the beggars on Kabul streets are children, women, disabled or the elderly. Officials say they are prone to crime and exploitation, and sometimes engage in violent and anti-social behaviour.

Minors who beg are considered particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse and drugs smuggling, experts say.

Fake beggars

“Not all those who beg on the streets are actually beggars,” Golam Gaws Bashiry, deputy labour and social affairs minister, told IRIN.

“We will first identify true beggars – those who have no other means of survival – and will send them to ‘Marastoons’ [care houses run by ARCS],” he said.

Bashiry said begging was a lucrative activity for some who are not really beggars. “We found up to US$1,000 on some of them [beggars] when we tried to collect them from the streets last year.”

The government will set up a commission to distinguish true beggars from false ones; the process will take several months, officials said.

Afghanistan is ranked by the UN Development Programme as the fifth least developed country in the world; almost half of its estimated 26.6 million people live on less than US$2 a day, according to aid agencies.

More than 40 percent of Afghans are facing food insecurity, and the UN World Food Programme is trying to feed about eight million of the most vulnerable.

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November 9, 2008 at 1:46 pm

Posted in Poverty

Afghans escape poverty via cheap U.S. labor

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Wednesday May 7, 2008

KHOST, Afghanistan (Reuters) – Said Mohammed spends eight hours a day six days a week cementing walls with his bare hands, earning just $3 a day. He could barely be happier.^
“This is a very good job, very good,” he says, beaming and eager to explain everything about it in his garbled, rapid-fire English apparently learnt from American TV shows.
“I come here from just nearby, spend eight hours, break for prayer, home at four. On Fridays I have day off. It’s very good. I support myself, seven brothers and two sisters,” he rattles off, slapping down dollops of cement as he talks.
Mohammed, 20, is one of several hundred Afghans employed at a U.S. military base in eastern Afghanistan, doing everything from digging holes to carrying furniture, building new barracks, cleaning toilets and filling sandbags.
While content, he is also a little jealous of some of the others working nearby who earn $8-10 a day doing similar jobs. They are employed by KBR, a U.S. firm with vast reconstruction and supply contracts in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
According to Mohammed, to get hired by KBR you have to know the man who finds the workers for the U.S. company. If you do not know him — a local from Khost — you get stuck on $3 an hour.
“Maybe soon I’ll get a new job with the Americans,” he says, looking over at the nearby work site, where 10-15 Afghans in traditional clothes with turbans on their heads — wearing dark sunglasses supplied by the Americans — are laboring in the heat under the watchful eye of a Western KBR contractor.
While the working conditions are grim — the hours are long, they are under constant watch sometimes by armed U.S. soldiers, and they have to march everywhere in single file with a “guard” behind — Mohammed and the others are in the lucky minority.
KEEP QUIET
In Khost, unemployment is estimated by local officials to be running at somewhere between 80 and 90 percent — it’s hard to tell exactly because no one registers as jobless and many people manage to find informal work from time to time.
In the past, the lack of jobs and the frustrations that brings for young men eager to earn a wage and eventually marry, has been exploited by the Taliban to win recruits. Now, when they see men working and suspect it is for the Americans, the Taliban are quick to threaten, intimidate or kill.
“I can’t tell anyone what I do,” says Saif, a translator on the base who asked that only part of his name be used.
“Just recently, one man who worked here had his head cut off by the Taliban,” he says, estimating that in the three years he has worked for the Americans, around four dozen Afghans working on U.S. bases near the city of Khost have been killed.
The laborers though are more than happy to take the risk for the sake of a small but regular wage. Most have extended families to support and are struggling because of rising food and energy costs.
In the past six months, the price of a 50 kg (110 lb) bag of rice in the Khost market has risen from 1,100 Afghanis (around $22) to 2,000 Afghanis, locals say. Wheat has risen from 1,500 for a 100 kg bag to 3,500-4,000. Diesel prices have doubled.
“It’s hard for people to survive,” says Saif, who supports 18 members of his family on earnings of around $1,200 a month.
“The high prices and the lack of work, they are both things that force people to join the Taliban,” he argues, believing that many people ally themselves with the militants not for any political reason but for criminal gain.
Those that do not have work and do not side with the Taliban tend to blame their problems on the government, which they see as corrupt and inefficient. Perhaps as a consequence, local governors are keen for the Americans to launch more reconstruction projects — like new roads — to provide jobs.
“The expectations from the people are very high,” says Abdul Jabbar Naeemi, the governor of Maidan Wardak, a province near Kabul. “What I want are more development projects so that we can give the people some jobs. That’s what they want.”
(Editing by Alex Richardson)

