School girls in Laghman province | Photo: Malin Hoelstad

Social conditions

The social and economic development of Afghanistan is progressing slowly as it has been significantly hampered by the last 36 years of war, conflict, invasion and occupation.

Nevertheless, since 2002 significant social progress has been made especially in education, health and communications. Afghanistan is evolving toward a more modern society, but the pace of development differs in different parts of the country, especially between urban and rural areas.

Increasingly people have gained access to social services and women and girls are taking their place in public life, even if the process is slow and there is a long way to go to equal participation in life outside the home.

There are many sources of concern for the future. How much of the progress made in the various sectors can be maintained in the future when foreign aid is reduced?

According to the World Bank, 96% of public spending in Afghanistan in 2013 was financed by foreign donors. In January 2014, the US Congress took a decision to halve American aid, which accounts for a considerable share of financial support to Afghanistan.

Any statistics on Afghanistan are approximate at best, primarily due to two factors. One, we do not know how many people live in the country. The difference could be 7-8 million, depending on the source, which means that all statistics where one variable is the population will show an automatic error rate of 20% - 25%. And two, that statistics collection methods are extremely inadequate - often consisting of surveys in only 8-10 districts (of 360) which are then extrapolated to cover the entire country.

The majority (70%) of the population live in rural areas outside the cities and semi-urban centres. According to a government survey in the mid-2000s, about one-third of the population has agriculture as their main source of income (about half of those living in rural areas). About half of the farmers engaged in agriculture are subsistence farmers. Many also practise animal husbandry. There are also about 2.5 million nomads, some of whom have settled permanently.

Afghanistan is the world's 169th poorest country out of 187 using the UN Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development Index and is ranked as Asia's poorest country.

According to the World Bank, one third of the population lives on an income of less than USD 100 a month, and the average income in 2014 was USD 670 and Afghanistan came 171st of 191 countries in the world. In Sweden, the average income in 2014 was USD 61 600 and in neighbouring Pakistan, USD 1 410.

Nationally, severe poverty has declined slightly in recent years. However, in north-eastern Afghanistan it has increased dramatically (from about a third to half of the population), while poverty was reduced in the north and the west.

In comparative studies of social conditions in 2008 and 2012, many in both poor and non-poor families have improved living conditions in the form of access to clean water and sanitation, electricity, more heads of families can read and write and all minor children are attending school. Meanwhile, the gap between the number who gained access to social services among the poor and better-off families increased. This while there was increased access in both groups. The expanding gap between poor and better-off in society is very obvious as concerns access to education.

According to the World Bank, income inequality increased. Between 2008 and 2012 the situation for the poorest 20% of the population deteriorated, while the wealthiest 20% improved their living conditions.

The number of urban poor has increased, although the gap between town and country at large remained constant. One reason is that many poor people moved to the cities.

Approximately 4 of 5 poor people live in rural areas. The poorest areas are in the mountain in northeast, east and west central regions, where half of the country's poor live.

There are no immediate poverty differences between the regions and many poor people live in wealthy regions.

In absolute numbers, there are as many very poor in the central region as there are poor people in the entire northeast region. One million very poor people live in Kabul Province alone.

Developments since 2001 have shown that positive economic development in itself is not enough to reduce poverty in the country, instead development must be more inclusive, states a World Bank report from the autumn of 2015.

Approximately one third of the population lives in poverty so severe that they are unable to obtain the necessities of life such as adequate food. Additional millions of people live so close to the poverty line that they may also tip over into severe poverty.

In 2012, approximately 40% of the workforce worked in agriculture, about 30% in the service sector and 10% in the construction industry.

Over 40% of the workforce is considered to be either unemployed or underemployed.

Every year, approximately 400 000 people enter the labour market.

Many new jobs have been created since 2001, but they are unevenly distributed geographically and 80% are extremely insecure positions (day labourers).

Female labour market participation is extremely low, especially in urban areas and youth unemployment is high.

