Afghanistan Factbook

John Hanrahan over at the Nieman Watchdog blog has this interview with Columbia University economist Jeffrey D. Sachs, one of the foremost experts on extreme poverty in underdeveloped nations, in which Sachs makes this indictment of the media’s Afghanistan troop surge coverage:

“I have not seen two seconds of an intelligent discussion regarding living standards in Afghanistan.”

It’s a criticism that bolsters our Clint Hendler’s argument that a real debate on American troops in Afghanistan would include an Afghan perspective.

Or at least an understanding of what life is like over there. Hanrahan writes that in order to understand what we’re dealing with in the expanding war in Afghanistan, Americans need to understand the context of economic and social hardships in which the average Afghan family lives.

It is probably a safe bet that a sizable majority of Americans have not been informed by the news media about the extent of the poverty in the country that the United States under President George W. Bush selected as its first overseas battleground in what used to be called “the war on terror.”

Some startling statistics from Hanrahan’s report:

* Afghanistan is the fifth least developed country in the world – 174th out of 178 –according to a November 2007 United Nations “National Human Development Report (NHDR). The U.N. global human development index, which ranks countries on individual income, life expectancy and literacy rate, placed Afghanistan ahead of only the African nations of Burkina Faso, Mali, Sierra Leone and Niger. (The next such report will be published in March 2010.)

* Afghanistan has a gross domestic product (GDP) per capita of $426 as of 2008, according to the World Bank, the lowest in Asia and the fifth lowest in the world after Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Liberia. (The CIA World Factbook puts the Afghanistan figure higher at $800 for 2008, which would be the 11th worst in the world.) An estimated 60-80 percent of the country’s population live on less than $1 a day.

* Afghanistan is the seventh most unequal country in the world, according to the ‘Gini coefficient,’ a measure of the gap separating a country’s richest and poorest citizens. The higher the country’s number on a scale of one to one-hundred, the more unequal the society. In the most recent ratings, the most unequal societies were Namibia 70.2, Equatorial Guinea 65, Lesotho 63.2, Sierra Leone 62.9, Angola 62, Central African Republic 61.3, and Afghanistan and Gabon 60.

* Life expectancy for Afghan citizens is 43 years, compared to 59 years for low-income countries worldwide, according to the World Bank. The 2007 U.N. NHD Report noted that life expectancy in the country has declined from 44.5 years in 2003.

* In a population estimated at 28.4 million, one-fourth of all Afghans “do not meet their minimum food requirements, with 24 percent of households characterized by poor food consumption,” according to the U.N. NHD Report. Almost half of Afghan children under five are underweight.

* More than 30 Afghans die from tuberculosis each day, according to the U.N. global human development index.

* Afghans’ access to electricity is among the lowest in the world, according to the World Bank, and only 13 percent of Afghans have access to safe drinking water and 12 percent to adequate sanitation.

* Afghanistan “has one of the lowest adult literacy rates among developing countries,” according to the U.N. NHD Report. Between 2003 and 2005 (the last cited figures), the report said, literacy rates for adults over 15 actually fell from 28.7 percent to 23.5 percent.

* Some 80 percent of Afghan women are illiterate, 54 percent of girls under the age of 18 are married, and 68 percent of girls ages 7-13 are not enrolled in school, according to the advocacy organization Womankind Worldwide. Only half of the schools have buildings. Enrollment rates for women in the primary, secondary and tertiary levels are almost half that of men. Violence and sexual abuse against women is widespread.

* Some 15,000 Afghan women die each year from pregnancy-related causes, and the maternal mortality rate is the second highest in the world. As bad as these figures are, the U.N. NHD Report cited Afghanistan’s “steady progress in improving its health services and reducing child and maternal mortality rates.” Mortality rates for children under five years old were down from 257 per 1,000 births in 2001 to a still-alarming 160 per 1,000 births in 2006, according to the World Bank. (The CIA World Factbook put the figure at 152 in 2008.)

* Afghanistan’s agricultural production (not including the opium trade) fell by more than 30 percent in 2008, the World Bank reported. Agriculture makes up more than 30 percent of the country’s GDP, which grew overall by 2 to 3 percent in 2008-2009.

* Afghanistan is the fifth most corrupt country in the world, according to Transparency International, a global anti-corruption watchdog organization.

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Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.