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May 7, 2008 at 4:23 pm

Posted in Economy, Poverty

Poverty feeds Afghan drugs trade

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By Alastair Leithead
BBC News, Afghanistan
Tuesday, 22 January 2008

The opium poppy seedlings are already sprouting in Helmand province and all the predictions point to another record-breaking crop this year.

Farmers have irrigated extra patches of land, reclaiming desert to grow the plants which produce the raw materials for heroin.

With the Taleban insurgency still raging, the British counter-narcotics team in Afghanistan is unable to make any impact on the poppy problem in the south.

The farmers are weeding the fields at the moment in Helmand. It is a family business, and they insist there is no alternative.

“I only have a small area of land and 10 people in my family,” one farmer says angrily.

“I can only grow enough wheat to last two months on this land, so the only way to feed them is growing poppies.”

It is very fertile land, but the farmers complain the cost of fuel to pump irrigation water and the lack of markets and infrastructure makes anything else untenable.

Another man had his poppy crop eradicated last year, but it will not stop him trying again.

“I lost my poppies, but those grown by the rich and the powerful aren’t touched. So why should I stop growing them?” he asks.

‘Poppy-free’

The security situation is the biggest factor, but the lack of law and order and corruption are major problems in Helmand.

There is an eradication force which spends months cutting down the crops, but the richer growers or landowners pay them bribes to stay away and so far little has been achieved.

“There’s a correlation between instability and increased production,” says David Belgrove, who heads the British counter-narcotics team in Afghanistan.

“To stop poppy production [requires] more than just law enforcement. It’s a complex thing of establishing the rule of law, building alternative livelihoods, building access to markets, education – and all of these things are very difficult to deliver in an unstable environment.”

But 13 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces are categorised by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime as “poppy free” and they are hoping the lure of development money rewards will have helped even more governors achieve that status for their provinces this year.

One of these is Balkh up in the north where the Uzbek border meets Afghanistan.

Its capital, Mazar-e-Sharif is a bustling and largely secure city.

Much of this is down to Governor Atta, who has led a campaign against poppies and owes his success to good strong governance and maintaining law and order.

“Every achievement depends on good leadership and strong management,” he says.

“We had a clear plan, we were serious and had a team that was not corrupt.”

He has even produced a glossy brochure which he hands to visitors explaining his tactics for success, but he complains he has seen none of the development incentives promised.

That smuggling still goes on is not in doubt. It is a multi-million-dollar business and drugs come through Balkh north to Central Asia or west to Iran.

After meeting and drinking tea with a number of contacts in different homes outside Mazar, a bearded, cheerful drug dealer took us to a place where they displayed plastic bags of liquid opium.

He explained how the traffickers would come round to all the villages, buying what they had before taking it out of the country.

“Ordinary people like you and I can’t take drugs out of the country,” he explained.

“Only the foreigners and the big men with contacts can do it. They are stopped at police checkpoints, but they call the police chief, or a minister or the governor and they are allowed to pass.”

Forests of marijuana

The governor laughs off these suggestions as ridiculous: “It’s just propaganda against me. I have done a great deal to prevent smuggling, there is evidence.”