Population growth has been strong and extensive refugee returns after the fall of the Taliban in 2001 (more than 5.5 million people, mainly from Pakistan and Iran) have made it difficult for many to make a living as the area of arable land (about 12% of the country) has not increased. Millions of returnees and other families with earning problems in rural areas have moved to the cities. Kabul increased from about 1 million people in 2001 to an estimated 5.5 million in 2008.

Insecurity and military operations in different parts of the country and natural disasters of various kinds have led to around 1 million internally displaced persons.

There are still some 2.5 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan (of whom about 1 million are non-registered refugees or illegal immigrants) and about 2 million in Iran (at least 1 million non-registered refugees or illegal immigrants). Even before the war there were upwards of a half million Afghans working legally, and illegally, in Iran.

In order to support their families, many men and boys in rural areas take seasonal work in cities during the summer. Others travel abroad to become guest workers, mainly in Iran and the Persian Gulf countries.

Afghanistan has a very young population. About 70% are under 25 years of age.

Despite widespread poverty, lack of trained workforce and limited government resources, developments in the education sector have been explosive. Most likely unrivalled in the world. The number of children in school has increased from about 1 million in 2001 (of which nearly 100 000 were girls) to about 7-8 million today, of which about 35% are girls.

According to the Ministry of Education, at the beginning of 2015 there were about 11.5 million pupils (of whom 4.5 million were girls) in school. However, these figures include pupils who have been absent for up to three years.

When the war began (1979) were very few girls in schools outside the cities. In many provinces just 1-3% of girls went to school. In the countryside in 1979, less than 1% of women over 25 had attended school. None of these had finished elementary school. In the towns nearly 12% of the women had attended school.

The number of universities has risen from about a dozen in 2001 to 124 today, of which 34 are state operated, of varying quality. There are currently more than 120 000 university students as compared to about 8 000 in 2001.

This rapid expansion has meant that quality has not been good in either schools or universities. There is a crippling shortage of qualified teachers, particularly female teachers. Efforts have been made to train teachers and improve the skills of those already qualified, but many years will pass before teaching is of an acceptable standard in all the country's schools.

It is estimated that there are some 14 000 primary schools in the country, but the fighting, threats and insecurity have led to the closure of many schools. In January 2014, it was reported that 550 schools had been closed in different parts of the country. The number changes all the time depending on the local situation in the different areas.

The literacy rate among adults (over 15 years of age) increased from 23.5% (women 12%, men 32.4%) in 2007 to 34% (women 18%, men 50%) in 2013. In, rural areas it is estimated that 10% of women and 37% of men are literate.

Health care has expanded significantly since 2002 through BPHS (Basic Packages of Health Services), which is a kind of Afghan medical council aiming to provide uniform health standards in the provinces. Aid agencies bid on two-year contracts in order to pursue medical care within the BPHS. Either for the entire province or clusters of districts. Approximately 10% of the population accessed health care in 2001 while today it is estimated that more than 60% of the population has access to health care approximately one hour away from home. The number of health centres increased from 496 in 2003 to more than 22 000 today. An unknown number of clinics maintain a very poor standard (including lack of female staff) or have been forced to close because of the fighting.

The number of midwives has increased from 467 in 2002 to around 3 000 today. The Swedish Committee for Afghanistan has been responsible for the training of 300 of these midwives. Needs are estimated at about 8 000 midwives.

According to the official statistics, since 2001 the child mortality rate has fallen from one in four children dying before the age of five to 16% and infant mortality (children under 1 year of age) from 165 per 1000 births to 77 per 1 000. The number of women who die in childbirth-related illnesses is also said to have fallen sharply. From 1 600 deaths per 100 000 births in 2002 to 327 deaths per 100 000 births today. This data should be treated with caution, given the margin of error and statistical collection methods used.

Widespread poverty has led to around 40% of children under five being chronically malnourished (half of whom are severely malnourished) and over a third are underweight. About three quarters suffer from various types of mineral deficiencies.

Since 2002, the road infrastructure has been repaired and expanded significantly, which has improved access to health care and markets for the farmers' products.