There is a lot of talk of corruption at the higher levels, but the dealers do say they will not grow poppies as they fear retribution.

And although they have lost a profitable crop, for now another alternative is bridging the gap.

In a mud compound a short walk away another man goes through the process of stripping the buds off giant cannabis stalks.

In the autumn vast forests of marijuana plants scatter the landscape.

It is something that has always been done here, but the price has gone up by a factor of four in just a year.

But unless help can be given to provide a viable and legal alternative, the opium poppies will be back as people struggle with poverty.

Written by afghandevnews

January 23, 2008 at 5:05 am

Posted in Agriculture, Drugs, Poverty

In Afghanistan, many live by the kerosene lamp

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By JASON STRAZIUSO
Associated Press
Monday, January 14, 2008

KABUL, Afghanistan — Gul Hussein was standing under a pale street lamp in a poor section of east Kabul when the entire neighborhood suddenly went black.

“As you can see, it is dark everywhere,” the 62-year-old man said, adding that his family would light a costly kerosene lamp for dinner that evening. “Some of our neighbors are using candles, but candles are expensive, too.”

More than five years after the fall of the Taliban — and despite hundreds of millions of dollars in international aid — dinner by candlelight remains common in the Afghan capital of Kabul. Nationwide, only 6 percent of Afghans have electricity, the Asian Development Bank says.

The electricity shortage underscores the slow progress in rebuilding the war-torn country. It also feeds other problems. Old factories sit idle, and new ones are not built. Produce withers without refrigeration. Dark, cold homes foster resentment against the government.

In Kabul, power dwindles after the region’s hydroelectric dams dry up by midsummer. This past fall, residents averaged only three hours of municipal electricity a day, typically from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., according to USAID, the American government aid agency. Some neighborhoods didn’t get any.

“That’s a scary sounding figure because it’s pretty tiny,” said Robin Phillips, the USAID director in Afghanistan. “So we’re talking about the relatively poorer people in Kabul who have no access to electricity at this time of year.”

Electricity was meager under the Taliban too, when Kabul residents had perhaps two hours of it a day in fall and winter. The supply has since increased, but not as fast as Kabul’s population — from fewer than 1 million people in the late 1990s to more than 4 million today.

Meanwhile, souring U.S. relations with Uzbekistan have delayed plans to import electricity from that country. Power is not expected to arrive in a significant way until late 2008 or mid-2009.

“Life takes power,” said Jan Agha, a 60-year-old handyman from west Kabul who recalled how the city had plentiful power during the 1980s Soviet occupation. “If you have electricity life is good, but if there’s no electricity you go around like a blind man.”

Some in Kabul do have electricity: the rich, powerful and well-connected.

Municipal workers — under direction from the Ministry of Water and Energy — funnel what power there is to politicians, warlords and foreign embassies. Special lines run from substations to their homes, circumventing the power grid. International businesses pay local switch operators bribes of $200 to $1,000 a month for near-constant power, an electrical worker said anonymously for fear of losing his job.

If high-ranking government officials visit the substations, workers race to cut off the illegal connections. Large diesel generators, which businesses and wealthy homeowners own as a backup, rumble to life.

Ismail Khan, the country’s water and energy minister, dismisses allegations of corruption as a “small problem.”

“The important thing to talk about is that in six months all of these power problems will be solved, and everyone will have electricity 24 hours a day,” he said, an optimistic prediction that relies on heavy rains next spring and quick work on the Uzbekistan line.

Colorful maps on the walls of Khan’s office show existing and future power lines. There’s a wall-mounted air conditioner — a luxury in Afghanistan.

India, the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on new power lines — including transmission towers installed this summer at 15,000 feet over the Hindu Kush mountains — to import electricity from Uzbekistan.

Though the line from Kabul to the Uzbek border is in place, a 25-mile section in Uzbekistan has not yet been built. And the U.S. has little leverage to speed it up, said Rakesh Sood, the Indian ambassador here.

Initially, Uzbekistan supported the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, opening an air base to U.S. planes. But the Uzbek government no longer views America as a friend, ever since U.S. leaders loudly criticized the country’s human rights record when government-backed forces massacred peaceful demonstrators in 2005.

Even when the Uzbek line is completed, Afghanistan can no longer expect the 300 megawatts originally envisioned, Sood said. That would have been more than the 190 megawatts Kabul has today and a significant boost to the 770 megawatts Afghanistan has nationwide.

“We know we’ll get significantly less. I wouldn’t hazard a guess as to what it will be,” Sood said. “At that time the U.S.-Uzbek relationship was very high and it has deteriorated substantially.”

President Hamid Karzai, during a radio address to the nation last fall, said he discussed with President Bush the country’s need to produce its own electricity.

But some efforts have run afoul of the continuing Taliban insurgency. A new U.S.-financed turbine for a hydroelectric dam in Helmand province is a few months away from being installed because of the “lack of permissiveness in the environment,” USAID’s Phillips said, using a euphemism for the spiraling violence there.

Also, more than $100 million is needed to upgrade Kabul’s antiquated distribution system, and it remains unclear who will pay.

“One doesn’t like to see the kinds of numbers that we’ve been talking about, but I wouldn’t call it a failure,” Phillips said. “To put a little more positive spin on it we all wish things could happen more rapidly.”

The lack of power has hamstrung U.S. efforts to boost agriculture production, too.

“The No. 1 challenge to agribusiness is electricity,” said Loren Owen Stoddard, USAID director in Kabul for alternative development and agriculture. “You can’t keep things cold and you can’t bottle them without power.”

The U.S. is purchasing fuel-powered generators that will provide 100 megawatts of power for Kabul by late next year. The power will not come cheap at 15 to 20 cents per kilowatt-hour, compared with just 3.5 cents for electricity from Uzbekistan.

But until the Uzbek power comes in, Afghanistan has no choice.

“It’s going to be more oil-fired power and praying for rain to get the hydropower going,” said Sean O’Sullivan, regional director with the Asian Development Bank.

On a smaller scale, India has spent $2.2 million to outfit 100 villages with $450 solar cells. They dot the flat rooftops in Mullah Khatir Khel, a mud-brick village an hour’s drive north of Kabul. Each cell can power a couple of light bulbs.

“I am very happy, why should I not be happy? I am using these bulbs and lanterns provided by India,” said villager Abdul Gayoom. “Before we used to burn oil lamps, now it’s a big saving.”

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January 14, 2008 at 11:40 pm

Posted in Poverty

Asian Development Bank Doing Study, Not Much Known About Poverty In Afghanistan

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All Headline News (AHN)
January 12, 2008 9:59 a.m. EST

Paul Icamina – AHN News Writer

Kabul, Afghanistan (AHN) – Afghanistan is the world’s fourth poorest or most deprived country. But surprisingly little is known about poverty and how it impacts on the population, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) said in a recent statement. One of the reasons so little is known about the country’s population is because no census has been done in the last 30 years, ADB officials said.

The estimate is that there are 30 million people in Afghanistan. However, more than one million Afghans still seek refuge in neighboring Pakistan and Iran.

A pilot participatory project funded by the ADB Management for Development Results Cooperation Fund is currently assessing poverty in the impoverished nation, the poorest country in the entire Asia-Pacific region, according to the Afghanistan 2007 Human Development Report.

Discussions have been held with men and women in eight communities in four of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces – both rural and urban communities in Badakhshan, Herat, Nangarhar, and Uruzgan provinces

The results will help guide the government of Afghanistan and the international community in the finalization of the Afghanistan National Development Strategy (ANDS), the road map for the country’s continued reconstruction and development, that is expected to be completed by March.

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January 14, 2008 at 11:33 pm

Posted in Aid, Development, Poverty